PORTLAND — Procrastinators dropped off their ballots Tuesday as Portlanders decided for the first time in more than 30 years whether to add fluoride to their drinking water.
Voters had weeks to make their choice in the mail-ballot election. It’s now too late to rely on the postman, so drop boxes have been placed across the city to accommodate those who waited until the final day to make a decision, as well as people who didn’t want to pay for postage.
Supporters and opponents of fluoridation have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and traded accusations of sign-stealing and shoddy science in an election that has been the city’s most contentious of the 21st century.
If voters say no, Portland will remain the largest U.S. city yet to approve fluoridation to combat tooth decay. Voters in Portland twice rejected fluoridation before approving it in 1978. That plan was overturned two years later, before any fluoride was ever added to the water.
Portland’s drinking water already contains naturally occurring fluoride, though not at levels considered to be effective at fighting cavities. Backers of fluoridation say adding more of it to the water is a safe, effective and affordable way to improve the health of low-income children whose parents don’t stress proper nutrition and dental hygiene.
Opponents describe fluoride as a chemical that will ruin the city’s pristine water supply, and they argue that adding it would violate an individual’s right to consent to medication.
Although most Americans drink water treated with fluoride, it has long been a contentious topic. In the 1950s, fluoridation was feared as a Communist plot. Today, people worry that its effect on the body has not been sufficiently examined.
The issue appeared on Portland’s radar late last summer, when health organizations that had quietly lobbied the City Council for a year persuaded the panel to unanimously approve fluoridation by March 2014.
Days before the vote, 227 people — most of them opponents — signed up testify at a public hearing that lasted 6 1/2 hours. When their objections weren’t heeded, they quickly gathered tens of thousands of signatures to force Tuesday’s vote.
The ballots should be counted by Tuesday evening.