by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - Portland's Benson Bubblers are an icon of the city's pure Bull Run water supply. The City Council voted Wednesday to add fluoride to that water. If you want to stir up a good fight in Portland, just mention sales taxes, self-service gasoline or fluoride in the water.

Portland’s City Council is relearning that lesson this week as it plunges ahead with a compassionate plan to improve children’s dental health by adding trace amounts of fluoride to the city’s pristine water supply.

It’s no surprise that the council approved the fluoridation plan Wednesday after hearing 6 1/2 hours of emotional testimony at last week’s public hearing.

It appears the city will start fluoridating water in March 2014.

We believe the health benefits of fluoridation are well established. We also think citizens should have the final say on a substance they will consume each day. For that reason, we can both support the council’s action and also look forward to a continuing public debate that could very well conclude with a citizens’ referendum to block fluoridation.

The mayor and commissioners who support fluoridation made a solid case for protecting the overall health of the city’s children — particularly lower-income children who may not otherwise receive preventive dental care. There’s no question that fluoride will reduce tooth decay among this population and further its overall health.

Opponents of fluoridation worry about the potential for ill effects — which are possible if the substance is consumed at quantities much, much greater than what would be found in drinking water. They also oppose on principle the idea that government would mandate the inclusion of an optional additive to a universal water supply.

Meanwhile, as reported in last week’s Tribune, Portland officials mismanaged this process when they failed to consult with surrounding communities that also rely on Bull Run water — including the entire city of Gresham — before announcing their support for fluoridation.

Despite the opposition and missteps, the Portland council’s actions have pushed an important matter to the forefront. Now that the decision has been made, we expect fluoridation opponents to gather signatures for either a referendum or initiative to ban fluoride in the Bull Run water system.

Based on what we know now, we’re not likely to support this potential ballot measure, but we do believe such a campaign would allow a complete airing of the issues and force Portland’s fluoride proponents to persuade a majority of the public that fluoridation is beneficial and safe.

Portland’s political quirkiness emerges on issues such as fluoride, but local residents also can be moved by persuasive arguments — especially when it comes to the well-being of children. The council’s decision was just the first step in a democratic process that eventually will provide the public with the control it deserves.

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