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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Meanwhile, an Update From the Great Big Fluoride Debate

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Sep 6, 2012 at 3:44 PM

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It's been an hour and a half after the massively packed city hall hearing on water fluoridation got started, and we're still barely done with the scheduled part of the hearing—the high-powered and much-decorated parade of panelists and experts personally invited by city officials to testify on the health and economic benefits of fluoride.

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Not that there hasn't been any drama. One woman, with a baby strapped to her chest, was escorted out after an outburst that came when Randy Leonard compared fluoridation to vaccination before the school year. A decent-size group of protesters gathered outside. Dozens of people have been forced into overflow rooms elsewhere in city hall and in the Portland Building. And, briefly, the whole thing had to be put on pause after the TV feed from the meeting went out—provoking, rumor has it, an angry mob outside the council chambers.

Mostly, though, the hearing has been sedate. Local dental experts showed slides detailing the deplorable state of our kids' dental health. There were stories of kids with tooth infections so bad they almost died. And experts from Kaiser and OHSU and, formerly, the CDC, addressed and debunked the series of studies that question the risk of insanely high doses of fluoride—doses we wouldn't be getting in Portland.

We were told infant formula is safe to mix with fluoridated water. That toothpaste is safe. That fluoride won't make your kids dumber or give you cancer. They also spoke about the millions of dollars that would be saved in dental care costs and emergency room visits if Portland invested in fluoride.

"The internet is rife with misinformation," said Bill Maas, a former CDC executive now working for Pew Charitable Trusts, who flew in from Maryland to speak.

Leonard said it even better: "If you've taken too much aspirin, it can cause severe internal bleeding and even lead to death. But every doctor tells someone my age to take an aspirin."

There were snickers and hissing, however, when one expert said it was "chaotic" and futile for one person to try to sort through the hundreds of fluoride studies all by themselves. Curiously, the city, I'm told declined an offer to have a separate panel of anti-fluoride experts present their own analysis.

We'll keep updating as more happens.

Update 7:20 PM: This is my last update of the night, five-plus hours in, even though dozens of people remain on the list. This last batch comes after Mayor Adams limited testifiers to two minutes, instead of three, and I have no idea how council will get through all of it before tomorrow morning. The mayor just left for an event at the convention center, but will be coming back. That left Dan Saltzman in charge, and he's been way less strict about shutting down outbursts and claps.

Frankly, we're hearing a lot of the same stuff on both sides now. And people are clearly getting punchy.

Kissing is bad for the spread of cavities, we heard. And I swear I'll start taking shots every time I hear the "Oh, you don't have Portland teeth" anecdote. Or the next time someone someone in the crowd mutters something about "strawman" arguments. In a SUPER weird twist, a woman also was accused of stealing someone else's bag—and maybe reading her testimony in front of council? The woman accused of stealing was roughly escorted from the council chambers, pulled up by a guard hard enough that she fell down, and cops were called.

So what else was interesting? One opponent brought a big graph that he says showed that dental costs in fluoridated parts of the region weren't lower than the costs in non-fluoridated parts. Sam Chase, Metro councilor-elect, joined the head of the county's health department, in making short remarks in favor of fluoridation.

A Harvard-trained Kaiser doctor said he didn't "think it was prudent to hold off on one of the top 10 advances of the 20th century" based on "flawed" studies on IQ and cancer effects.

"If I had even the slightest concern that adding fluoride to my water would put my wife at risk for cancer, or lower the IQ of my children," he said, "I would not support it."

Another fellow reading some anti-fluoride studies found out he'd only been given one minute instead of two, prompting the mayor to apologize: "We cheated you out of a minute." "What a surprise," the man went on, before mentioning corruption in the American Cancer Society and referencing a 300-page legal document he uncovered during research for a lawsuit. He did finish with a good point: "Fluoride will not take the place of parenting." And sugar.

Laughs broke out when one foe, a bald guy, looked at the also-bald Randy Leonard and said, point blank: "I don't know what they told you in the backroom, but it's not going to cure our baldness, either."

Another speaker, a decorated dentist, ripped Adams for eating chips during the meeting, arguing that dental caries and cavities are the result of shitty diets and nutrition. He said aborigines and others who didn't eat lousy, processed foods didn't have the same rate of dental trouble. He said fluoride support is the result of "weak science" 50 years ago. Later, another woman held up sugar and soda as a prop.

The most compelling stuff came from Mike Smith of Occupy Portland. Smith accused the council of engaging in dangerous "neo-liberalism" and condescension toward the poor and people of color—claiming they didn't think the poor were smart enough to pick up a toothbrush and be healthy.

"Doctor Leonard, I don't give you informed consent to put a drug in my water," Smith said. "Barynard animals are force medicated, not human beings... This is not George Orwell's Animal Farm. You are not the pigs in charge."

