Portland, Ore., voters say no to fluoride in the water

Portland is the largest city in the country that doesn’t have fluoridated water, and voters have resoundingly decided it’s going to remain that way.

A proposal to add the cavity-fighting mineral to tap water was defeated Tuesday, with more than 60% of voters saying no.

"We think we were able to get our message out that these fluoridation chemicals are not effective, and that they can be harmful to human health and the environment," said Rick North, who helped lead the campaign against the measure with the group Clean Water Portland.

Backers of the measure, including many dentists and doctors, said there had been no negative health impacts on millions of Americans already drinking fluoridated water. They said the mineral had helped substantially in the fight against tooth decay, especially in poor children whose families cannot afford regular dental care.

"The election may be over, but the dental crisis isn’t. Water fluoridation would have dramatically decreased decay in Portland, so this is a disappointing loss," said Raquel Bournhonesque, co-director of Upstream Public Health, a group that was part of the coalition backing the fluoridation measure.

The outcome echoed three previous votes against fluoride over the years in Portland. Opponents pointed to studies that show fluoride linked to problems with diabetes, thyroid disease, kidney disease and bone cancer — but only, fluoride advocates say, at dosages much higher than those present in treated water.

Campaign contributions by fluoride supporters exceeded the opposition’s by 3 to 1. But opponents included a diverse array of residents, both liberal and conservative, united by suspicion over adding a foreign substance to Portland’s famously clean water supply, generated out of the Cascade foothills.

The Sierra Club weighed in with concerns that heavy metal contaminants from the fluoride additive could jeopardize threatened populations of salmon, as well as public health.

"They’re very small amounts, but there is no safe exposure level for arsenic and lead," said Antonia Giedwoyn, a club spokeswoman in Portland. "Why would we want to add any level of heavy metals to our water, that our kids and our parents and we ourselves drink?"

An annual survey by the state of children’s dental health, released shortly before the election — and then only when TV station KATU filed public information act requests for it — showed that untreated tooth decay was actually less than it was in 2002.

The survey also showed that Portland children were in some cases better off than children living in towns where the water is fluoridated.

Bournhonesque said the study also showed that 1 in 5 children in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, were suffering from untreated decay. "Anyone on the front lines knows that’s appalling and unacceptable,” she said.

But North said the new numbers were a big factor for voters. "It was no surprise to us; we’ve seen the lack of effectiveness in other areas around the country, but it was a real wake-up call."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com