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Alan Jones goes after wind farms again, citing dubious evidence

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

Last week, Sydney radio announcer Alan Jones lambasted those concerned about climate change and what he called “renewable energy rubbish”.

Jones has been loose with the facts in the past, having been Factchecked in 2015 after confusing kilowatts with megawatts and quoting a cost for wind power he later confessed “where the 1502 [dollars per megawatt hour that he stated] comes from, I have absolutely no idea”.

Jones, who chaired the much hyped but poorly attended 2013 national rally against wind farms in June 2014 (see photo) told his listeners last week wind farms are “buggering up people’s health”.

He also said “harrowing evidence” had been given by sufferers to the 2014-15 Senate Select Committee on Wind Farms chaired by (now ex-) Senator John Madigan. He along with Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm, Chris Back and Nick Xenophon have been vocal opponents of wind farms.

Their report predictably savaged wind farms, while Labor Senator Anne Urquhart’s minority report was the only one I found to be evidence-based.

Jones then went on to interview Dr Mariana Alves-Periera, from the private Lusophona University in Portugal (world university ranking 1,805, and impact ranking 2,848) whom he described as a distinguished international figure.

She was “recognized internationally” and had published “over 50” scientific papers over 30 years, something of a modest output. Jones, who may or may not have read any of these publications, told listeners her findings were “indisputable”, there was “no opposing scientific evidence” and again in emphasis, “none of [her papers] have been disputed” to which Alves-Periera agreed instantly “no they haven’t”.

This is an interesting interpretation of the scientific reception that has greeted the work of the Lisbon group on the unrecognized diagnosis of “vibroacoustic disease” (or VAD), a term they have made their own.

I first encountered Alves-Periera when she spoke via videoconference to a NHMRC meeting on wind farms and health in 2011. She spoke to a powerpoint presentation which highlighted the case of a schoolboy who lived near wind turbines. Her claim was the boy’s problems at school were due to his exposure to the turbines, as were cases of “boxy foot” in several horses kept on the same property.

Intrigued by this n=1 case report, I set out with a colleague to explore the scientific reception that “vibroacoustic disease” had met. We published our findings in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2013.

We found only 35 research papers on VAD. None reported any association between VAD and wind turbines. Of the 35 papers, 34 had a first author from the Lusophona University-based research group. Remarkably, 74% of citations to these papers were self-citations by members of the group.

In other words, just shy of three quarters of all references to VAD were from the group who were promoting the “disease”. In science, median self-citation rates are around 7%. We found two unpublished case reports from the group presented at conferences which asserted that VAD was “irrefutably demonstrated” to be caused by wind turbines. We listed eight reasons why the scientific quality of these claims were abject.

In 2014 Alves-Periera and a colleague defended their work in a letter to the journal and I replied. They described themselves as the “lead researchers in vibroacoustic disease”. But as we had shown, they are almost the only researchers who were ever active on this topic, with self-citation rates seldom seen in research.

Other experts have taken a different view of the group’s work. One of the world’s leading acousticians Geoff Leventhall who also spoke at the NHMRC’s 2011 meeting, wrote in a 2009 submission to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin about the Lisbon group’s VAD work.

The evidence which has been offered [by them] is so weak that a prudent researcher would not have made it public.

Another expert said:

vibroacoustic disease remains an unproven theory belonging to a small group of authors and has not found acceptance in the medical literature

And most recently, the UK’s Health Protection Agency said the:

disease itself has not gained clinical recognition.

Leventhall concluded his review by saying:

One is left with a very uncomfortable feeling that the work of the VAD group, as related to the effects of low levels of infrasound and low frequency noise exposure, is on an extremely shaky basis and not yet ready for dissemination. The work has been severely criticised when it has been presented at conferences. It is not backed by peer reviewed publications and is available only as conference papers which have not been independently evaluated prior to presentation.

Jones told his listeners the reason wind turbines are not installed on Bondi Beach, down Sydney’s Macquarie Street or Melbourne’s Collins Street was because governments “know they are harmful to health”. His beguiling logic here might perhaps also be the same reason we don’t see these iconic locations given over to mining or daily rock concerts. Most people would understand there are other factors that explain the absence of both wind turbines, mines or daily rock concerts in such locations.

