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Tough to Swallow

Prominent environmentalists stay quiet as battle rages over flouridation


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portlanders will decide in May whether to permit fluoridation of the city's Bull Run water supply, which serves much of the metro area.Portlanders are a wary bunch when it comes to putting foreign substances into their bodies or the environment.

They flock to organic food aisles to avoid pesticides and often favor naturopaths and chiropractors who eschew prescription drugs. Many even bar their children from getting immunizations.

So it stands to reason that environmental sensibilities will weigh heavily in the upcoming vote to decide if Portland can fluoridate much of the metro area’s water supply.

“I think the environmental aspect of it is a big piece of it, the toxic overload,” says Kimberly Kaminski, chairwoman of Clean Water Portland, who led the petition drive to force a May 21 referendum on fluoridation.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Kimberly Kaminski, chairwoman of Clean Water Portland, led a grass-roots petition drive that forced a May 21 referendum challenging Portland's decision to fluoridate its Bull Run water supply. Yet many environmental groups, despite raging public discourse on the topic, are remaining surprisingly quiet, with many vowing to remain on the sidelines during the campaign.

The Oregon League of Conservation Voters, which organized nearly 50 environmental groups into the Oregon Conservation Network, is staying neutral in the campaign, says Doug Moore, executive director. The conservation network lobbied against a 2007 bill before the Legislature that would require every Oregon city with more than 10,000 residents to fluoridate its water. But this time environmental groups are divided, Moore says, so the coalition isn’t taking a stand.

“It’s frankly just not an issue that we want to be talking about publicly,” says Jared Ishkanian, Oregon Environmental Council communications director. But the group, which organizes the annual Northwest Environmental Health Conference, planned a debate on the fluoridation referendum for this year’s conference on March 15, Ishkanian says.

Leaders of another key local player in environmental health matters, Physicians for Social Responsibility, didn’t even return phone calls seeking their comments on the fluoridation referendum.

Even environmental groups and activists who focus on water quality issues are bowing out of the debate.

Portland Audubon Society hasn’t taken a position on the measure, and doesn’t see fluoridation as its area of expertise, says Bob Sallinger, conservation director. The society is a lead player in battles with industry to clean up contamination of the Portland Harbor.

Brent Foster, an environmental attorney strongly opposed to fluoridation in the past, declined to comment for this story. So did Nina Bell, who has filed many lawsuits to clean up local rivers on behalf of Northwest Environmental Advocates; Ivan Maluski, the Sierra Club’s recently departed conservation director; and Mike Houck, leader of the Urban Greenspaces Institute.

Environmentalists often stake out terrain on select issues and stay out of the fray on those outside their sphere of influence. Off the record, some say they are personally undecided or support fluoridation. Some say privately that the scientific evidence on the environmental impact of fluoridation isn’t that deep or convincing, and must be balanced against the benefits of improving children’s dental health.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Mel Rader, co-executive director of Upstream Public Health, helped convince Portland City Council to approve fluoridation, but now must get Portland voters to endorse the controversial decision. “I think there’s a lot of environmentalists in the closet that really support fluoridation — a lot,” says Mel Rader, co-executive director of Upstream Public Health. Upstream lobbied Portland City Council to approve fluoridation last Sept. 12, and is spearheading the campaign to uphold the ordinance after critics forced a public vote.

Upstream joined the Oregon Conservation Network after the 2007 legislative battle, and is one of the members urging the environmental coalition to stay out of the campaign.

Two other groups that opposed the 2007 fluoridation mandate in Salem, the Sierra Club and Willamette Riverkeeper, are still studying the issue and may yet come out against fluoridation in the referendum campaign.

“The science on this is really tricky,” says Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. “That’s kind of why we’re holding back. I don’t believe that we would add much to the mix.”

He’s been examining studies of how fluoride might affect the aquatic ecosystem and concluded there hasn’t been enough research. In his survey of the research, Williams says he keeps circling back to a 1994 study on fluoride’s impacts on salmon.

“I think there needs to be more study on the impact of adding fluoride to a large municipality and its long-term impact on the ecosystem,” he says.

The same point was made by the Sierra Club’s national board when it came out in 2008 against mandatory fluoridation measures without public votes.

The Sierra Club conceded there were valid public health reasons why most major American municipalities add fluoride to their public water supplies. “There are now, however, valid concerns regarding the potential adverse impact of fluoridation on the environment, wildlife, and human health,” the board stated.

Local opponents of fluoridation hope the Sierra Club endorses their cause, while supporters hope the group stays neutral.

In keeping with the organization’s normal practice, the statewide Sierra Club is relying on volunteers in its local Columbia chapter to take the lead on the Portland referendum, says Brian Pasko, state director.

“There’s a lot of conflicting information out there,” Pasko says, “and that’s actually a very daunting task.”

He says it’s hard to predict which direction the group will go, though he doubts the group will bring much in the way of club resources to bear in the campaign.