Doubts as Portland Weighs Fluoride and Its Civic Values

By , New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. — Who bears responsibility for an impoverished child with a mouth full of rotting teeth? Parents? Soda companies? The ingrained inequities of capitalism? Pick your villain, or champion. They are all on display here as the largest city in the nation with no commitment to fluoridating its water supply — and one of the most politically liberal cultures anywhere — has waded into a new debate about whether to change its ways and its water.

The debate flared on Thursday at a public hearing before the five-member City Council, whose vote on the issue is scheduled for this week. Some of the arguments have focused on health concerns, with opponents raising questions and citing studies about fluoride’s effects on brain development and I.Q.

Others said that times had changed since in the 1950s, when fluoridation first took off in the United States. People now get plenty of fluoride, critics say, in products from toothpaste to food that has been processed, grown or cleaned elsewhere. About three-fourths of the country’s population lives in areas where fluoride is added to the water.

“If there’s a problem with kids’ dental health, why don’t we put the money toward better nutrition?” said Angel Lambart, who testified on Thursday with her young daughter on her lap.

But befitting a city where socially conscious, environmentally fervent goals have become a kind of local brand, the more ferocious questions for both sides centered on personal choice and societal burden. Once consigned to the ranks of the gritty and damp, along with Seattle and other Pacific Northwest shipping towns, Portland has been reinvented by waves of highly educated newcomers working at places like Intel, a huge regional employer.

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