I have a small confession to make; I am a bit of a closet green. My rubbish is carefully sorted out for recycling, I walk and cycle to the shops and the bulldozing of the British countryside for buildings makes me feel uneasy. There is a strong case for renewable energy in that it will make us a lot less reliant upon oil from the politically unstable Middle East. And who knows, it may have prevented the invasion of Iraq from happening. The UK is the windiest place in Europe and gives the country an unlimited source of energy.
Just before you think I am writing love letters to Caroline Lucas (or indeed, Natalie Bennett), one of James Dellingpole’s Watermelons, there is much to detract from wind farming. The costs of generating 1 Megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity is £65 for gas, £62 for coal, and £95 for nuclear. Onshore wind ranks in at £90 and offshore wind an eye watering £150.
It is of course possible that, like mobile and smartphone batteries, research and development could make them more efficient. As mentioned here by the Montana Environmental Information Center:
“Turbines…[have a] 33% increase in average capacity in just three years. Today’s…turbine has a 2.3-megawatt capacity; 7-megawatt turbines will be available soon.”
However a disturbing paper from The King Juan Carlos University found in 2009 that “Spain’s experience cited by President Obama as a model reveals with high confidence, by two different methods, that the U.S. should expect a loss of at least 2.2 jobs on average, or about 9 jobs lost for every 4 created, to which we have to add those jobs that non-subsidized investments with the same resources would have created.”
As I previously mentioned, I have concerns about concreting the countryside – and wind farms are more than capable of inciting NIMBY sentiments. UKIP’s Energy Spokesman Roger Helmer is a leading critic; they have also attracted the opprobrium of the National Trust, its Director Of Conservation Peter Nixon saying, “We have a duty to protect beautiful places, and believe that any wind energy proposals should be located, designed and on a scale that avoids compromising these.”
And now wind power has a major new headache in the shape of the health of the people who live in the vicinity of wind farms. To explore this new challenge further, I caught up with Canadian Professor, Carl V. Phillips, for this exclusive interview:
DA: Perhaps you could give The Commentator a background to your career so far?
CVP: I was a professor of public health for about 15 years, working on a combination of epidemiology, public policy, and environmental health. Before I went to graduate school, I did some work for the electric power industry. Currently I run my own university-style research shop, and do economic and epidemiologic consulting. I have been working on the Industrial Wind Turbines (IWT) issue for about 2.5 years.
I understand that there may be health risks associated with living near wind turbines. Can you expand on that?
There is a consistent pattern of many people who live near IWTs suffering from a class of diseases caused by chronic stress reactions: insomnia, fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate, mood disorders (e.g. depression or being quick to anger), and the like. It is likely that this reaction creates cardiovascular problems too. It is not too surprising that this occurs, since some (not all) people will have an ongoing “fight or flight” reaction to certain types of noise, and IWTs produce types of noise (cyclic and low-frequency) that are known to be especially disturbing.
There are other alternatives proposed for the causal pathway, such as non-stress-mediated effects via the ears (both hearing and the balance system), which might explain particular symptoms like balance problems and tinnitus. But whatever the causal pathway, the effects are quite clear.
In terms of severity, a large portion of the exposed population apparently experiences some of the problems to a bothersome extent, and a few percent experience problems so severe that it basically destroys their lives. Or it forces them to flee their homes. Their homes then end up selling at prices well below what they would be worth if there were no nearby IWTs, if they can sell them at all; that loss in value is a good measure of how substantial these negative effects are to people.
Is there evidence from medical papers that this is the case?
The vast majority of the evidence is not in medical papers, but is in the form of thousands of individual “adverse event reports” – volunteered information by individuals reporting on their own diseases. This is the type of monitoring that informs us about unexpected drug reactions and anything other adverse reaction to something that was not expected.
Systematic study has been limited because it depends on volunteer work from the community. Normally we would require that an industry fund independent research into the risks of an exposure they were imposing on people, or the government would fund the studies. But in this case the government is complicit in the problem and so no one is requiring the energy industry exercise the due diligence that would be demanded for, say, a pharmaceutical or agricultural chemical.
