PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — Portland is the largest city in the U.S. yet to approve water fluoridation to combat tooth decay, a distinction that could change on Wednesday when the city council votes on an issue that is dividing residents of the liberal haven.
Fluoridation has been an emotional topic in communities across the United States for more than 50 years, and continues to be in cities ranging from conservative Wichita, Kansas, to a place whose unofficial motto is "Keep Portland Weird."
The issue in Portland presents a clash between two progressive positions: the desire to improve the dental health of low-income children and the impulse to avoid putting anything unnecessary in the air, food or water.
"The fact that Portland stands out as the largest U.S. city without fluoridation is not the kind of weird we should be," Mayor Sam Adams said. "This is causing pain to kids."
Many in Portland and the state have long opposed public fluoridation, saying it's unsafe and violates an individual's right to consent to medication. While 73 percent of the U.S. population drinks water treated with fluoride, the rate is less than 25 percent in Oregon.
The ordinance to be voted on Wednesday calls for the water to be fluoridated by March 2014. The mayor and two city commissioners have announced their support, ensuring a majority on the five-member panel.
Opponents criticized the council for rushing into action without a public vote, and plan to collect signatures to force a referendum on it in May 2014. More than 225 people signed up to testify at a public hearing last week that ran 6 1/2 hours. Sixty-one percent opposed fluoridation.
"Barnyard animals are force medicated, not human beings," said Mike Smith, a member of the Occupy Portland movement.
A 2007 report from the state Department of Human Services said 35 percent of Oregon first-through-third graders had untreated dental decay, a higher percentage than in neighboring states with more fluoridation.
Rick North, the former executive vice president of the American Cancer Society in Oregon, said he figured fluoride was OK until he started researching the issue several years ago and spotted many red flags. Supporters, he said, believe it is a "silver bullet" to fight cavities and won't hurt anyone else.
"But you can't put a drug into the water supply and expect that it's not going to have side effects," he said.
Commissioner Nick Fish, who co-sponsored the plan, said more than 200 million Americans drink water with added fluoride, and it doesn't appear to have caused great harm.