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Wind farms and health: The case of the absentee victims

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In those long, dark nights of the soul, one can thrash furiously in one’s bed, wondering whether one’s worldview is simply the product of one’s political leanings, itself generated by a hazy combination of neurological and psychological leanings.

Do I think what I think because the current body of evidence deems it so, or are my thoughts, beliefs and actions entirely subject to the arbitrary, subjective schema that form the bulk of my mind?

It’s nice, occasionally, to have someone else check the validity of your position. It’s also nice to know that they’re free of any vested interests, so you can be fairly sure that they’re not subject to the same biases you are.

Recently, Senators John Madigan and Nick Xenophon brought a bill before the parliament, called the ‘Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment – (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012′. Both active campaigners against the development of wind farms, they have eagerly adopted the claims of the anti-wind lobby. The claim that sound emissions from wind farms, in a range of audible and inaudible frequencies, have serious detrimental health effects on nearby residents has played a key role.

The report was released yesterday evening. In its entirety, it’s fascinating reading. Here are a few extracts, focusing on the ‘Health’ section of the report.

The number of complaints

The anti-wind lobby are eager to present an over-inflated impression of public dissatisfaction. The report quotes the Waubra Foundation:

“Over 40 families from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia who have left their homes because of excessive noise from the wind turbines near their former homes, and the consequent serious health problems they experienced.”

The committee simply points out some figures, putting Waubra’s statements in perspective:

“Given that as of April 2012 there were approximately 1345 turbines operating in 59 facilities around Australia, the numbers expressing concern appear small compared to the numbers of residents near these turbines.”

They also point out something incredibly obvious, yet, this concept had not yet occurred to me:

“The committee received just over 160 submissions, of which a little under 140 supported the bill and/or expressed concern about noise effects. Of these, the majority were from people worried about whether they might experience noise or health effects from proposed wind farms, rather than from people who claimed to have actually experienced annoyance or other adverse effects. The submissions related to a minority of Australia’s wind farm operations.”

Yep. The majority of people complaining were facing proposed developments, and did not actually live near operational wind farms. This highlights an extremely important factor in the modus operandi of the anti-wind lobby – they focus their efforts on stifling development, rather than stirring discontent for operational wind farms.

Committee view: “The number of health-related complaints about wind farms is small in proportion to the number of people living near these facilities. The numbers also vary greatly from one facility to the next, for reasons not apparently related to the number of residents in the area.”

They then go on to state that though the number is small, the nature/cause should be taken seriously. This is the basis for the next two sections.

Audible Sound

It’s good that the committee distinguishes between audibly perceived sound, and infrasonic, inaudible sound. One (particularly nasty) tactic of the anti-wind lobby is to intentionally conflate the two. Confusion and ambiguity are their stock-in-trade.

Obviously, the increasingly famous papers, published by Sheperd et al (New Zealand) and Nissenbaum (US) were referenced. These two papers attempt to quantify the effects of wind turbine noise on certain measures of health, and were both published in peer-reviewed publications. It’s clear the committee actually read the papers, which is a refreshing change from most journalism covering the research:

“The study by Nissenbaum and others included 38 respondents near two wind farms, and 41 respondents in a control group, with results that increased daytime sleepiness and reduced sleep quality was reported among those closer to turbines though, counter-intuitively, there was no difference in the use of sleep medications as a result.”

They point out what I feel is the most telling flaw in the studies; namely that the papers do not discuss the variety of causes that could have returned the results they recorded. Professor Chapman is quoted:

“Both of those studies suffer from the same problem. That is that there has been considerable activity, in both regions studied in those two papers, of anti-wind-turbine activity.”

In the end, the committee is quite blunt about the possibilities raised by the submissions:

Committee view: “There is limited, and contested, published evidence that wind farm noise may be associated with annoyance and sleep disturbance in some individuals, but the causes are not clear”

Importantly, they recognise the caution that must be deployed when considering research – no scientific field has been free of research that is of poor quality. The papers by Nissenbaum and Sheperd possess their fair share of methodological and scientific flaws.

Infrasound

Though the bill boasts the phrase ‘excessive noise’ as part of its title, the main body of submissions focused instead on sound in the inaudible frequency range:

“most inquiry participants appeared to refer not to normal audible noise issues, but to possible health effects from low frequency sound, or infrasound.”

Dr Peter Trask, a psychologist working in Bendigo, summarises the bare bones of the argument used by the anti-wind lobby:

“While this low frequency noise or sound energy (aka infrasound) may be inaudible and thus not able to be consciously perceived by the human ear, it does appear that the ear’s vestibular system is still capable of perceiving the presence of this infrasound, and so send signals to the central nervous system for processing, in this case without the conscious awareness of the affected individual.”

