Risk perception, psychological heuristics and the water fluoridation controversy

Andrea M.L. Perrella, Simon J. Kiss


OBJECTIVES: Increasingly, support for water fluoridation has come under attack. We seek an explanation, focusing on the case of Waterloo, Ontario, where a 2010 referendum overturned its water fluoridation program. In particular, we test whether individuals perceive the risks of water fluoridation based not on ‘hard’ scientific evidence but on heuristics and cultural norms.

METHODS: A sample of 376 residents in Waterloo were surveyed in June 2012 using random digit dialing. We use factor analysis, OLS regression, as well as t-tests to evaluate a survey experiment to test the credibility hypothesis.

RESULTS: Perceptions of fluoride as a risk are lower among those who perceive fluoride’s benefits (B = .473, p < 0.001) and those whose cultural view is ‘egalitarian’ (B = .156, p < 0.05). The experiment shows a lower level of perception of fluoride’s benefits among respondents who are told that water fluoridation is opposed by a national advocacy group (Group A) compared to those who are told that the government and the World Health Organization support fluoridation (Group B) (t = 1.6547, p < 0.05), as well as compared to the control group (t = 1.8913, p < 0.05). There is no difference between Group B and the control, possibly because people’s already general support for fluoridation is less prone to change when told that other public organizations also support fluoridation.

CONCLUSION: Public health officials should take into account cultural norms and perceptions when individuals in a community appear to rise up against water fluoridation, with implications for other public health controversies.


Fluoridation; public opinion; public policy

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17269/cjph.106.4828