Note: this article was originally published on April 8, 2013 as the first installment of my six part series for Mismanaging Perception on the unsuccessful campaign to fluoridate Portland’s water supply.
With the amount of media blitzing that’s bombarded Portland’s airwaves, interwebs, and neighborhood front yards, you’d have thought the dual campaigns for and against fluoridating Bull Run fresh water had been going on for years. In fact, this fight started in earnest just last fall, when the consulting & lobbying group Upstream Public Health began closed-door meetings with city hall. In a questionable lack of transparency, Upstream’s pro-fluoride lobbying sessions were kept off the city council’s public calendar.
There was but one public hearing before Mayor Sam Adams and the rest of city hall voted unanimously in favor of fellow commissioner Randy Leonard’s city ordinance No. 185612 – authorizing and directing the Portland Water Bureau to add fluoride to public drinking water.
Commissioner Randy Leonard, credit: Brent Wojahn
Leonard confirmed he received over 1,300 emails regarding fluoridation, mostly against his plan. But Leonard casually dismissed them, claiming he was comfortable making such decisions without a public vote. Well, the people disagreed.
With only 30 days to gather the 20,000 signatures required to enact a referendum on fluoride to allow a public vote, activists shifted into high gear. On October 11th, 2012 volunteers from Clean Water Portland delivered an astounding 43,000 signatures to the Portland auditor’s office.
In response to this public backlash, fluoride lobbyists launched a campaign called ‘Health Kids Healthy Portland’ (HKHP). Backed by big-money donors like Democratic Party state rep. Jules Bailey, PR marketing firm Winning Mark, and out-of-state D.C. corporate spin-machinists GBA Strategies, HKHP launched an all out public relations war against clean water supporters. Knowing Portland’s pride in their fresh water, the fluoride lobby hired people from within Portland’s activist community to post pro-fluoride comments online disguised as their own personal views.
When called out for being a paid shill, one HKHP employee lost his cool and delivered a days-long temper tantrum on Facebook against anyone who questioned the ethics of astroturfing the pro-fluoride agenda. Afterwards, an email complaint to HKHP campaign director Evyn Mitchell seemed to be successful in reigning in their paid staffer.
While Clean Water Portland and their allies were hoping for more grassroots gear-up time against the well-funded HKHP, city hall decided to fastback the fluoride ballot measure. The public vote to decide the fate of Portland’s much heralded Bull Run tap water will take place in May of 2013.
Fluoride proponents have often claimed that since fluoride already exists in drinking water in minuscule quantities, there was really no harm in adding lots more. The reality is that naturally occurring fluoride in fresh water exists below the detectable level of 0.025 PPM. The proposed Portland plan would increase this amount 28 times to a level of at least 0.7 PPM or more with an industrial by-product called fluorosilicic acid, a compound so potent that it can corrode cement in accumulated quantities.
Many opponents cite the toxicity of fluorosilic acid and the harms it can cause the human body, including infant mortality, congenital defects and reduced IQ. Once fluoride is delivered into the water, there is no way to control the actual dosage, as many people drink varying amounts of water. An overdose of fluoride is called fluorosis, a condition which actually discolors tooth enamel and damages bone tissue.
Critics also point out that swallowing fluoride is a poor delivery system for adhering the compound onto human teeth. In addition, Portland drinks less than 3% of its Bull Run fresh water supply. The rest is used for household, commercial, and agricultural uses – yet still ends up back in water treatment facilities, or in ground water or rivers, where over time fluoride will accumulate to dangerous levels.
For the first several months of the campaign, the pro-fluoride ‘Healthy Kids Healthy Portland’ cruised fairly calm seas. Their social media was relentless. They attempted to characterize their opposition as either conspiracy theorists or of being racially intolerant. Who would want to be associated with a crowd like that?
HKHP has recited numbers ad nauseum that suit their claim that Portland is suffering from a tooth decay “crisis”. However, they’ve used statewide Oregon statistics, not Portland metro’s data. In fact, if you compared the Portland tricounty area to 50 state rankings across the U.S., Portland would rank the 15th least area of concern for dental health. When you look at the actual data from Portland, there isn’t a crisis at all.
Despite Portland’s 60 year history of routinely rejecting fluoridation of it’s drinking water, it appeared that HKHP had effectively branded fluoride as a “But what about the children?!” panic issue. And really, who in their right mind wants to be against children?
HKHP has been running a narrative for months claiming fluoridation is the only solution for dental health, the only way to care for the teeth of the underprivileged and for communities of color. They would have us believe that such people have no capacity to make health or environmental justice decisions on their own. But HKHP’s attitude of ‘we know what’s best for poor kids’ has encountered some major blowback.
Recently, twin Facebook and Twitter accounts were started under similar names, waging an all out mock-fest of HKHP’s authoritarian social media strategy. One Tweet last week from @HealthyKidzPDX (notice the ‘Z’) called out HKHP for labeling pro-fluoride institutions as being the only “trusted” medical voices, while failing to acknowledge the numerous scientific bodies who have published findings warning of the health threats of fluoridation.