Jones has given air time to a Victorian woman who is a serial complainant about her local wind farm and who has written:

Around the Macarthur wind farm, residents suffer from infrasound emitted by the turbines, even when they’re not operating.

At a time when we are seeing unparalleled increases in renewable energy and reductions in fossil fuels all over the world, one wonders why this is still public discussion in Australia.

The ConversationSimon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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What’s next, a Senate inquiry into infrasound from trees, waves or air conditioners?

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

At the centre of claims about wind farms allegedly causing health problems is the infrasound that wind turbines generate as they turn in the wind.

Infrasound is sound below 20Hz, which is generally inaudible. Wind turbines are just one source of artificial man-made infrasound. Others include power stations, industry generally, motor vehicle engines, compressors, aircraft, ventilation and air conditioning units, and loudspeaker systems. Everyone living in an urban environment is bathed in infrasound for most of their lives.

As I sit at my inner Sydney desk writing this I’m copping infrasound from the planes that pass some 200-300 metres over my house sometimes many times an hour, the sound of passing road traffic on a quite busy road 100 metres from our house, and the stereo system I listen to as I write. Don’t tell anyone, but I feel fine and I’ve lived here 25 years.

But infrasound is generated by natural phenomena too. These include rare occurrences such as volcanoes and earthquakes, but also sources like ocean waves and air turbulence (wind) that countless millions, if not billions, are exposed to on most days. Anyone living close to the sea is surrounded by constant infrasound from waves.

The inclusion of wind as a source of infrasound is of particular significance to claims made that wind turbine-generated infrasound is noxious. In a Polish research paper published in 2014, the authors set out to measure infrasound from wind turbines and to compare that with naturally occurring infrasound from wind in trees near houses and from the sound of the sea in and around a house near the seaside.

The researchers used the average G-weighted level (LGeq) over the measurement period. This is the standardised measurement of infrasound which approximately follows the hearing threshold below 20Hz and cuts off sharply above 20Hz.

The infrasound levels recorded near 25 100-metre high wind turbines ranged from 66.9 to 88.8 LGeq across different recordings. Those recording infrasound in noise from wind in a forest near houses ranged from 59.1- 87.8 LGeq. The recordings of sea noise near seaside houses ranged from 64.3 to 89.1 LGeq. These infrasound levels were thus very similar cross the three locations.

The peak 88.8 LGeq was recorded very close to the turbines – virtually directly under the blades. The lower 66.9LGeq was 500m away, which is more like a common scenario for the nearest residences to turbines. Similarly, for the other sources, highest levels were nearest the source.

Wind is, of course, a prerequisite for wind turbines to turn and generate their mechanical infrasound. Here, the Polish authors noted that:

natural noise sources … always accompany the work of wind turbines and in such cases they constitute an acoustic background, impossible to eliminate during noise measurement of wind turbines.

This is a fundamentally important insight: wherever there are wind turbines generating infrasound, there is also wind itself generating infrasound. And it is impossible to disentangle the two. Indeed, every time I’ve been near wind turbines, easily the most dominant sound has been that of the wind buffeting my ears.

In 2013, the South Australian Environmental Protection Authority measured infrasound in a variety of urban and rural settings. With the latter, this included locations near and well away from wind farms.

They reported that in urban settings, measured infrasound ranged between 60-70 decibels. In fact, at two locations – the EPA’s own offices and an office with a low frequency noise complaint – building air conditioning systems were identified as significant sources of infrasound. These locations exhibited some of the highest levels of infrasound measured during the study.

They concluded:

This study concludes that the level of infrasound at houses near the wind turbines assessed is no greater than that experienced in other urban and rural environments, and that the contribution of wind turbines to the measured infrasound levels is insignificant in comparison with the background level of infrasound in the environment.

