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Sir Peter Gluckman: Statement on flouride

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, KNZM FRSNZ FMedSci FRS
Chief Science Advisor

Media release

12 June 2013

“The science of fluoride in water is effectively settled. It has been one of the most thoroughly worked questions in public health science over many decades,” says Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

In a statement released today on the issue of fluoride in public water supplies, Sir Peter reiterates the scientific facts, saying “it is absolutely clear that at doses used in New Zealand to adjust the natural level to one that is consistent with beneficial effects (0.7-1.0mg/litre), there is no health risk from fluoride in the water.”

So why is there any issue at all?

Sir Peter points to the importance of the values debate around fluoridation, but warns that this should not be misrepresented as a scientific debate. 

“An inherent challenge for any public health intervention is the issue of how to balance the common good with individual rights, but this is a question of societal values not science.” Pointing to the similarities with instituting a seatbelt law, he reminds us that while the benefits of wearing a seatbelt had long been proven, whether to apply the science-based knowledge was a question of societal values.

A second values-based concern that the fluoridation issue raises is whether society can accept using food (or in this case water) as a medium for delivering a proven public health intervention. But just as with iodised salt to prevent cretinism and goiter, the scientific debate is closed and it is purely an issue of values.

Sir Peter warns against the misuse or inappropriate and alarmist use of science as a proxy for such values debates. “It is often easier for those seeking to advance values-based concerns to make the science sound scary or more uncertain than it is. Indeed, it becomes a tactic amongst those who become passionate about their cause,” he says. “Such values debates are critical for a healthy democracy, but they cannot proceed usefully if the debate is taken to be about science.”

Scientists do not have a privileged position within a values debate beyond clarifying when science is being misused – such debates must be resolved through the political process - whether local or nationally.


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