Sardonic social media aside, there had been a serious lack of brand-recognized heavy hitters in the fluoride opposition room. It seemed institutions in positions of power were reluctant to contradict the HKHP narrative that branded those opposed to fluoridation as being haters of children.
Thankfully, their faux-humanist arguments got a much needed reality shock two weeks ago when it was announced that environmental big leaguers Sierra Club and Columbia Riverkeepers, as well as Food & Water Watch would formally oppose fluoridation. Finally, major organizations had stepped up to remind the public that the adverse effects of dosing Bull Run will be shared by children, adults, salmon, and plant life alike.
From Sierra Club:
“Sierra Club opposes fluoridation because it would degrade some of the purest drinking water in the world. Kids are already bombarded with multiple toxins from plastics, pesticides and air pollution.”
From Columbia Riverkeepers:
“What we add to our drinking water, we add to our rivers and our salmon. Fluoride is a toxic pollutant that harms salmon and other aquatic life. At a time when many families continue to rely on the Columbia’s fisheries as an important source of nutrition and employment, we are concerned about a new source of toxic pollution into the Columbia River.”
When reached for comment for this article as to whether they disagreed with Sierra Club and Columbia Riverkeepers’ assertion that fluoride is in fact toxic, HKHP failed to reply.
Clearly, the game has changed. While HKHP would like to compare those who oppose fluoridation to the anti-vaccine crowd, it is an important fact to note that while compulsory viral inoculations have targeted contagious diseases, cavities and tooth decay are not and never will be contagious.
Further more, the fluoride lobby has refused to address the actual root causes of poor dental health: junk food saturated in processed sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. These “food” products are predominantly available and heavily marketed in poorer, car-dominated communities where access to plant-rich diets are limited. Were an honest conversation of children’s dental care a possibility with the fluoride lobby, these underlying problems would seem to be a place where a group calling itself ‘Healthy Kids’ would focus their energy.
Currently, the HKHP campaign headed by the same woman, Evyn Mitchell, who successfully managed to elect Charlie Hales as Portland’s mayor last fall. In another similarity to Hales’ $1.5 million dollar campaign, the fluoridation crusade is being consulted by Mark Wiener, allegedly the most powerful “assfucker” behind the scenes in Portland politics. According to the Portland Mercury, four out of five members of city hall owe their positions to Wiener and his afore-mentioned ‘Winning Mark’ PR firm.
Despite these wealthy fluoridation interests and their king-maker consultants, the grassroots struggle to save Bull Run continues. Last Sunday, activists on behalf of Clean Water Portland brought a community together at The Goodfoot on SE Stark Ave. for an evening of musical entertainment delivered by local artists Lonesome Billies, Twangshifters, and Counterfeit Cash for an ebbing and flowing crowd of some 100 clean water lovers.
Event organizer Zia McCabe of The Dandy Warhols MC’d the evening. Said McCabe, “I feel strongly about this issue for several reasons. The main two being that our planet has a diminishing supply of clean water and it feels crazy to taint one of the purest supplies on the planet with a toxic byproduct of the phosphate fertilizer industry. The other is the fact that it is completely unethical to medicate a population via it’s water supply.”
For the next 6 weeks, similar concerts in opposition to fluoridation chemicals will take place each Sunday at The Goodfoot, and will feature a wide array of musical talent booked by McCabe. Doors open at 6pm with a sliding scale $5-20. All proceeds go to Clean Water Portland. The next is April 14th. Event page is HERE.
There are good ways to ensure kids have healthy teeth. Fluoridation of drinking water is not one of them. HKHP has ignored the negative health impacts of fluoridation. They have ignored the negative environmental effects of fluoridation. In fact, nowhere in the FAQ section of HKHP’s website do the words ‘environmental impact’ or ‘fluoride accumulation’ ever appear.
While doing research for this article, a heartbreaking story about a small group of flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) was sent to me. In February of 2009, a specimen at the National Aquarium in Baltimore was found to be suffering painful swelling of its bones. Soon, the rest of the species was observed with the same symptoms, they had contracted skeletal fluorosis. The animals were receiving fluoridated water, allegedly at the “normal” levels that fluoride supporters claim is safe. After studying every inch of their habitat, it was found that stalactite clumps of concentrated fluoride were forming at the spouts of the enclosure’s hanging sprinkler system. The flying foxes at the National Aquarium were eating these clumps of fluoride, ingesting a shocking 1,062 PPM of the toxic chemical. These warm-blooded mammals were now left with an irreversible bone disease.
If fluoride can accumulate to levels this high in zoos where staff can monitor them easily, imagine how high the toxic levels of fluorosilicic acid can reach in our yards, our community gardens, our pets, our rivers, our trees, our lakes, and our children.
Clean Water Portland has done amazing work to make sure that the people of Portland will have a voice and a vote on fluoridation. There is a logical, moral choice we must now decide upon. When you fill out your ballot this May, please preserve clean Bull Run fresh water by voting NO to fluoridation.
Original images copyright Hart Noecker and Rebel Metropolis.