Wind farm opponents claim infrasound is the cause of this Old Testament-like plague of plagues (now numbering 244 different problems). If that were true, how is it that hundreds of thousands of Australians who are daily exposed to infrasound in cities, in their houses surrounded by dastardly infrasound-generating fans, air conditioners and stereo systems, and those who live near trees or the sound of the ocean aren’t breaking down the door of those sworn enemies of infrasound Senators John Madigan, Nick Xenophon, Chris Back, David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day who brought us their scathing report on wind farms in June?

The explanation lies in factors we recognise frequently in risk-perception studies, popularised by Peter Sandman. Sandman has produced matrices of factors which have been often found to be associated with increased levels of community “outrage” about putative environmental threats to health.

Sandman distinguishes primary from additional factors, with primary factors being those which have been shown to be more strongly associated with increased levels of community concern.

I applied these to a case study of mobile phone tower complaints in the 1990s. I’ve now constructed the table below indicating the likely applicability of these factors to the case of predicting community worry about wind farms.

People don’t worry about infrasound in wind, trees and ocean waves because these sources are natural, while the same levels of infrasound from wind turbines are considered quite differently as they are sourced from what anti-wind farm activists like to call evil “industrial” wind farms.

The rare examples of people complaining who host wind turbines on their land for rental payment, compared with the far more common situation of non-hosting neighbours complaining, illustrates the voluntary vs coerced exposure factor, as well as the fair vs unfair factor. Those not benefiting from lucrative rental payments because of unsuitable local topography, while near neighbours can, understandably feel this as unfair.

Wind turbines are very memorable and exotic (a new experience to many), while wind in trees or the pounding of the ocean is very familiar and unremarkable, both factors likely to greatly diminish concerns.

Table: Primary and additional components predicting community outrage about putative environmental risks to health: the case of wind turbines. (two ticks = applies strongly to wind turbines; one tick = likely to apply less strongly)

The 2015 Senate (majority) report into wind farms roundly rejected the idea that psychosocial factors such as nocebo effects were largely responsible for the challenging historical and geographical variance in wind farm complaints. A nocebo effect is the opposite to a placebo effect: instead of exposure to an inactive agent making people feel better because of belief that it will, nocebo effects are when a benign agent makes people feel worse because they have been told it will.

The Committee, chaired by avowed wind farm opponent John Madigan, was emphatic that infrasound was the culprit but did not produce convincing evidence for this.

If the committee is sincere in its concerns about the health effects of infrasound, will we soon learn of a new inquiry about the pernicious and unappreciated dangers of living near the sea or trees, having air conditioners, stereos, ceiling fans, or travelling in motor vehicles?

The ConversationSimon Chapman, Professor of Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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A $2.5m investment in wind farms and health won’t solve anything

The Conversation

By Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

The out-going head of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Warwick Anderson confirmed in Senate Estimates recently that calls for research proposals for up to a total of A$2.5 million over five years will soon be made to investigate questions about wind farms and health.

Under questioning from Greens Senator Richard Di Natale, Anderson told the committee A$2.5m was a paltry fraction of the agency’s total research budget, which in 2014 stood at A$802.42m. So A$2.5m is the equivalent of less than 0.06% of a projected five-year research budget on today’s allocations.

But researchers’ success obtaining grants has never been lower in Australia, with many strong grants falling below the cut-off score, which is ultimately budget determined. In 2014, researchers submitted 3,700 applications for project grants, with only one in 6.7 of these (14.9%) being funded. In the health services research field, 91.8% if applications were not funded.

Anderson has been emphatic that research standards will not be compromised in all this, and that only high-quality applications from suitably experienced researchers will be funded. It is not clear yet whether only one or more applications will be funded, if indeed any are.

The main debate in this area is between those who are adamant that wind turbines emit sounds and vibrations that upset and harm some of those exposed, and those who argue that the available evidence points strongly to health problems and complaints being psychogenic.

Nocebo phenomena – the idea that fear about wind turbines will cause some people to get symptoms – seem to be at the heart of both complaints and claims of illness.

I have documented an Old Testament-length list of 244 different symptoms and diseases alleged by wind farm opponents to be caused by the pestilence of wind farm exposure. The most bizarre of these include herpes, haemorrhoids, lung skin cancer and disoriented echidnas.

