In 2013 one can have many legitimate beefs with the medical and scientific establishment, but fluoridated water, like immunization, is not one of them. Still, it appears increasingly likely that a Left-Right coalition of dedicated fear-mongers will defeat a measure in Portland this week to fluoridate its water supply and help keep kids' teeth from falling out.

Slate has a good run down of the fight over a ballot measure to fluoridate Portland's water, which will be voted on on Tuesday. Like everything coming out of Portland, the anti-fluoridation movement there is infused with the locally-sourced and organic. The anti-fluoridation movement has undergone a radical brand refresh since the 1950s, when John Birch racists used it as a smokescreen for anti-Communist witch hunting. The fight over fluoridation in Portland pits dentists, medical groups, unions and social justice organizations against an anti-fluoridation crew consisting of environmental and libertarian activists that is largely funded in part by the free-market group Kansas Taxpayers Network. Willamette Week describes the anti-fluoridation crowd as a combination of "an Occupy protest, a talk on artisanal cheesemaking, and a Tea Party rally." And, this being Portland, the powerful gluten-free day care operator contingent is throwing its weight against fluoridation, too, according to the Wall Street Journal.

I lived in Portland for four years, and having subsisted on the fluoridated water of New York City for some years now, I can assure Portlanders that the only thing they have to fear from fluoridation are teeth so hard and healthy they can cut through the wires of a suspension bridge (which could pose a unique security problem for a city as bridge-laden as Portland).

The basic scientific facts in the fluoride debate goes like this:



  • Quack doctor Joseph Mercola, who says fluoride will make your kid's brain bad and their bones brittle, but also believes vaccines cause autism.
  • People on internet forums who swear their arthritis/cancer/whatever was cured when they stopped using fluoride toothpaste.
  • Two or three obscure journal articles linking fluoride to cancer and arthritis that anti-fluoride people keep bringing up, even though further research has found no connection.

But as Slate points out, the anti-fluoridation movement is not driven by science as much as an ascendent knee-jerk anti-establishment politics that sanctifies "personal choice" over all. This attitude unites the extreme left and extreme right in a weird nexus of alternative medicine, Infowars-type conspiracy theories, and environmental activism that results in both your high school friends and your aunt spewing the same articles from NaturalNews all over your Facebook wall.

What's ironic is that this same recalcitrance helped Oregon become the first state to legalize physician assisted suicide in 1994 in the face of harsh opposition from doctors and medical authorities. This was an undoubtedly positive development and shows important change does happen thanks to normal citizens mobilizing against the scientific powers-that-be. But Oregon's Death with Dignity Act addressed a real need to improve end-of-life care, while even the least-crazy arguments marshaled by anti-fluoride activists are bullshit science promoted by a network of quack anti-fluoride doctors like Mercola. (No, fluoride in water will not make your kids dumb; it also doesn't cause your bones break.)

The fluoridation movement, then, isn't just about the benefits of fluoride versus the sanctity of personal choice. It's also important to fight anti-fluoridation crusaders because, like their anti-vaccination cousins, they taint legitimate popular challenges to the medical establishment and make them that much harder.

Update: Carol S. Kopf, media director of the Fluoride Action Network emails:

Here's what science writing is supposed to look like on the topic of fluoridation. You are so way off base on this issue.…

Carol K