Debating fluoride: The environmental impact

Debating fluoride: The environmental impact

PORTLAND, Ore. - Portlanders will vote next month on whether to add fluoride to their water system.  But will it damage the environment, specifically our rivers and fish?

Angler Paul Johnston - known by his friends as Crawdad Paul - has been fishing salmon for 75 years.  He was pulling his boat in at Cathedral Park in North Portland last week.

“I like to eat them fresh,” said Johnston.

He’s heard the fuss about fluoride and doesn’t believe it would hurt his fishing.

“Couldn't have gotten much worse than today,” he said with a laugh, after a day with no bites.

Nearby fellow angler Robert Mankins was luckier, reeling in an 18-pounder.  It’s the future of salmon, like his beauty, that's on the line.

“Salmon can be harmed at concentrations of fluoride that are less than a third of what would be added to our drinking water,” said Antonia Giedwoyn, spokeswoman for the Columbia Group-Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Giedwoyn points to a 1989 study in the North American Journal of Fisheries.  It measured the fluoride discharge at an aluminum plant near the John Day Dam on the Columbia River.  At levels of .2 parts per million (PPM), fluoride impacted salmon's ability to migrate.

“It made them sluggish,” explained Giedwoyn.  “It made them lethargic, and the results of the study showed that it could affect salmon survivor rates.”

In fact, from 1980 to 1982, researchers recorded 55% unaccountable salmon losses.  But in 1993, when fluoride discharges were cut by two-thirds, losses dropped to 11-percent.

The proposed concentration of fluoride in the Portland water system would be .7 PPM - higher than the .2 PPM in the study.

“To use that study and apply it to fluoridation is just bad science,” said Mel Rader, co-director of Upstream Public Health, a group advocating for community-wide fluoridation.  Rader has a background in water engineering.

Rader said any fluoride discharged from the Portland’s water treatment plant would be greatly diluted in our area rivers, a fact supported in a study of Tacoma's water system.

Furthermore, Rader said the ocean has nearly twice the proposed level of fluoride.

“Salmon spend their lives in an aquatic environment with high levels of fluoride, and they're used to that,“ said Rader.  “To think that a tiny amount added to the river that can't even be measured would have an accumulative effect just doesn't make sense.”

Back at the water's edge, there was more disagreement about fluoride's effect on not only fish, but kids.

“I think we get enough stuff put in our water system already,” said Mankins. “We don't need something else added.”

“I think it's good for the school kids,” said Johnston.  “And not everybody's got the money to go to the dentist.  So anything that would help them, I think it's great.”

If Portland voters approve fluoridation, they'll pay about 61 cents per person per year.  They'll also pay a one-time setup fee of about $5 per resident. 

Ballots will be mailed on May 3.  The election is May 21.

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