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Fluoride bill's a waste of energy

Portlanders have made it clear they want their water to run pure - and that includes leaving out even potentially beneficial substances such as fluoride.

The Oregon Legislature, however, is considering taking away Portland's right, and the rights of many other water providers in the state, to decide whether to add fluoride to drinking water. We think the legislation, House Bill 3099, is ill-advised - and not because we buy into the notion that fluoride is a communist plot.

Rather, the flaw with this proposal is that it takes away local control and dictates to Oregonians what they will put into their bodies. We believe such decisions are best made at the local level, and indeed household by household when possible.

Portland has spoken before

The advocates of this bill, including the House Committee on Health Care and the Oregon Dental Association, have noble intentions. They want the majority of Oregon's children to join most of the rest of America's children in consuming a trace amount of fluoride, which virtually any dentist will argue prevents tooth decay.

Tooth decay by itself is disfiguring and unhealthy, but it also is connected to many other illnesses, including heart disease. So it makes sense, dentists say, to require fluoridation as the cheapest way to inoculate the greatest number of people against this health threat.

Right now, Oregon has one of the nation's lowest rates of fluoridation. Only one-fifth of Oregonians consume fluoride in their water. That's because some of the state's largest water providers, including the Portland Water Bureau, have debated the issue and decided not to add fluoride.

Portland has considered the matter four times since 1956 - three times at the ballot box - and rejected fluoridation each time.

Despite this consistent resistance to fluoridation in Portland and elsewhere, the Legislature has considered the fluoride mandate in 2003, 2005 and now in 2007. But we fear lawmakers are wasting their time. There is enough opposition to fluoride in Oregon that any legislative mandate is likely to spark a petition drive and referral to voters.

Don't take away choice

The current fluoridation proposal would require water providers that serve more than 10,000 people to add fluoride as prescribed by the state Department of Human Services. It does allow a temporary exemption for financially strapped communities, giving them time to find funds for fluoridation. But even with that escape clause, the bill amounts to an unfunded legislative mandate.

Beyond the matter of cost is the bigger concern of whether the Legislature ought to be telling communities and individuals what additives to put in their water. After 60 years of mass use, fluoride still appears safe. But some fluoride opponents - and it's no longer just those on the emotional fringe - point to recent studies offering hints that fluoride could have a downside.

It ought to be up to each community to evaluate that evidence and make its own decision about fluoridation. With fluoride now so available in other forms - pills, mouth rinses and toothpastes - it may be that the benefits of water fluoridation aren't as substantial as they once were.

Decisions about drinking water are highly personal - consider the aisles of bottled water sold in stores every day. And Oregonians will continue to insist that they have the greatest range of choice possible with their water. The Legislature should not waste time with a fluoridation bill that's likely to backfire. It has too many other pressing issues to consider.