Hotseat: Kim Kaminski

For the strategist behind fluoride's defeat, the fight isn't over.

Kim Kaminski just got done burying the Portland power machine in the May 21 election, so excuse her if she's a bit direct.

Kaminski led Clean Water Portland, the campaign against fluoridating Portland's drinking water. Outspent 3-to-1, opponents crushed the measure, 61 percent to 39 percent. 

In many ways, the vote had been the fight Kaminski—47, and who has a law degree, focused on environmental issues, from Arizona State University—had been waiting for. She has made opposing fluoridation a yearslong fight as executive director of Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water.

In this interview, Kaminski talks about where the fight goes from here, how her campaign didn't juke the science, and how Carl Sagan is linked to the defeat of fluoride in Portland.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Illinois. State-mandated fluoridation. I had 12 cavities. They were all filled with mercury amalgams.

What engaged you in environmental issues?

I wanted to change the world. At my college graduation, Carl Sagan was the keynote speaker, and he talked about how we are in this perfect place in the universe that allows us to exist—in this rare, precious place that we call Earth. And we need to protect it.

I got involved in the fluoridation issue [in 2005] because they were trying to promote a mandatory fluoridation bill in Salem. I knew nothing about fluoridation. I grew up with it. I assumed it was fine. I believed everything that I was told. I didn't question it. I also had a son, who was 4, and I thought it was something I should look into. When I did, quite honestly, I was shocked.

And even if we were to assume water fluoridation is good for our teeth, there are enough causes of concern about how it affects the rest of our body, and about how it affects our environment. There better ways that we can accomplish the goal of addressing children's dental health without putting toxic waste byproducts in 100 percent of our water.


What did you consider your odds in stopping the city's plans for fluoridating its water?

Everyone was telling us, "You can't do it, you're going to be outspent, you're going to be outdone." They tried to portray us in the media as tinfoil hats and Dr. Strangelove and all of that stuff.

People [in opposition] were popping up all over the place, on Facebook—all very disorganized. We created this organization from nothing. The other side already had the City Council locked in place. They had all their groups ready to endorse.

It's humbling to see how so many people came together. It just shows what one person can do. When you think about it, it was kind of a miracle.

When did you realize you might win?

There was a definite turning point in the campaign—the debate at the Kennedy School [on April 9], and the next night was the Multnomah County Democratic debate at the Dishman Center. The other side, their message was, "We know what's best for everyone." It was condescending. People saw through that.

At the Multnomah County Democratic debate, so many people were there, they had to call the fire marshal. People were turned away. It was just an outpouring of community to speak truth to power.

Your opponents accused you of scare tactics. There's no evidence of long-term harm after decades of water fluoridation in the U.S. The fluoride levels we were debating for Portland were well below those that cause the kind of harm your campaign claimed.

There's a difference between dose and concentration. We are not only drinking water, we're making our soup with it. It is infiltrating throughout our whole lives. Babies who are drinking formula that is made with fluoridated water are hugely susceptible to fluoridation harm.

The bottom line is that there's a lot of things we don't know. And certain things that we always thought were safe, like leaded gasoline and paint, DDT, asbestos, that were promoted since the '50s, are now being shown to be not only ineffective but unsafe. Fluoridation is the last remaining remnant of that era.

People could listen to the science, maybe not fully understand it, or become concerned, or confused. But your campaign pushed this idea that they're putting stuff in the water and those of us who don't want it won't have a choice. To what degree has this sense of denying choice to some share of Portlanders worked with voters?

I think the fluoridation issue is multifaceted, in that there are certain things that appeal to some people, and other things that appeal to others. For me, the choice issue was big. Some people are concerned about neurological effects.

I just want to pose the question: Why aren't these studies being conducted in the United States? Why aren't they funding studies showing endocrine destruction? Why aren't they funding studies showing neurological destruction? Why aren't they conducting studies showing real issues? The studies aren't being done, and the big question that the National Academies of Science had, was, "Do we know this?" We don't know.

The other side was well-funded and authoritative. Why do you think they failed?

Well, if they want to hire me and pay me the big bucks to consult [about] what they did good and what they did bad, sign me up.

The pro-fluoride campaign attempted to copy your campaign's message and, to some extent, your strategy. 

We did a Facebook thing where it was, "Come out to the office, we're gonna sign you up, we're gonna teach you how to walk and talk, we're gonna teach you how to canvas." Two minutes later, [the pro-fluoride campaign] posted on their Facebook page pretty much the exact same message, only framed in a "vote 'yes' on fluoridation" message. We really wanted to emphasize how much of a grassroots effort this was. They tried to co-opt that message, that they were a grassroots organization, when in fact that was not the case.

There's indication fluoride supporters want to try again. What do you do now?

There are [Democratic] legislators in the Portland area, such as [House Speaker] Tina Kotek, and [Sen.] Mitch Greenlick, who are very strong advocates for mandatory fluoridation.... It is our hope that the message that we sent City Hall and Salem is going to resonate. Right now our goal is to secure the commitment of legislators in the Portland area to respect the will of the voters.

We have said, "No, no, no." Four times. "No, no, no, no."