Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Wizard from Oz

We have always admired the work of Professor Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney.  He has taken a strong stand against tobacco and is now shining a light on the effects of the fear/uncertainty/doubt (FUD) campaign being waged by many wind opponents.

His recent submission to the Australian Senate Inquiry into Renewable Energy (Electricity) sums up his motivation nicely:

I have long had a scholarly interest in risk communication. In particular, I am
interested in significant, high-risk health problems which are under-rated by the
public (eg: smoking), and in low-risk putative health problems which are overrated
by some members of the public causing them to worry, panic and
sometimes express symptoms. It is my view, for reasons set out below, ["below" meaning the balance of his submission] that concerns about the health effects of wind turbines fall into the latter category.

Recently, he published an op ed piece in "The Drum", the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's on-line news channel.  You can find the full edition, including over 400 comments and active links here:

28 NOVEMBER 2012
Fanning fear: the wind farm nocebo effect


Most wind farms around the world have no history of complaints, but the few that do
have seen the local area targeted by external activists who spread panic. Simon Chapman reflects
on the nonsense claims of anti-wind farm activists.

Later today, the Senate will release the report of a committee into a Private Senators' Bill
examining the proposal that wind turbines should not be accredited if the sound emitted
exceeds 10 decibels of the background noise at any time, measured within 22 metres of a
The Bill was proposed by Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan and independent
Senator Nick Xenophon. Both have form in expressing opposition to wind farms.
Like Don Quixote who tilted at windmills, Madigan previously claimed (PDF) he was
fighting a "sinister" and "dangerous" industry and Xenophon believes turbines affect brain
No one following the latest historical example of what is quite plainly technophobic
Luddism has any doubt that the tabling will see a minority report that the proposed
standard be adopted. The bill will be defeated on party lines, with the Greens supporting
the Government. But it has provided a conduit for a Niagara of mostly boilerplate protest
material from the tiny but highly organised opponent groups.
While the bill is purportedly about noise levels in the audible spectrum, the focus of many
fear-laden submissions has been around the sub-audible low-frequency noise - infrasound -
that wind turbines (and pretty much all machines) create. While studies have shown (PDF)
that Australians living near the coast or in cities are constantly subject to far greater 'doses'
of infrasound, apparently the sort emitted by wind turbines has a special flavour that
causes a never-before-seen medical condition.
"Wind turbine syndrome" is a term coined in a self-published book by a US small town
doctor who personally opposed a wind farm proposed near her property. Tellingly, the
term does not appear once among 22 million papers indexed by PubMed, the US National
Library of Medicine's repository of peer reviewed research published in acknowledged
With now 217 diseases and symptoms claimed to be caused by exposure to the subaudible,
low frequency infrasound emitted by wind turbines - some by as little as a few
minutes exposure - there are undeniable and rhino-in-the-room size clues that complaints
are psychogenic: "communicated" diseases spread by the nocebo effect. This is where
dramatically and repeatedly suggesting to people that something is likely to make you ill,
triggers claims and sometimes symptomatic illness in a minority of people.
Most wind farms around the world and in Australia have no history of complaints, and
most of those which do, have seen the local area targeted by external anti-wind farm
activists who spread panic and tell frightened locals to report anything they might
experience to their doctor. The activist groups even provide symptom menus to assist
Wind farms have existed in Western Australia for nearly 20 years, yet no company
operating over there has ever received a health complaint. Significantly, there are no antiwind
farm group operating in the state.
By contrast, here's a case study of how complaints can get going on the east coast.
In early October 2010, residents of Leonards Hill in central Victoria were encouraged to
attend a presentation in Evansford, given by an unregistered doctor, Sarah Laurie, who has
become Australia's high priestess of wind farm anxiety. Laurie believes (PDF)that
turbulence from wind turbines can "perceptibly rock stationary cars even further than a
kilometre away from the nearest wind turbine" and told a meeting (PDF) in 2011 that
spending a night near wind turbines can cause "just about everybody ...every five or ten
minutes needing to go to the toilet."
In the same week, the Australian Environment Foundation, a deceptively named climate
change denialist group, arranged a protest meeting at the opening ceremony for the
beginning of works on a two turbine, 2,000 shareholder community-owned wind farm at
Leonards Hill, near Daylesford. Banners with "Wind farms make me sick" were prepared
and some 50 people (mostly out of towners) attended the protest, which was reported in
the local press.
In November, Laurie was reported in local newspaper The Advocate as saying "If I were
living right there I would be very concerned. I would be beside myself..." Scary stuff.
In early December 2010, the president of the Landscape Guardians told the Australian
"I've been on medication for the last five years just fighting this." The wind farm had not
even opened but the president was already worried sick.
In mid August 2011, the Ballarat Courier reported that Leonards Hill received its first
health complaint from a 57-year-old woman with sleep problems. She described the sound
of the two turbines, half a kilometre away, as at times "like a jet engine". (Like hundreds
of thousands of Sydney residents, I've lived right under the Sydney fight path for 22 years,
and I've spent time around wind farms. The comparison is nothing less than ludicrous).
The next day, the Landscape Guardians president went public as the second health
complainant about the wind farm.
Those who study the dynamics of psychogenic illness place the communication of scary
information front and centre of this psychogenic/nocebo process. Early next year, a leading
international psychology journal will publish findings of a study that will add important
new evidence to this debate.
The study took healthy volunteers and exposed some to information from the internet
designed to prime them to expect that infrasound from wind farms could make them
experience symptoms. They labelled this group the "high expectations" group. Another
group were not exposed to such information (the "low expectations" group). Both groups
were then exposed in a laboratory to both real and "sham" (fake) infrasound. The high
expectation group reported a significant increase in symptoms during both exposure
sessions, while there was no increase in symptoms reported in the low expectation group.
In Canada an anti-wind farm group took a wind company to a local tribunal, with a
cavalcade of complainants emotionally detailing their health problems. The tribunal agreed
with the wind company that the medical records of all complainants going back a decade
should be presented. These would reveal how many of the victims had a prior history of
the problems they now complained about. The case then collapsed, with the complainants
protesting that this was too onerous a requirement.
All social groups, workplaces and organisations have individuals with reputations for
whinging and negativity. So perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent British study found that
"negative orientated personality" traits predicted unexplained non-specific symptoms
among residents near a wind farm, and not actual noise.
Ten years ago, the media was full of anxiety that mobile telephone towers would bring
down plagues of diseases on those around them. Local governments passed nonsensical
regulations allowing towers on factory roofs, but nowhere near sporting fields, schools or
even nursing homes (where most residents had highly limited life expectancy anyway).
The predicted epidemics of brain cancer never happened, there are more mobile phones
than Australian residents and the anxiety disappeared.
Todays's expected report will contain the equivalent nonsense about wind farms. It will
make interesting reading 10 years from now.

Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney. He tweets
@simonchapman6. View his full profile here.
© 2012 ABC


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