“Don’t tell me about the science” – Wind Turbines and Human Health: An Emotional Topic
You already knew from the cavalier seminar title where this presentation was going to be heading. However, in his introduction, the presenter promised a balanced discussion on the issue of wind turbines and human health so that health care practitioners and academics could have informed dialogue. Mmmm. Really?
The seminar/webinar was hosted in Toronto by Public Health Ontario on March 20, 2014, and was given by Loren Knopper Ph.D., an environmental health scientist and co-lead of Intrinsik Environmental Science’s Renewable Energy Health Team, with stated expertise in industrial wind turbines and human health.
Knopper failed to offer a disclaimer that “a number” of his clients are wind developers (unless he stated it when the webinar’s sound failed for two brief periods). This information came to light in the question period following his presentation. It’s a very important point because the wind industry denies, despite some good evidence, that industrial wind turbines can cause adverse health effects. Obviously, one would not want any inconvenient truths alienating clients with deep, government-guaranteed, subsidy-enhanced pockets.
Knopper started out by asserting that, “Generally, public attitude favours the idea of wind energy.” It was interesting that this Ph.D. scientist who insisted heavily on research rigour in his critique of the research studies later on, was in this instance not presenting any empirical evidence to support his statement. Instead, he showed a slide of a silly HSBC ad depicting splayed banana skins stood upright to look like wind turbines with the tagline: “In the future, there will be no difference between waste and energy.” The same slide had a photo of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency window with a small picture of wind turbines in it, meant to support his claim that there is general public acceptance of wind energy. Of course, neither of these organizations’ displays reflect public attitude, but rather self-interested propaganda for what is actually a green energy disaster. But never mind. Knopper did admit that his version of public favour does not mean local acceptance of wind projects. No surprise there.
Scientific merit depends on the objectivity and scientific rigour of the beholder
Knopper’s seminar was essentially a look at the issue of industrial wind turbines and human health, an overview of the scientific literature on the subject, and his conclusions of the weight of evidence based on studies he deemed to have scientific merit.
In judging any scientific study, it’s imperative to go to the original work and evaluate the soundness of the methodology and analysis the researchers used. In his presentation, Knopper did not hesitate to allege statistical and other deficiencies that he thought negated the results of key studies that have concluded that industrial wind turbine operations do cause adverse health effects. He also emphasized that “many” of these studies were published in one journal, The Bulletin of Science Technology & Society, and stated more than once that their authors were on the advisory board of the Society for Wind Vigilance, an obvious attempt to imply that these facts tainted their work.
As we have already mentioned, Knopper failed to disclose his close business association with wind developers until he was asked the question after the presentation, and he certainly did not mention it when he talked about his own published research. And in fact, some people in the audience noted that in at least one case, the research he himself conducted in collaboration with his colleagues had serious problems of its own (Projected contributions of future wind farm development to community noise and annoyance levels in Ontario, Canada). Critics in the audience took exception to the fact the data Knopper used were derived from computer models that came from wind turbine developers’ asessments of noise for proposed or approved projects, not data from actually operating wind turbines. He also had to admit that he could not “speak exactly to what the developers and their consultants have been measuring or modelling” (with respect to which type of decibel). His knowledgeable audience critics questioned why he was showing them this study if he could not identify, consider or control for an important variable in the data he analyzed.
So while Knopper seemed keen to allege deficiencies in studies showing that there are health problems associated with the operations of wind turbines, he avoided any such analysis of studies that come to the opposite conclusion. Amongst others, he mentioned an often-cited study from New Zealand purporting to show that psychological expectations explain health complaints due to wind turbines. In fact, the flawed study merely confirms that there is such a thing as suggestibility and says nothing credible about wind turbine health problems per se. But wind proponents and their supporters love to refer to it as support for the notion that adverse health effects relating to wind turbines are not real, just in people’s suggestible-prone heads.
Weight of scientific evidence is heavily biased
Knopper concluded, not surprisingly, that “based on the findings and scientific merit” (his emphasis) of the available studies, the weight of the evidence indicates that wind turbines are not connected to adverse health effects, when sited properly. But do we even know what “sited properly” means? (Not that these useless and destructive industrial monsters should be sited anywhere.) In Ontario, the 550 metre set-back for industrial wind turbines is an arbitrary standard drawn out of thin air. No government health study was conducted to come up with this measure.
