It doesn't take much to spark new furor in the debate over fluoride these days, and the unveiling of a new study that shows reduced cavities in Oregon's schoolchildren has done just that in the past week. The delayed release of the 2012 Smile Survey has also heaped scrutiny on the Oregon Health Authority, which was expected to make the study public in February but didn't get a draft out to media outlets until April 24.
"OHA’s delayed release of the study, and reported stonewalling in providing the data after media requests for it, has raised questions about OHA’s motivations in withholding the cavity data and whether fluoridation proponents have known about this data," said a news release this week from anti-fluoride political action committee Clean Water Portland. The group had two specific queries: "1) Was the delayed release of the 2012 Smile Survey in any way related to influencing the water fluoridation ballot measure in Portland? 2) Did OHA share the results of the survey data with fluoridation promoters before releasing it to the media or public?"
The answer to those questions, to the extent it can be discerned by internal e-mails, appears to be "no."
Hundreds of e-mails, released to Clean Water Portland in the past two days, instead indicate a largely helpful and busy OHA staff, willing to get the new survey out to the public but cautious data could be misinterpreted absent proper context. The e-mails, also sent to the Mercury, shed light on internal communications around the Smile Survey from January through Tuesday.
The bulk of the messages constitute the type of collaboration and housekeeping you'd expect with any large study: documents sailing back and forth for proofreading and correction, questions about data's finer points, discussions of how best to release the information.
A typical example is this March 28 update on the study from Shanie Mason, Oral Health Program Manager at the OHA's Public Health Division, to a colleague: "It has not been published. We are working on it as a priority. I am getting a ton of interest, which I expected, and am wondering if it would make sense to prepare a one page set of talking points for media to have ready when we do release the report."
At no point in the e-mails the Mercury reviewed is there a suggestion that the report was being withheld for political reasons.
The most interesting bits—and maybe this is just because I'm a reporter—come from state staffers parsing over how to deal with media requests.
"Please note, (Oregonian reporter) Brad Schmidt has expressed concern that were are intentionally delaying the release of the report," wrote Mason in an April 22 e-mail. "This is, of course, not accurate and any delay has been the result of lack of staffing and significant workload."
In a note to a Department of Justice lawyer and others four days earlier, OHA Spokeswoman Alissa Robbins wrote: "If there is nothing that prohibits us from releasing it, let's get them what they've requested and try to set up some time to give them background so they understand the data."
Portland's upcoming vote on water fluoridation—to be decided May 21, via Ballot Measure 26-151—is only ever glancingly mentioned in the e-mails.
State Epidemiologist Katrina Hedberg, in an April 8 message following a records request from a KATU reporter, wrote to Public Health Director Mel Kohn: "Mel— because of the political sensitivity with this, I wonder if you would like to be involved in responding to KATU?" He declined.
There's a good deal of push-and-pull between reporters and state staffers in the documents. KATU, which has been a darling of anti-fluoride activists in this debate, is quick to invoke lawyers and hint at legal action in the e-mails.
"Also, I just want to confirm that OHA will providing (sic) all the raw data that we've requested," reads an April 16 note from KATU reporter Shellie Bailey-Shah. "I'm sure that you and I would both prefer that we keep our attorneys out of those."
"It seems pretty unreasonable to assume that we drop everything we're doing to respond to this request;" commented Mason, in a later e-mail to colleagues,"I have only four staff including my admin specialist and myself and none of us are data analysts. Poor form, in my opinion,"
There's more—a lot of it—and if I could figure out how to post it all here, I would. The formatting of the records makes that tough.
It's worth noting that OHA staffers are clearly aware their e-mails constitute public record, and likely keep that in mind while writing back-and-forth.