The Infuriating, Selfish Logic of Portland's Anti-Fluoride Vote

Bad news, Portland: You will not be benefiting from the sweet (well, tasteless) tooth-protecting power of fluoridated water in the near future. For the fourth time since 1956, Portland overwhelmingly voted down a measure to fluoridate its water like every other major city in America, because many Portlanders will throw a tantrum over anything that presents even a remote chance it will affect their idyllic lives.

The key point pushed by the anti-fluoride campaign, which was driven, as is practically everything in Portland, largely by liberals, was that the government wanted to force toxic chemicals into your body. At last night's victory party for the anti-fluoride campaign Clean Water Portland, they filled themselves with harmful chemicals—by their own choice .

From Willamette Week:

At the bar, a quartet of campaign supporters clink Champagne glasses with beer pints.

"Here's to unfluoridated beer!" says a man in a blue beret. "I was going to have to switch to drinking nothing but Ninkasi." [A very delicious Oregon beer -ed.]

At 9:15 pm, the party is getting merrier. The smell of marijuana is so thick in the sports bar that Mercury news editor Denis Theriault says he thought an actual skunk had arrived.

Hopefully the anti-fluoride folks have mellowed out after their victory, and all that pot. My post on Monday lamenting the fluoride controversy elicited a howling response from the anti-fluoridation side, upset with the admittedly broad brush with which I painted their camp. The media director of the Fluoride Action Network sent me a Livescience.com article about the science behind the anti-Fluoride movement. "Here's what science writing is supposed to look like on the topic of fluoridation," she said. "You are so way off base on this issue." I read it, and learned it was true that some scientists and experts think Fluoride is a cause for concern.

But it also true that the overwhelming majority of studies and experts agree fluoridated water is harmless and helpful. From Scientific American's Kyle Hill

Simply put, the refusal of water fluoridation doesn’t have any scientific support. A review on fluoride’s effect on IQ out of Harvard was waved about as the main scientific opposition, but has since been thoroughly refuted. Decades of studies in different cities in different states, involving millions of people, have concluded that there is a safe level of fluoride—one part-per-million—that can be added to water for enormous benefit to our teeth and oral health with little to no adverse effects.

[Cue one million ani-Fluoride campaigners in the comments linking to that Harvard study.]

Nobody can say with 100% certainty that there are no risks to fluoride. There are risks to everything. The point of public health institutions like the CDC, the American Medical Association, and the American Dental Association is to use their giant budgets to weigh the risks and benefits of things like fluoride and act accordingly. All three are strongly in favor of fluoride. While the risks of fluoride presented by a handful of studies is uncertain, there is overwhelming evidence of its benefits—especially to the poor. (One study estimated communities that fluoridate their water save an average of up to $18.62 per per person per year.) Of course, to believe this you need to trust the scientists at the CDC more than the crusaders of the Fluoride Action Network. Many Portlanders obviously don't.

And that's the bigger concern than Portlanders' teeth rotting out. The logic that defeated fluoridation lies on the slippery slope down which one slides into the foul pit of anti-vaccination activism. This reasoning is fed above all by conspiratorial anti-government thinking. The Fluoridation Action Network argues that the CDC is enforcing a conspiracy of silence to maintain its own credibility. So did disgraced autism researcher Andrew Wakefield accuse British authorities of engaging in a conspiracy to "shield the government from exposure on the vaccine scandal" when he was banned from practicing medicine in the UK over his infamous bogus autism study.

No amount of studies will convince those campaigning against fluoride or vaccines, because the fluoride debate rests more on a clash of worldviews than studies: Anti-fluoride and anti-vaccination campaigners would undermine our public health system, which requires some trade-offs in personal autonomy for the greater good, in exchange for a libertarian wonderland in which every person gets exactly the healthcare they want, exactly when they want to have it. Only then will bureaucrats not have control over our bodies. Fluoride opponents in Portland frequently suggested the city's healthcare system should just be "fixed" so that everyone gets perfect and equal dental care, rendering fluoride unnecessary.

This would be great, but it's a world that will never exist. That large numbers of Portlanders apparently believe a widely-accepted public health measure to fill in the gaps of our imperfect healthcare system is a horrific affront to personal liberty says a lot about the city's disconnect from the real world, which I can say from experience is not just a Portlandia cliche. It is also an inherently reactionary position, and a close cousin to the dumb shrieks of death panels that marred the Obamacare debate. There many great things about Portland, Oregon, but the fluoride rejection shows its worst: the tendency among progressive of that city (and many others!) to reframe the decades-old politics of selfishness as some hyper-enlightened liberalism. So they rationalize getting exactly what they want, all of the time.

[Image by Jim Cooke.]