PORTLAND, Ore. – Fluoride advocates admitted defeat Tuesday night after unofficial election results showed Portlanders strongly against adding fluoride to the city’s drinking water.
But there were indications new battle lines may be drawn in the future.
"We will not rest until this passes," said Alejandro Queral of the Northwest Health Foundation while conceding his pro-fluoride campaign, Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland, had failed to persuade voters to fluoridate.
Unofficial returns early Wednesday morning showed voters rejecting fluoridation 60 percent to 40 percent.
Clean Water Portland, the group against adding fluoride to the water, was outgunned in both money and resources but was still able to pull off a victory in nonconformist Portland, the largest city in the United States not to add fluoride to the water to help prevent tooth decay.
"We are grateful for the people of Portland that stood up and researched this issue," said Kim Kaminski with the campaign. "They don't want fluoride. We don't want more chemicals; our kids don't need more chemicals."
While she stopped short of declaring complete victory Tuesday night, she said she's been contacted by people from nearby communities that have fluoride in the water and want to become fluoride free. And she suggested her group’s victory will spread beyond the Rose City.
"This is not just Portland. This is nationwide. We really want to acknowledge that what happened in Portland, what is happening here and now, is going to have nationwide and worldwide ramifications," she said.
The campaign said it'll set its sights on the Tualatin Valley Water District in Washington County, which does add fluoride to its water.
Tuesday night's vote was the first time in 30 years that Portlanders voted on the issue. The last time was in 1980 when voters repealed a 1978 voter-approved decision to add fluoride to the water. Fluoride was never added to the water in the interim, however.
This time around the City Council voted to fluoridate the water last September but those opposed to it quickly organized and successfully gathered enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot.
Alberto Moreno, the executive director of the Oregon Latino Health Coalition and a staff member of Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland, said Tuesday night the reason fluoride fell flat with Portlanders was because "people did not understand the science."
"We were trying to correct that narrative to make sure people understood the science, that this is safe, this is proven (and) millions of people do this every single day without side effects," he said.
Moreno did acknowledge the campaign didn't quite grasp the amount of what he called "confusion" among people about the science in support of fluoridation. He said his group should have been stronger with its message.
And he said the pro-fluoride forces will regroup to figure out what they’ll need to do next.
"We'll continue to work for equity," he said. "We'll continue to find other mechanisms to make sure that the children have the dental care that they need."
Both sides of the debate raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the course of their campaigns, and the issue drew strong emotion and reaction from Portlanders, making it a hotly debated topic with both sides charging sign vandalism and theft.
And a last-minute controversy erupted last week after The Oregonian reported that Oregon Health Authority emails suggested a pro-fluoride group worked to pressure a state official to present a dental report to its advantage.
Mel Rader, co-director of Upstream Public Health, denied his group was trying to pressure Oregon's oral health program manager Shanie Mason in any way.
Proponents of fluoridation say it will help prevent tooth decay, especially among low-income children. Opponents fear adding fluoride will erode the purity of Portland’s water by adding contaminants such as lead and arsenic. Additionally, many don’t like the idea of having fluoride forced upon them.
Elections officials expect turnout to top 40 percent in this election, which is higher than usual for special elections.
"We were still getting ballots from drop sites close to 8 p.m.," said Eric Sample, a Multnomah County elections spokesman. That meant a "pretty darn long night" of vote counting that likely would stretch into Wednesday, he said.
Mayor Charlie Hales, a fluoridation supporter, didn't wait for a final tally.
"The measure lost despite my own 'yes' vote. That's sure disappointing, but I accept the will of the voters," he said in a statement released shortly after the first totals were announced.
KATU News reporters Shellie Bailey-Shah and Dan Cassuto and The Associated Press contributed to this report.