This pathway was first imagined by the revolutionary Dr Nina Pierpont. Professor Alec Salt, in the Depertment of Otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine, now sits as the primary proponent of this hypothesis, and unsurprisingly, had a prominent showing at the inquiry:

“So, the ear is extremely sensitive and responds very strongly to infrasound stimuli,” says Salt, as part of his interview with the committee. Geoffrey Leventhall, an experienced consultant in noise vibration and acoustics, is quoted in the report summarising the issue neatly:

“There is no mystery about infrasound, but it has been falsely used by those opposed to wind turbines in order to alarm others, and also as a distraction, which they know will be difficult and time consuming to work on, whilst at the same time they ask for a moratorium on further constructions until the work is done”

Sarah Laurie, ‘Medical Director’ of the Waubra foundation and a key player in the anti-wind lobby’s focus on purported health effects, often cites a report published in 2003 for DEFRA, for which Leventhall was a key author. However, the committee points out that:

“…the 2003 report does not appear relevant to wind turbine noise”

Laurie also refers to a report published in 2001, named ‘Infrasound Brief Review of Toxicological Literature’. The study is likely chosen for its ominous title, rather than its content,. Leventhall notes that:

“That review in fact only showed health effects from low frequency sounds at levels typically around one million times higher than those generally involved in the case of wind farm noise.”

The committee then points out another study instance by the Waubra Foundation that involves “levels several orders of magnitude higher than those involved in wind farms”. It is refreshing to note that this tactic of active misrepresentation did not pass by the committee unnoticed. The key counter to Laurie’s assertions is simply that the infrasonic emissions from wind turbines are both non-harmful, and unremarkable, as explained by Dr Peter Seligman:

“My first comment is that the environment is awash with infrasound, which is both from natural and man-made sources and which is often far in excess of what is produced by wind farms.”

If wind turbines really don’t cause direct physiological harm, why the reports of health effects? The committee explores this in the next section.

Psychogenesis and the Nocebo Effect

An important and significant new study, accepted, peer-reviewed and due for publication in the journal ‘Health Psychology’, was referred to by the committee. The study used real and ‘sham’ infrasound to demonstrate that expectations of harm can lead to reports of ill effects:

“Conclusion: Healthy volunteers, when given information about the expected physiological effect of infrasound, reported symptoms which aligned with that information, during exposure to both infrasound and sham infrasound.

Symptom expectations were created by viewing information readily available on the internet, indicating the potential for symptom expectations to be created outside of the laboratory, in real world settings. Results suggest psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints.”

The committee notes that the submissions provide (unintended) support for the noecbo hypothesis – here is one example they give, which neatly demonstrates that complainants express tellingly informed expectations of harm:

“I will be close to proposed wind development if it is built, and don’t want to be getting sick in my own home and unable to sleep just like the people at Waubra who came and told me about their situation.”

The unbridled inventiveness of the symptoms and range of wind turbine syndrome are both recognised by the committee as further evidence that the symptoms may have psychological, rather than physiological underpinnings. As the committee reiterates:

“Anecdotal evidence submitted to the committee includes symptoms being associated with phenomena other than wind farms, symptoms not occurring coincident with the start of wind farm operation, not being related to whether there is wind blowing, or being at distances far greater than those usually reported”

The committee delivers an emphatic and strongly worded conclusion:

“The committee concludes that, while it is possible that the human body may detect infrasound in several ways, there is no evidence to suggest that inaudible infrasound (either from wind turbines or other sources) is creating health problems.

In contrast, there is an established literature confirming the existence of psychogenic, or nocebo, effects in general, and at least one study suggesting they may be responsible for symptoms in some wind turbine cases.”

Similar to nearly all other governmental and legal proceedings clearing wind turbines of physiologically induced health effects, the content of this report is likely to be quoted out of context, and nearly always without reference to the original documents.

This will be done in the realm of forums in which the anti-wind lobby are not required to provide citations for their claims, or exercise reason and logic in their conclusions. The key point of affect remains, for them, the hostile community gathering, not the measured parliamentary review.

The onus now lies on members of the wind industry to properly understand, and eagerly disseminate the logical prowess contained within this report, and to do it in a way that is significantly more interesting than the fictional narrative presented by anti-wind lobby groups.

Meanwhile, I feel I might sleep slightly better. Only slightly, though.

This article was originally published on Ketan Joshi’s blog. Reproduced with permission.

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  • John P Morgan

    Is there no end to the evils of wind farms?

