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Legislature cuts its teeth over mandatory fluoridation

SALEM ' When Rep. Bob Jenson of Pendleton is asked whether he supports mandatory water fluoridation, the chairman of the House Water Committee chooses his words carefully.

I have a difficult time not supporting it, but I want to maintain as much objectivity as one can on this issue, said Jenson, a Republican.

Objectivity was in short supply during public hearings on House Bill 2025, which would require fluoride to be added to water systems that serve more than 10,000 people. The measure is being considered by Jenson's committee.

Health-care providers who support fluoridation and bill opponents duked it out from the witness chair in a series of hearings over the past two weeks.

Under the bill, major communities such as Portland, Medford and surrounding towns served by the Medford Water Commission, Eugene, Gresham, Ashland, Grants Pass, Bend and Hillsboro would be compelled to fluoridate.

— The Department of Human Services estimates the legislation would affect 1.9 million people. Jenson's support is critical if the bill is to have any chance of passage. The chairman plans to wait for two or three weeks before conducting work sessions on the bill.

Whether or not we take a vote depends on what comes out of that, he said.

A majority of the committee members appear to support the concept of fluoridation. It's the devil in the details that is causing concern about HB 2025 'with one exception.

I could easily support it in its present form, said Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley. He said he would be willing to consider amendments if that's what it takes to get a floor vote.

Reps. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, and Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, had some serious reservations because of issues raised during hearings.

But my biggest concern is how are we going to pay for it, said Dingfelder. The Office of Family Health, a division of DHS, estimates installation of fluoride equipment statewide will be &

36;23.8 million and annual operating costs nearly &

36;3 million.

I don't think the Legislature can or should impose an unfunded mandate on cities, said Dingfelder. She predicted the bill will die if it is referred to the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee for a general fund appropriation.

Jane Myers, director of government affairs for the Oregon Dental Association, which is coordinating the effort to pass the bill, said California neatly sidestepped the funding in 1997 when Sacramento ordered mandatory fluoridation.

Their bill stipulated that cities do not have to fluoridate unless money is available, she said.

Several went ahead anyway after receiving funds from private foundations.

Barnhart said he has questions on the safety of fluoride chemicals, their effect on the downstream fishery, and whether fluoridation should be left up to the state or local jurisdictions.

Does fluoride work? The answer is yes, Barnhart said. But I'm a 'no' voter unless some of my concerns are addressed.

In response to committee questions, Katherine Bradley of the state family health office wrote that the compounds dissolve completely before human consumption, and do not pose a health hazard.

Studies have confirmed the effectiveness of fluorides in curbing tooth decay and has been used effectively since 1962, she said. Finally, fluoride is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration because it is a mineral.

The Environmental Protection Agency is charged with drinking-water safety. The EPA sets the maximum allowable limit for fluoride in drinking water, Bradley told the committee.

Deb Silva, an expanded functions dental assistant at the Children's Dental Clinic of Jackson County, is a passionate advocate of fluoridation.

I see kids that have ear-to-ear decay, she said. That could be prevented in 40 to 60 percent of children with fluoride in the water.

Asked if she was praying for legislative approval of mandatory fluoridation, she replied, I am, I am.

But, she added, I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't (pass).

One thing appears certain: If a fluoridation bill is passed ' and that's a big if ' it will not be in the form that it was submitted.

The bill is in the process, and the Legislature's process is to make amendments, ODA's Jane Myers predicted.

Don Jepsen is a free-lance writer living in Salem.