Study limitations

In even the best of studies, it will be impossible to separate out nocebo effects from putative direct effects. Here’s why. Ideally, researchers could select a location where a wind farm was being planned and conduct symptom- and illness-prevalence studies well before the wind farm was constructed and operational.

They would then repeat those measures at different times after the turbines began, analysing the influence of variables such as noise levels, economic benefit, pre-existing levels of antipathy to wind farms and “negatively oriented personality”. They could also request the production of medical records to see whether reported health problems long preceded the commencement of the turbines.

But this sort of research design will always be corrupted by wind farm opponents who, at the first hint of any wind farm development, move into a local area with the express purpose of alarming and frightening as many local residents as possible about what’s down the track.

No wind farm developer could ever commence construction without a long and open period of community consultation. These trigger the alarmists to turn on their best efforts to worry residents sick. This nocebo-priming case study I published recently describes in detail how they operate.

Residents fully sworn against wind farms are highly biased and can game such studies where self-reports of symptoms are central.

Lessons from Canada

Canada has already conducted the sort of study that might be proposed in Australia. In response to agitation from anti-wind groups, starting in 2012, it undertook the largest study of wind turbines and health ever attempted.

The study involved 1,235 houses in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, where randomly selected residents of all houses within 600m of 399 turbines on 18 wind farms were compared with those living 600m to 10km away.

In October 2014, Health Canada published the top-line results from the $CAN2.2 million study of the very sort that the NHMRC might well be asked to replicate.

It found the following were not associated with wind turbine noise:

  • self-reported sleep (such as general disturbance, use of sleep medication, diagnosed sleep disorders)
  • self-reported illnesses (such as dizziness, tinnitus, prevalence of frequent migraines and headaches) and chronic health conditions (such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes)
  • self-reported perceived stress and quality of life.

It did find that “annoyance” was related to wind turbine noise, with 16.5% of houses in Ontario and 6.3% on Prince Edward Island being annoyed.

Ontario is the epicentre of Canadian anti-wind farm activism, while Price Edward Island has seen little of this. So this major difference in the prevalence of annoyance lends support to the idea that wind farm annoyance is a “communicated disease” spread by anti-wind farm agitators.

The Canadian study also found that:

annoyance was significantly lower among the 110 participants who received personal benefit, which could include rent, payments or other indirect benefits of having wind turbines in the area e.g., community improvements. However, there were other factors that were found to be more strongly associated with annoyance, such as the visual appearance, concern for physical safety due to the presence of wind turbines and reporting to be sensitive to noise in general.

These findings are consistent with conclusions reached in what is now 24 reviews of the evidence.

Predictably, anti-wind farm groups in Canada rejected the Canadian study’s conclusions. It seems obvious that the only reports that such groups will ever accept are those which confirm their agenda. This is not a debate which will ever be resolved by research.

Political interests

Disturbingly, the NHMRC has allowed itself to be influenced by what reported internal email described as “the macro policy environment” – bureaucratic code for sensitivity to political interests.

Instead, Warwick Anderson and the Council should have stated clearly and emphatically to the parliament and the public that any researcher wanting to investigate wind farms and health was at perfect liberty to submit such a proposal to compete with all those being submitted by researchers considering any other topic. Such proposals would stand or fall on their competitiveness as determined by peer review.

There is no dedicated research funding being set aside by the NHMRC to further investigate the known massive risks to human health from fossil fuel extraction and burning. And it would be unimaginable for the NHMRC to quarantine money for any other non-disease like wifi sensitivity, smart electricity meter dangers or “fan death”. But this is what it has done here.

The money allocated is not much. But the real damage will be that in having this issue thus elevated to privileged research status, its political apostles will be greatly encouraged.

Editor’s note: please ensure your comments are courteous and on-topic.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Wind turbine studies: how to sort the good, the bad, and the ugly

The Conversation

By Jacqui Hoepner, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

Yesterday, The Australian ran a front-page article about what it called a “groundbreaking” new study on wind turbines and their associated health impacts.