Update 6 PM: Close to four hours in, we're still through just a dozen or so speakers, beyond the city's invited panel. Someone asked why the city can't wait to let a referendum happen before moving forward. Floy Jones, a water-rates activist, complained about public process and said the city must've been holding back on water cuts over the past year if they could suddenly fast-track fluoridation over the next year and a half.

"Doctor Leonard I don't give you informed consent to put a drug in my water," Smith said. "Barynard animals are force medicated, not human beings... This is not George Orwell's Animal Farm. You are not the pigs in charge."

Amanda Fritz, who hasn't weighed in on fluoridation yet, asked for more info on timing. Leonard defended the timing and said he thinks, after permitting, he can have fluoride online by January 1, 2014. And the mayor wound up telling the man who asked Leonard about the timing, Mark Colman, that he couldn't reply. "This isn't a circus. It's a council chamber."

Earlier, former mayoral candidate Scott Fernandez, a chemist who built his campaign on water issues, got into an entertaining exchange with Adams after the mayor asked why it's not terrible that we're already treating Bull Run water with chlorine and sodium hydroxide.

"That is a treatment for water," Fernandez said. "That is a very distinct difference. What the fluoride will do is be a treatment for people."

Adams tried to say something else, and Fernandez cut him off by saying "you're trying to be a chemist, I guess."

The mayor replied by saying: "I don't often have a chemist in front of me, so I'm asking some questions."

Fernandez later told Adams, rather politely: "You're screwing us."

It wasn't all opposition. One man testified that it's okay to let council go for fluoridation. So as not to subject us to the "whims of the people."

And twice, Adams praised pro-fluoride doctors and told them they "looked like" doctors and jokingly asked if they were mouthpieces for big fluoride. And twice, an observer shouted it was "offensive." "Why, because he's white?"

Another doctor in favor of fluoride came up and said: "Collecting anecdotes doesn't make a point. Science makes a point."

Update 5:05 PM: It's been a lot of the same so far, 10 or so people into the public testimony portion of the hearing. Fluoride is a carcinogen. Fluoride is a waste product. Fluoride is laced with arsenic (like apples!). Someone just reminded the room that dentists once used mercury and that people thought mercury (not us; never us) also was safe. I can't believe 200-plus more people are signed up. They can't all be planning on staying. Even some city commissioners say they'll have to leave in another hour or so.

One speaker, Rick North, managed to hold his own in a discussion with Adams, Leonard, and Fish after he asserted that a study from China, the one that said IQ might be lowered by super-duper doses of fluoride, was somehow applicable to Portland. Thanks to his application of some arithmetic.

Leonard asked him, after that, whether there's any evidence of IQ drops in America, decades after fluoridation spread.

North replied: "Because they've never tested for it in the United States."

Leonard: "Why?"

North, drawing laughter: "Ask Pew!"

He followed with a lament that an "echo chamber of organizations" is ignoring the possible harm of fluoride and that every time someone tries to do a deeper study of how fluoride affects brains, "the establishment comes down on them like a ton of bricks."

A few speakers later, things actually got a little emotional. If weirdly so. A woman who said she recently retired from teaching at a Beaverton High School talked of a notable drop in students' memory skills after fluoridation came there a few years ago.

Grammar, vocab, science concepts, etc., she said, all went by the wayside. It was discussed in the teacher's lounge.

"With each passing year, the memory loss seeemd more pronounced," she said, "and I heard many students express their own frustration with themselves."

Then she went on to talk about an eruption of bone fractures. And finished by mentioning how a student contracted a bone disease that may or may not have been caused by fluoride.

"And he died," she said, accusingly. "It was the saddest thing our school ever, ever, ever went through."


Update 4:15 PM:
Finally, public testimony has started. The O is reporting some 200-plus people waiting to talk, many in opposition. We had to wait for another group of panelists to speak, largely doubling up what the others had said before them; that made for 12 invited guests—and two hours of talking. We also had to wait for Nick Fish, a co-sponsor, to talk.

"We were elected to make the tough call," he said, before someone shouted "no." "Too often people in our legislative bodies... kick the can down the road. History will judge us in how we address this important issue."

Dan Saltzman, before Fish spoke, got some cheers when he complained that the wait for testimony stretched close to two hours. He was silenced by the mayor, who told him "settle down" and noted that he'd missed a decent part of the meeting earlier. And a commissioner from the West Hills Water District, a $1 million Bull Run customer serving 11,000 people, complained about the process behind fluoridation. His board, he said, has yet to receive formal notice from the city.

The first citizen, anti-fluoride activist Angel Lambart, gave an emotional plea to reconsider the issue, noting her thyroid condition and chemical sensitivity.

"At the very least it should be put up for a vote," she said.

Someone else just raised a question about why no one was invited to speak against fluoride. Adams explained that invites are a courtesy extended by an ordinance's sponsors, Leonard and Fish, in this case. She offered the city her dentist's phone number to talk about how her improved diet, not fluoride, helped her teeth.

"I don't appreciate you trying to alleviate your white guilt by putting toxins in our water," she finished, succinctly.

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