PORTLAND, Ore. — In a meeting where police had to remove unruly protesters for yelling, swearing, hissing and disrupting the vote, the Portland City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved adding fluoride to the city's drinking water.
City councilors argued it's Portland's responsibility to protect childrens' health. Medical experts say it's a safe and effective way to keep teeth healthy.
"Reasonable people can disagree, but the science is on the side of fluoridation," said Mayor Sam Adams.
Portland was the largest U.S. city without fluoridation.
Opponents disputed whether fluoride is safe and said adding the mineral to drinking water violates a person's right to consent to medication.
They also say council members rushed into action without a public vote. They plan to collect almost 20,000 signatures in the next 30 days to force a referendum early next year — before the mineral is added to a water supply that serves about 900,000 people in Portland and a few suburbs.
"There is no question that we are going to need a lot of financial and volunteer support to make this happen, but we are seeing a major backlash to how the City Council has handled this," said Kim Kaminski, executive director of Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water.
Mayor Sam Adams repeatedly called for order during the meeting as outraged fluoride protesters continued to yell and shout. One protester dropped a large banner from the balcony demanding a public vote.
Other opponents booed, hissed and held signs that said "Public water, public vote." When it became apparent that commissioners would indeed approve the ordinance, they stood with their backs turned.
Many protesters also brought their children to the meeting.
Commissioner Nick Fish said he couldn't remember an issue that brought out so much passion on both sides.
Fish, who co-sponsored the plan, has said more than 200 million Americans drink water with added fluoride, and it doesn't appear to have caused great harm. Most mainstream health organizations, such as the American Medical Association and American Dental Association, endorse it as safe.
Commissioners said now is the time to act because Portland children have more dental problems than kids from neighboring states that fluoridate, and adding the mineral to the water is the most safe, effective and affordable way to address it.
They say fluoridation will at least give children, particularly those from families without money or education, some protection against tooth decay.
"A 3-year-old child can't be expected to take responsibility for their dental care," Commissioner Dan Saltzman said, to which a frustrated member of the audience shouted: "Their parents can."
The ordinance calls for Portland's water to be fluoridated by March 2014 at a projected upfront cost of $5 million.
Opponents told KATU News they plan to file for a citizen referendum with the goal of bringing the issue to a public vote.
A referendum would need 19,858 valid signatures, which is six percent of the total number of people who were registered to vote during the last primary election, according to City Elections Officer Deborah Scroggin.
Unless the City Council calls for a special election, a qualifying referendum petition would appear on the ballot in the next primary or general election, which is May of 2014.
The deadline for items on the ballot in the 2012 general election was Sept. 6.
Voters in Portland twice rejected fluoridation before approving it in 1978. But that plan was overturned before any fluoride was ever added to the water.
KATU's Valerie Hurst contributed to this story.
This morning, I voted in favor of fluoridating Portland's water. I wish to thank everyone who called or emailed their opinion and to share information with me on fluoridation. To the nearly 300 people who testified at the public hearing, I stand in awe of your civility and respect for one another, and to the City Council—through seven hours of testimony.
As the city's children's commissioner, I oversee nearly $100 million in taxpayer funds to protect and care for children through the Portland Children's Levy. When I make those investment decisions I look for proven means to maximize the health, safety and welfare of our kids.
For a relatively small public expenditure to fluoridate our drinking water, our community will reap tremendous long-term dividends in the form of the improved health of Portland's kids. In addition, the public testimony documents the benefits to the dental health of older adults.
Some opponents argue we should not flouridate our water because dental health is an individual's responsibility. While this is a nice concept in theory, the reality is a three-year old child cannot be expected to take responsibility for their own dental health.
A child in foster care who has been in a dozen foster homes cannot be expected to ensure that the adults looking after her get her proper dental care or even have access to her dental records. I believe it is particularly important to protect the health of young children but I also believe we need to help ensure their future success in life.
The dental health of a child during their formative years will affect him for his entire life. It is extremely hard to concentrate in school when your mouth hurts all the time. Later in life, the self-consciousness that results from poor dental care can become a major barrier to finding a job.
The single most effective, safest, and affordable way to extend life-long dental health to our youngest Portlanders is to fluoridate our drinking water. This is the right thing to do.