Public health by referenda?

One of the recurring themes emerging from the chlorination debate was the lack of input from Chilliwack residents.

The recent controversy surrounding the chlorination of Chilliwack water elicited passions rarely seen in civic affairs. And while the level of engagement is impressive, it has also sparked the curious notion that issues of public health should be decided by majority vote.

Democracy is a wonderful thing when public policy is being set, consensus sought, or legislation created.

But it fails when applied to science.

One of the recurring themes emerging from the chlorination debate was the lack of input from Chilliwack residents. Even the city’s own elected representatives were unable to influence the edict laid down by the bureaucrats within Fraser Health.

But that’s how it should be.

The outcome may not have been what many wanted, but the process was based on scientific analysis, not popular opinion. Fraser Health concluded – through investigation – that there was a high probability that public health was at risk; that without the addition of chlorine to the water supply a serious E.coli contamination would occur.

That conclusion can be challenged by examining the data and questioning Fraser Health’s methods, but it can’t be overturned simply because a vociferous group – regardless of how well-intentioned  – feels it did not have a say in the outcome.

Because where would it end?

Should decisions on immunization, for example, be decided by science, or celebrity endorsement?

Should action on climate change be based on the vote of a sometimes skeptical public, or the evidence that points to its reality?

Already some would suggest there is too much political interference in science, whether it’s in politicians influencing classroom content, or governments preventing disclosure of scientific findings that conflict with their own agenda.

The consequences of an E.coli outbreak are potentially deadly. And while we may choose our own personal risks, we don’t have right to ignore the science and extend that risk to the young and the elderly in our community – simply on the strength of a majority vote.

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