    On the day that ORIGIN announced that they were not proceeding with the construction of their approved wind farm at Lexton, my cat went off her food.

    I rest my case.

  • David Norman

    “In those long, dark nights of the soul, one can thrash furiously in one’s bed, wondering whether one’s worldview is simply the product of one’s political leanings, itself generated by a hazy combination of neurological and psychological leanings”… pinch yourself, you’re still asleep having that biased, contrived and contorted dream that shapes your thoughts.
    … and just what scientific studies has Chapman done on “Industrial Wind Turbine noise and health” to warrant your representation of him as a credible scientific expert in this respect?

    • Richard Hayes

      I understand the Prof Chapman did a literature review, that is a study of all the scientific reports in peer reviewed journals into the ‘health effects of windfarms’. In none of the reports showed any the evidence that they caused problems.

      Saying that, there are /were lots of people who may even be ‘sick’ due to the worry about the health effects of windfarms. But using normal scientific methods, there is no cause and effect.

      But if you do not accept Prof Chapman’s advice, Australia’s premier health advisory body the NHMRC is currently undertaking one of the largest studies in the world and will be reporting shortly.

    • http://etwasluft.blogspot.com.au Ketan Joshi

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment. The relief of my concern was centered around the fact that the committee was comprised of independent senators, rather than the involvement of Professor Simon Chapman.

      The committee must have deemed his input was relevant to hearings, by simple virtue of the fact he was included, and not excluded. Presumably, you ought to take up your concern with the committee.

      Please read this transcript for Chapman’s own introduction to his statements, detailing the relevance of his experience to the hearing:

      http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;db=COMMITTEES;id=committees%2Fcommsen%2Fc400af4f-682e-4745-a5c7-a550b12826a2%2F0009;query=Id%3A%22committees%2Fcommsen%2Fc400af4f-682e-4745-a5c7-a550b12826a2%2F0000%22

      • David Norman

        Ketan… in relation to Chapman’s testimony in the link you provided:
        The notion of the “nocebo effect” and the criterion Chapman uses to justify his assertion is nothing more than hypothesis, and in his case and this respect, is expressed as confirmation bias of his own ideologically (unscientific) based premise. When there is an absence of replicable and objective scientific experimental data it represents little more than pseudo science. Chapman’s contributions to the wind turbine noise and health issue to date, constitute pseudo science, which unfortunately is far more interesting as a media item than more systematic approaches which lack his more usual hyperbole laced narrative. Nowhere in Chapman’s contributions has he engaged the endemic nature of learned helplessness in industrial society which would mitigate the responses of those exposed to wind turbine noise. Attribution theory in learned helplessness is a critical, essential application to scientific method in regard to understanding the nature of the responses of effected populations in this regard. There is a considerable amount of scientific evidence, much of it undigested, particularly in respect to this issue. You need simply google search the key words “learned helplessness, industrial noise” to realize this extent.
        Quite typical of public policy practitioners, although he was quite unusually restrained in this context, Chapman engages a populist narrative which demonizes and subsequently marginalizes individuals or groups, placing them outside of mainstream wholesome society. This creates an us and them dualism which limits perception of complexity or psychological nuance, attempting to foreclose on meaningful scientific investigation, and in the case of your reference, political compromise and policy.

        • Professor

          If your comments about the divisive nature of Simon Chapman’s commentary are to have any validity, you must acknowledge that the activities of the anti wind turbine activists are infinitely more strident and divisive. At least Chapman quotes scientific sources, which is more than what the activists do in promoting their agenda. The scientific community is grateful to Simon Chapman for standing up to the activists, who in North America at least launch personal attacks and even threaten anyone who speaks out with a differing opinion.

          • David Norman

            Your comment is an absurd contortion. The “validity” of my comment is based on the merits of the information contained in the narrative, regardless of what my position happens to be. I questioned the merits of Chapman’s logic and the structure of his narrative. Any scientist should be appalled at his behavior in this respect. You have decided that my comment lacks validity based on the requirements of your own ideological stance… because it does not confirm your bias. Try to use a little critical thinking before you respond… remember Santa Claus is coming to town and he knows when you are naughty!

        • http://etwasluft.blogspot.com.au Ketan Joshi

          Hi David,

          You seem to focus on ‘learned helplessness’ and attribution theory. I’m unfamiliar with this topic, and in particular, its relationship to the phenomena discussed in the article, so I did as you suggested, and googled ‘learned helplessness industrial noise’

          Unfortunately, my first search result, (correcting for google’s customised search results), literally was the comment you made on this article.