Knopper went on to support his conclusion with reference to government statements to the same effect, that is, governments that had or have a vested interest in removing all conceivable obstacles to the implementation of their misguided green energy programs. He also cited legal proceedings such as 19 Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) hearings, and an Ontario Divisional Court appeal. What he failed to mention is that in those arenas, the rules ensure that the odds are stacked against being able to prove that industrial wind turbines cause adverse health effects. Under the unfair stipulations of Ontario’s Green Energy Act and the ERT, appellants have to achieve the impossible feat of proving that there will be serious health effects from a project that has not yet been built. He also did not mention that some wind companies have violated the mandatory setbacks, and when they do in Ontario, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Health reportedly do next to nothing to enforce the standard, such as it is. What effect does that have on people’s safety?
Indeed, don’t tell me about the (biased, compromised) science!
Human health was given short shrift in the recent Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) hearing that saw Blanding’s Turtle singlehandedly win the day and save Ostrander Point on Prince Edward County from being turned into the industrial wind factory that had been approved by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.
The Prince Edward County Field Naturalists advocated successfully for the turtle, but their arguments that birds, bats, Monarch butterflies, and alvars, “naturally open areas of thin soil over flat limestone or marble rock” would also suffer “serious and irreversible harm”, the legal test demanded by the Tribunal, were rejected.
And the Alliance to Protect Prince Edward County (APPEC) did not succeed in making its case for protecting human health, failing to sway the ERT that the approved wind factory project would cause serious harm to people’s health.
In a July 4, 2013 news release, APPEC said it was “baffled by the ERT’s decision on human health.” APPEC went on to suggest that the ERT process was “fundamentally flawed.” In order to succeed, APPEC would have had to provide scientific evidence to the ERT that human health was going to be harmed through “direct effects (i.e., audible noise) or indirect effects (i.e., infrasound, low frequency sound, severe annoyance, or by some other mechanism)” caused by the proposed wind factory in question when it was being operated in accordance with the Renewable Energy Approval (REA). APPEC rightly complains that “citizens are required to undertake acoustical and epidemiological research” in order to have any success in making their case to the ERT.
The Ontario government and wind power proponents don’t bother themselves with any such scientific rigour. The REA’s 550-metre residential setback appears to be an arbitrary distance without any scientific basis. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health has conducted no studies on the health effects of industrial wind turbines. This does not stop Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health from asserting that the “weight of the evidence does not support any direct health effects associated with wind turbines if they are appropriately placed, and that is with a minimum of a 550-metre set-back.” But even that paltry set-back concession to protecting human health is routinely nullified by wind companies in the agreements they present to Ontario landowners.
The ERT heard, and acknowledged in its decision, information given by Dr. Cornelia Baines about a University of Auckland study that purports to show that adverse health effects from wind turbines are due to suggestibility. This questionable study has been hauled out ad nauseam, including by David Suzuki, to bolster the notion that adverse health effects of wind turbines are all in the head. The researchers conclude that “psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints”, when really all their study does is confirm that there is such a thing as suggestibility, period.
The lead author of the study, doctoral candidate Fiona Crichton, states in her abstract that 54 (or 60, depending on which of her reports you want to believe) participants were involved in a “sham-controlled double-blind provocation study” where they were presented with information “designed to invoke either high or low expectations that exposure to infrasound causes specified symptoms.” Lo and behold, the high-expectation group reported more symptomatic changes than the low-expectation group. In this study, which is completely useless insofar as health effects of wind turbines are concerned, you could substitute the infrasound with any non-wind turbine sound and posit high-expectation symptoms of your choice to the subjects and get the same result – a demonstration of suggestibility.
If there is any invocation-of-high-expectations-leading-to-false-beliefs going on, it’s the wind power lobby that has the McGuinty/Wynne government convinced that wind energy is useful, reliable, harmless, economically feasible, environmentally attractive, green, when it really isn’t any of that.