I was recently sent a highly disturbing paper delivered at the 12th ICBEN Congress on Noise as a Public Health Problem, held in Zurich in June. Two authors on the paper are academic staff at Massey University in New Zealand.
The two other authors were from Lusafone University in Portugal, and a private consultant who has a recent PhD from Massey University.
The paper describes (1) the taking of medical histories of two adults living near a coal mine near Lithgow in NSW (2) the monitoring of physiological data in the same two persons (3) an “experiment” where these two people were purposefully driven 160km to a location near wind turbines at Taralga in NSW so their reactions might be observed.
The two individuals had advised the researchers that on a previous occasion when they had been exposed to these wind turbines, they had become “acutely and severely distressed”.
The researchers posited that “cross-sensitization” to infrasound and low frequency noise emitted by different sources was demonstrated by their experiment.
Having been advised of this previous adverse reaction to the wind turbines, the research team deliberately exposed the subjects to the same wind turbines again.
The paper describes how the research team drove to the Taralga area, whereupon both subjects again experienced adverse reactions including “extreme anxiety”, tachycardia and violent, uncontrollable dry retching. In the case of one subject (Mr T), these reactions occurred twice within an apparently short space of time in and adjacent to the car driven by Mr T that also contained the research team.
Despite describing Mr T’s first reaction as “violent and instant” where “the entire team was shocked”, amazingly, they allowed Mr T to resume driving because he “stated that he was better in control of the vehicle as he was feeling some vertigo”.
This account by the researchers describes a situation that is frankly well beyond ethical unconscionablility. It was utterly reckless. If Mr T was as indeed as ill-disposed as described, his continued driving after such a violent and sustained reaction could have put the lives of those in the car and others on the road in danger. Yet the researchers did not act to stop him driving.
More fundamentally, the research team included no one with any medical or nursing qualifications who could have made a credible clinical assessment of the subjects’ conditions or rendered medical assistance if required.
This was a team of people with no clinical training or qualifications who were taking and interpreting medical histories, engaging in physiological monitoring; deliberately exposing subjects to a situation which may have been likely to become (by their own account) violently ill, and then putting the subjects, the researchers and the public at risk by allowing Mr T to drive.
The paper has a bizarre disclaimer at the end which reads:
The authors 1) Do not harbour anti-technology sentiments;
2) Consider industrial activities to be important to modern technological societies;
3) Have presented this report under one and only one agenda—pure scientific inquiry;
4) Are not producing a report arguing against industrial developments.
But three of the authors of the paper have long track records in publicly opposing wind farm developments. That being the case, the disclaimer should of course have acknowledged this rather than use vague and evasive statements about “technology”.
Bruce Rapley, the first author on the paper, gave evidence to the 2015 Australian Senate enquiry on wind farms. His opening oral statement worked up to final farrago of outrage:
“In the future, I believe that the adverse health effects of wind turbines will eclipse the asbestos problem in the annals of history. In my opinion, the greed and scientific half-truths from the wind industry will be seen by history as one of the worst corporate and government abuses of democracy in the 21st century.”
The research team received travel support from the Waubra Foundation for this research. The Waubra Foundation is a body that also has a long history of claiming that wind energy projects in Australia are making people ill. In 2014, the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission revoked the health promotion charitable status of the Foundation
The audience for this “research” at the conference and those reading the paper should have been able to have these highly relevant competing interests made transparent in the “disclaimer”.
With such background information, questions might be asked about how the subjects in this “experiment” came to the attention of Waubra Foundation-supported researchers and whether researchers led by someone with such strident views could be expected to be scientifically detached in their work.
I wrote to the Vice Chancellor of Massey University outlining the above concerns with this project. I suggested that it would be unbelievable if it had received any human ethics committee approval. The University’s investigation confirmed my suspicions that this project had neither sought nor received any ethics approval.
The pro-vice chancellor for research told me last week that “retraction of the research is an option open to the University.” She also suggested that the evasive “disclaimer” combined with the Waubra Foundation support “could be seen to erode academic credibility”.
This episode underscores the vital importance of human ethics oversight where people’s health, well-being and perhaps even lives might be endangered.
Massey University is to be commended for its swift investigation. Retraction of the paper would send a very important message not just to the noise and health research community, but to naïve and inexperienced researchers across many fields who might be tempted to take ethical short cuts in pursuit of pet hypotheses.
Author: Simon Chapman AO PhD FASSA HonFFPH (UK), Emeritus Professor, Sydney School of Public Health