          After a bit more digging, I found this article:
          http://www.earthtechling.com/2012/05/noisy-wind-turbine-faces-shutdown-in-massachusetts/

          in which you’ve posted precisely the same comment as above, under a pseudonym.

          Also during my search, I found that Chapman directly, though briefly, addresses the issue of ‘learned helplessness’, in this word document – http://bit.ly/11EtnYx – in the context of aircraft noise, and its potential relations to wind turbine syndrome.

          Could you please provide references in which the ‘learned helplessness’ theory is explored in the context of wind turbines, and the noise levels associated with the machines? Presumably there is a sizeable body of replicable and objective scientific data to support your claim?

          • David Norman

            Ketan, that comment was indeed written by me. I usually post with my actual name in addition to the moniker “Rogue Primate of Bloomfield”, however the registration criterion for REneweconomy would not permit me to do that. Are you perceiving something subversive in this respect?
            The link you provided for Chapman re: “learned helplessness” was very interesting and did cause me to pause and wonder why, since he clearly recognizes the psychological complexity of this issue, that he often resorts to hyperbole laced narrative which negatively portrays individuals who are experiencing health issues in this respect. The reason I provided the general search terms was precisely because there has been no research in relation to “learned helplessness” or attribution theory in general, specifically measured to Industrial Wind Turbine noise… at best, the Pederson et al survey studies, often referenced by Chapman, have offered statistical indicators for hypothesis in this this regard. That being said, the Industrial Wind Turbine noise and health issue presents intriguing and fertile new ground for study in this area, particularly given its global context across many diverse populations and cultural contexts. And just to be clear, I’m not anti anything in this regard, hence the moniker designation “Rogue”. Given that there has been so little scientific research to base any judgement on the implications of Industrial Wind Turbine noise and human health, I’m as befuddled by the rhetoric and narrative as most folk. However, despite my cognitive dissonance in this regard I’m still unwilling to jump to or to accept conclusions based on idiosyncratic inference, regardless of what credentials Chapman boasts.

          • David Norman

            Ketan, after your last comment came to my attention and I had replied, I did a little digging myself. I discovered through “feejit” that in the last 27 hours there have been 11 searches with slight variations of terms, for “David Norman, Rogue Primate of Bloomfield, wind turbines”, all originating in Australia. I seem to have attracted some attention. Your “digging” apparently did not reveal another comment I recently made on http://earthtechling.com/2012/12/aussies-seek-to-shush-wind-turbines/, which was sourced from REneweconomy and addresses the absurd rhetoric that the Chapman type populist narrative inspires within the Wind Industry. I quote it for you here:

            “Apparently, according to Andreas Nauen (AN), CEO of REPower Systems, the issue of wind turbine noise and health is only an “Aussie” problem. Nauen, quoted in an interview by Giles Parkinson of the website RenewEconomy (RE) stated:
            “RE: There is a vocal resistance to wind energy in Australia, particularly around health issues. Are you seeing this elsewhere around the world?”
            “AN: No. A blunt no. I am always surprised – I have been to Australia a number of times, and every time this comes up (and) I think to myself hmmm, the only country in the world where this gets discussed.
            You have in other countries very specific discussions about things like warning lights for high towers. It’s always a very solution orientated discussion, if it comes up at all, but this fundamental discussion of wind turbines causing illnesses, I don’t see it anywhere else in the world.”
            “RE: Why do you think it happens in Australia?”
            “AN: Honestly, I don’t know. In my last job (head of Siemens wind), we had a 1.5MW turbine in the parking lot where we parked the cars. We didn’t experience any discussion about these turbines and health. I’m
            very familiar with the Danish situation, where they have a lot of community wind farms which are very close to where people live. I have not seen any of these discussions.”
            “RE: Maybe that has something to do with the community ownership structure?”
            “AN: If there was a serious issue with health, people would not trade that off (for ownership). I’m not sure why that gets started in Australia. I can only repeat again that we don’t have this level of discussion in any other country.”

            David Norman, Rogue Primate of Bloomfield

  • George Papadopoulos

    The reason for this article is to counter a strong threat to the profitability of the wind industry…

    If noise wasn’t an issue, then what would the 10dBA limit above background noise mean for a not so quiet wind turbines?

  • Out there

    10dB…. For all industry?
    Oh no, just wind.
    Fail.

    • George Papadopoulos

      5dbA for other energy industries, and 10dBA for wind. Isn’t that fair enough?

      • Bully

        Eeeer, no? It would be fair if it was 5dbA or 10 dbA for all generators. Why single out and bully wind?

        • George Papadopoulos

          We are discussing limits. The more lenient limits were proposed for wind turbines, but for some reason even this was an issue for some.