In local David and Goliath tales, keeping Portland’s drinking water protected from fluoridation chemicals ranks right up there. Portlanders care deeply about their world-class water and for decades have fought an uphill battle to keep it clean. Since the 1950s, voters have rejected fluoridation chemicals four times. It’s safe to say that fighting City Hall to protect our water has become a proud and essential Portland tradition.
Portlanders refused mandatory water fluoridation for the first time in 1956. Incredibly, leader of the opposition Dr. Matthew Maberry’s home was fire-bombed during the campaign.
Voters said no again in 1962.
By 1978, pro-fluoridation lobbyists were back, with a secret campaign that convinced the Portland City Council to put water fluoridation on the ballot. Because of its speedy and undercover nature, there was little time to organize opposition to the measure or provide information to voters, and it passed 55% to 45%.
But opposition quickly grew, and a group called Citizens for Pure Water put the issue of fluoridation back on the 1980 ballot. Now with more time to educate on the risks of fluoridation chemicals, the numbers flipped. The vote was 55% to 45% against fluoridation.
Citizens for Pure Water also succeeded in a nine-year legal battle to force five Multnomah County officials to repay, out of their own pockets, taxpayer money spent by the County to influence the 1980 fluoridation vote. One of the three county commissioners who voted for the County’s fluoridation campaign, Earl Blumenauer, is a now US congressman.
In addition, the Oregon Supreme Court decision Burt v. Blumenauer set a new and tougher standard for limiting public money spent on political campaigns that continues to protect voting integrity today.
But fluoridationists don’t seem to take “no” for an answer. In 2007 they launched an aggressive campaign in the Oregon Legislature, planning to mandate fluoridation chemicals at the state level and take away the right of local communities to vote on the issue.
With a determined volunteer-led effort, Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water (OCSDW) narrowly managed to defeat the bill and keep the state’s water protected.
Yet again in 2012, the Portland City Council made an attempt to side-step voters by ordering mandatory fluoridation, despite the fact that Portland voters had already rejected fluoridation three times.
In response to the City Council vote, citizens formed Clean Water Portland (now a part of Clean Water Oregon) and within days hundreds of Portlanders had signed on to help. In an incredible grassroots effort, CWP's largely volunteer team gathered over 43,000 in-person signatures in 30 days, in a successful referendum campaign to force the Council's decision back to the voters.
Despite being outspent nearly 3-to-1 by fluoridationists, CWP effectively informed voters on the science showing the risks of fluoridation. Opposition to fluoridation came from groups ranging from the Columbia Chapter Sierra Club to the local chapter of the NAACP, to Oregon’s DEQ employees union.
When the ballots were counted in May 2013, Portland voters firmly rejected fluoridation chemicals with 61% of the vote—the fourth time the city has voted against fluoridation.
In 2016, Oregon's Dental Director announced his intent to add fluoridation chemicals to 80% of Oregon's drinking water—which could only be achieved by overturning the votes of Portland and many other Oregon cities with a fluoridation mandate in the state legislature.
In 2017, Clean Water Oregon helped kill a bill in the Oregon legislature that could have been a Trojan Horse for a fluoridation mandate.
CWO continues the effort to keep our drinking water clean, as well as advocating for better alternatives to water fluoridation that promote children’s dental health in a manner that is safer and more effective than water fluoridation.