Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Wind farm sickness: anedcotes versus evidence

By KETAN JOSHI , ABC Environment
A family's experience of illness they attribute to a local wind farm is concerning, but is no substitute for medical research and hard evidence.
"Well, I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects."
- Michelle Bachman, Fox News Interview, September 2011
"I know this lady and her husband, as I've said, I've known them the majority of my life, and, this woman looks twenty years older than her husband now......This woman is absolutely tormented by the things, and she's got two of them, near her. There's only two turbines."
- Australia DLP Senator John Madigan, Booroowa District Landscape Guardians Meeting, May 2012
Fear spreads better with a dash of human tears. As you visualise a weeping mother, her voice wavering as she speaks, the impact is instantaneous and potent. Millions of years of natural selection breathe life into the visceral salience of human suffering. Our ancestors, dwelling on the savannah, knew that the cost of ignoring a potential threat could be very, very high.
The anti-vaccination lobby have capitalised on this feature of our thinking with astonishing skill and speed. Recently, Lateline reported on the fallout from Andrew Wakefield's MMR fraud - a health scare boosted by duplicitous research into vaccination. They interviewed Jackie Eckton, a mother deeply convinced that her son contracted autism from the MMR vaccine: "I can only tell them what I've seen with my own eyes. I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist. I can only look back on what happened to us."
That statement ought to disqualify her from being considered an authority on complex medical issues. Remarkably, it empowers her. The anti-vaccination lobby are not alone in using this paradoxical absurdity to spread mistrust and fear.
Anti-wind lobby groups (such as the Waubra Foundation, headed by ex-GP Sarah Laurie) travel to communities facing wind farm developments, and present direct testimony from individuals attributing a range of symptoms to the presence of wind turbines. Anecdotal evidence is their key instrument in spreading fear of wind energy.
This is stated explicitly by Peter Quinn, a South Australian barrister who regularly represents anti-wind lobby groups:
"That experience is in itself, evidence. If you dragged in thirty people from Waubra, twenty from Waterloo and put them in a court room, to talk about the loss and the suffering, it will support a claim to obtain an injunction against any wind farm being proposed"
The implication is quite clear - anecdotal reports and emotional recitations are powerful tools in the fight against wind farm developments. Consequently, a large number of claimed health impacts, attributed to wind turbines, exist in the public domain.
Chapman began compiling these symptoms in early 2012. His list grew rapidly - it currently numbers 216, and features a bewildering array of symptoms, involving adults, children, cattle, sheep, chicken, dogs, peacocks, cats, pigs, earthworms, crabs, goats, crickets and horses (pdf).
These symptoms are collectively referred to as "Wind Turbine Syndrome" (WTS), originally coined by Nina Pierpont (a paediatrician married to an anti-wind activist). It has become the fundamental claim of groups working to stifle the development of renewables in Australia.
The 'disease' is not recognised by any medical authority in the world. It is purportedly caused by infrasonic (less than 20 Hz) noise from wind turbines. The South Australian Environmental Protection Agency recently measured levels of infrasound near wind farms (pdf), and compared them to rural and urban environments. Wind farms had some of the lowest recorded levels in their study. Some of the highest levels of infrasound were recorded inside the EPA's office in Adelaide.
Importantly, research conducted by Professor Simon Chapman of Sydney University seems to show that complaints of ill-health seem to cluster around wind farms that have been subject to the presence of anti-wind lobbyists.
Anti-wind groups happily embrace the improbable claims that surround wind energy. In a submission to the NSW Planning Minister, Laurie wrote that "rapid fluctuations in barometric pressure" can "perceptibly rock stationary cars even further than a kilometre from the nearest turbine". No source is given for the information.
Under oath in the Environment, Resources and Development Court, she claimed that wind turbines can cause "lip vibration" 10 kilometres away. The source was anedoctes from local people who believe themselves to be suffering 'wind turbine syndrome'.
These are not diagnoses borne of scientific rigour. The grandiosity of the purported impacts of wind turbines are a consequence of over-reliance on personal testimony, combined with an apparent aversion to objective analysis.Anti-wind groups and others hostile to
renewable technology wish to deem anecdotal evidence inscrutable
Sadly, Laurie has also claimed that residents adjacent to wind farms are forming "suicide pacts" (pdf), due to the presence of wind turbines. The gravity of implying that wind farms are driving people to self-harm seems lost in Laurie's limitless fervour. The very last thing a suicidal individual needs is to be told that a nearby technology is threatening, when there is no good evidence that it is.
In addition to the immediate salience of personal testimony, stories of suffering are instantaneously rendered immune to rational scrutiny. Doubt cast on causal relationships is deemed insensitive and inhumane, as evidenced by Graham Lloyd, environment editor at The Australian, who stated that Chapman has "ridiculed complaints".
Anti-wind groups and others hostile to renewable technology wish to deem anecdotal evidence inscrutable - consequently, they must accept all claims of health effects, no matter how improbable. If those professing this fallacy were bound by a scientific framework, this attitude would be indefensible.
Beyond the scientific failings of the anti-wind movement, a more immediate threat emerges from unfounded health fears. Many symptoms reported in the vicinity of wind turbines are real, but are unlikely to be caused by wind farms. Most would necessitate treatment by registered medical professionals - Laurie's 'suicide pacts' are a disquieting example. Yet, sufferers may be misled into attributing their malaise to a nearby wind farm - an assertion for which there is no evidence.
Some portion of those individuals might forego professional medical advice, believing simply that a cure lies in physically moving away from wind turbines. As anti-wind lobby groups continue to spread health fears around renewable technology, the risk of an individual attributing the symptoms of a real illness to 'wind turbine syndrome' grows larger. It may have happened already.
In Wales, a new measles outbreak has been linked to the machinations of the anti-vaccination lobby. Anecdotally-fuelled health fears about vaccination have already caused serious, irreversible harm. Empowered by a vast disconnect from scientific methodology, the anti-wind lobby is poised to follow in their path.