The study supposedly found a trend between participants’ perceived “sensations” and “offending sound pressure”.

The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd claimed the (non-peer-reviewed) study shows that “people living near wind farms face a greater risk of suffering health complaints caused by the low-frequency noise generated by turbines”, adding that it may help to “resolve the contentious debate about the health impact of wind farms”.

Carried out by Steven Cooper of The Acoustic Group, the study was commissioned by energy company Pacific Hydro near its Cape Bridgewater wind farm in southwest Victoria.

But this study is an exemplary case of what we consider to be bad science and bad science reporting. Far from “resolving the contentious debate”, it’s much more likely inflame an already fractious and fraught situation.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you read this and similar studies.

Is it a good study or a bad study?

This study asked six specifically selected participants from three houses in the Cape Bridgewater area, all within 1.6 km of a wind turbine, to keep a diary of “perceived noise impacts”. Objective sound measures were also taken inside and outside homes. Though Cooper has said he is “not qualified in any shape or form to discuss the illness side”, the symptoms described in the diaries were assessed against the sound measure differences between periods when turbines were in normal operation and shut down. All participants had previously complained to Pacific Hydro about health effects related to the nearby wind farm.

So what do we have?

We have a study with a very small group of specifically selected participants, with no control group for comparison and based on self-reported data – without medical research supervision – when participants were well aware of the experimental conditions (that is, when turbines were turning or not).

And what does this mean?

It is virtually impossible to validly extrapolate these findings to other residents of Cape Bridgewater, or to those living near other wind farms around Australia.

It is impossible to meaningfully compare their experience with a control group of other residents.

Even if all six of these participants experienced their symptoms legitimately, we can’t establish cause and effect. Though Lloyd reported Cooper as claiming his study showed a clear “cause and effect” relationship, it just can’t.

But most importantly, you can’t trust the data. These participants were all clearly unfavourably disposed towards the wind farm beforehand, and were motivated to perceive and report symptoms in line with the wind turbine syndrome theory.

This is not to say that the participants – and perhaps others – do not experience adverse health effects when close to a wind turbine. But it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this type of diary-style data. Last year, New Zealand researchers found that almost 90% of the general population experienced many of the common symptoms associated with wind turbine syndrome within a given week.

When a study is designed with a specific, motivated sample group and a clear hypothesis from the outset, it is a bad one.

It’s a study that wouldn’t have done very well if put up for peer review – or submitted for assessment in an undergraduate science degree. So how did it make it to the front page of a major Australian newspaper?

Crucial context

The context of any study is crucial, particularly when commissioned and conducted by private companies.

In this case, there appears to be a level of motivated reasoning, both in the findings of the study and in its coverage by The Australian.

Statements from study participants are revealing. One called it “confirmation of the level of severity we were and are enduring”; another felt “absolute relief” at the results. It suggests that their feelings of anger, distress and injustice have been brewing for a long time. Despite the poor quality of the study and the limited findings, they feel vindicated.

Lloyd has been a long-time critic of wind farms and has repeatedly reported on studies that claim to show a link between wind turbines and ill health.

Division, personal attacks and vitriolic rhetoric from both sides have marred this issue for many years. So it is also important to note that although Pacific Hydro has since gone into damage control, with external relations manager Andrew Richards keen to emphasise the small sample size and complexity of the issue, the company deserves respect for commissioning this study and allowing The Acoustics Group full access to its wind farm operation.

Yet any steps to build a bridge to those who are opposed to wind turbines must be taken very carefully. Giving unfettered and un-reviewed methodological control to someone endorsed by anti-wind-turbine groups is a bit like giving Dracula the keys to the blood bank. It should be possible to work with opponents to investigate a shared problem scientifically – but this is not the way.

Final tip

If a credible, scientifically rigorous study were to show a link between wind turbine operation and health effects, it should absolutely be taken seriously. There are people throughout Australia who genuinely believe their lives, health and well being are being affected by living near wind farms.

If good science can prove them right, then we must take it into account. But no one benefits from bad science.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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