Willamette Week, Portland Oregon
Spurred by fish concerns, enviros are sounding the alarm over an
by NICK BUDNICK
Paul Engelking sadly explains why he dropped one of his favorite
pastimes. "The fish have enough problems," he says, "without me trying
to put them on a hook."
Engelking, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon, can walk
you down the familiar list: destruction of habitat by loggers, toxic
runoff from cities, fertilizers and pesticides from farms.
And now this: fluoride.
Engelking is the scientific muscle behind a number of environmentalists
opposing Senate Bill 99, a bill that would mandate adding the
cavity-fighting chemical to Oregon's supplies of drinking water.
The enviros have nothing against healthy teeth. They're simply
questioning whether the perceived benefits of water fluoridation are
worth the risk it poses to fish--particularly salmon.
"My concern about fluoridation is this is just one more nail in the
coffin," says Engelking. "And there are a lot of other people lining up
to put nails in. It will be a miracle if we go another 50 years and
still have a salmon run in Oregon."
Fragile, heroic and breathtakingly beautiful, salmon are the Jodie
Foster of the fish world. The numbers of chinook and coho salmon have
plummeted in the Northwest since the turn of the century. In 1999, with
nine Northwestern runs of salmon and steelhead on the brink of
extinction, the federal government placed them on the endangered species
Gov. John Kitzhaber has made salmon recovery a priority; Mayor Vera Katz
used her State of the City address to designate Willamette River
recovery a priority, citing a goal of "abundant salmon."
Engelking argues that such goals will be undermined if lawmakers pass
SB99, a seemingly innocuous measure to add fluoride to Oregon's drinking
water. It's an argument that fluoridation proponents dismiss as sheer
"There have been no studies to say this has been detrimental to fish
life," asserts Dr. H. Whitney Payne, the state dental director who has
been spearheading SB99.
In reality, however, there have been several studies saying just that,
including one in Oregon that dates back nearly 20 years. The studies
have found that even small amounts of fluoride, which is an anaesthetic,
make fish, particularly salmon and rainbow trout, dazed and stupid
(well, more stupid). And scientists say the hazards are much greater in
John Stein, a National Marine Fisheries Service ecotoxicologist in
Seattle, says water in western Oregon and Washington is unusually
"soft," a quality that increases the amount of fluoride absorbed by the
fish that swim in it. "Fluoride is pretty toxic, and the softer the
water, the more toxic it is," says Stein, who heads the environmental
conservation division at the NMFS's Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Fluoride's threat to salmon is taken so seriously in Canada that British
Columbia set a special soft-water standard of 0.2 parts per million. Les
Swain, water quality manager of the B.C. Ministry of Environment, says
some of the most compelling evidence for that decision came from Oregon.
Between 1982 and 1986, Douglas Dey and a fellow NMFS biologist conducted
a groundbreaking study of fluoride's environmental effects at the John
Day Dam on the Columbia River. His study won an award from the American
Fisheries Society, an association of fisheries biologists.
Dey set out to solve a mystery. Why were so many salmon dying at the
He discovered that low levels of fluoride emitted by an aluminum smelter
upstream were making the salmon too stoned and lethargic to climb fish
ladders. It took the dazed critters about a week to traverse the dam,
compared to the usual one day--and more than 50 percent of the salmon
died before making the trip.
Once the smelter above the dam was forced to reduce its fluoride
emissions, the salmon death rate was cut by a factor of 10. Subsequent
studies confirmed fluoride's effects and found that salmon, when given a
choice, avoid fluoridated waterways, says Dey.
"It's a serious problem when the salmon can't even negotiate the fishway
because of a very small amount of toxin," says Bill Bakke, a founder of
Oregon Trout who currently heads the Native Fish Society of Oregon.
Bakke, one of the few environmentalists contacted by WW who had heard of
Dey's study, opposes SB99, saying that the risk posed by fluoridation
"can't be tolerated if we're going to recover the fish."
The idea behind fluoridating water is that whenever we quench our thirst
from the tap, we'll slow down the cavity-causing bacteria in our mouth.
The problem is that 99 percent of the fluoride goes right down the drain
and into our rivers, as sewage-treatment plants don't remove the
chemical. Studies have shown that sewage plants in fluoridated
communities can emit fluoride at about 1.2 parts per million--six times
the level allowed in British Columbia.
Although the fluoride is diluted well downstream, our major rivers
already have traces of fluoride from sources that include smelters and
microchip factories. Engelking's testing on the Willamette River, for
example, has found levels of fluoride at 0.1 and 0.2 ppm, already
pushing what salmon can handle.
Engelking is especially worried that tributaries, key to salmon
spawning, would hold higher concentrations of fluoride because there
would be less dilution. The Tualatin River, for example, already tests
as high as 0.5 ppm fluoride.
Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, says the
risks to salmon should be balanced against doubts over the effectiveness
of fluoridation. In the last six months, a British government study,
considered the most comprehensive fluoride review ever, echoed a
Canadian government study in saying the benefits of fluoridation and
evidence for its safety are much less than previously thought.
It prompted an ABC News commentary which proclaimed that "the required
level of evidence is just not there" to make the case for fluoridation.
"It makes you wonder," says Williams. "Would we get a better bang for
the buck if kids got free toothpaste, with better education to brush
Williams isn't the only one posing such questions. Elisa Dozono,
spokeswoman for Mayor Vera Katz, says lawmakers need to look at Dey's
study as they consider SB99. "The mayor is concerned about this," she
says, "and believes that if there could be an impact on Portland's fish
recovery efforts, it should be part of the discussion."
Gov. John Kitzhaber has not taken a position on the bill.
-- Jay DeLong Olympia, WA
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