A tiny fraction of the subsidies (paid by us, of course) to the energy industry to support these projects would be enough to do plenty of systematic studies, so no one can claim that there is no money available. There is just a concerted effort to avoid gathering evidence.
That said, this does not keep us from having very good evidence in this particular case. The nature of this exposure and the diseases it causes give us a case where adverse event reports are more informative than population surveys and averages. Individuals are able to “cross over” from being exposed to unexposed (by spending time away from home, or when there is no wind for long periods) and the disease go away. So a large portion of the adverse event reports include people doing that experiment and discovering that when the exposure is removed, the disease disappears, but when the exposure is resumed the disease recurs.
Such scientific reasoning seems to baffle a lot of people who are only capable of reading the conclusion statement of article abstracts. But if you ask any real scientist – or a moderately intelligent 12-year-old – to interpret that evidence, they will immediately recognize that this real-world experimental evidence is more informative about causation than subtle statistical differences between populations. Apparently some people lose the reasoning ability of 12-year-olds when they are paid to do so.
That said, there is evidence in medical papers and systematic studies. It confirms what we know from the adverse event reports and their crossover studies. Indeed, there is enough such evidence that if this were, say, industrial chemical pollution, the environmentalists and public health activists would be demanding bans, and some probably would have already happened.
Does that mean that the evidence is mostly not peer reviewed?
That is correct. But this does not really matter. Some who want to deny the scientific evidence do not understand that peer reviewed publication is mostly just a scorekeeping method for professors (while others pretend to not understand because that supports their rhetoric). The most serious sciences have long sense moved away from this model. The peer review process in health science is really mostly editorial, not scientific. Reviewers never see the data or even know most of the methods that were used, and they certainly cannot audit the data collection process to make sure it is accurate. They see only what you eventually read in a journal, so obviously they cannot provide any more of a review than any reader of the article can.
It would be possible to take the adverse event reports and publish them in a peer reviewed journal, but why? That would obviously not make them any more or less credible (indeed, I did this with a few of them, just to make that point). The same is true for any statistics-based study, though these tend to end up in journals so that the authors can get credit for them. But it does not make them any more likely to be good science.
Is there any evidence that the health risks could be psychosomatic?
This is the claim that the industry and their hirelings have fled to, now that they can no longer get away with claiming that there are no effects. They blame the victims. It is a standard ploy.
A favorite claim is to suggest that because there is evidence that some people irrationally fear certain invisible health hazards (“toxic chemicals” and radiation, in particular), and there are a few documented cases of that fear apparently causing groups of people to report symptoms, that this is what is happening with IWTs.
But this just a legalistic ploy, not a scientific claim (compare, for example, the claims made by cigarette companies when they are sued by a lung cancer victim). To say this might be happening is just a speculative hypothesis, and no one has ever produced a shred of evidence to support it. If defending against a lawsuit, throwing out a speculative alternative explanation is standard practice, but it should not be taken seriously in making public policy decisions, let alone drawing scientific conclusions.
Moreover, even as speculation this claim is absurd on its fact: a phenomenon that occasionally causes a self-feeding mass hysteria in a small community could not affect thousands of people who have never communicated in any way; people do not react to a simple observable exposure (noise from a machine waking them up at night) with the vague fear they have about invisible carcinogens.
The evidence clearly shows that the effects do not fit the typical interpretation of “psychosomatic” – that the disease exists only because people think it is exists. There are a lot of people who were quite sure there was no risk, or who embraced the installation of IWTs, who then found they were suffering from the diseases.
Those who want to deny the science like to play word games, taking advantage of the fact that stress reactions are mediated through the subconscious mind, and suggesting that somehow this means the diseases are not “real”. But the diseases that do more damage to people’s quality of life than any others – depression and chronic pain – are entirely “in people’s heads”.
The involvement of the mind does not mean that people can just decide to not have the diseases any more than they can decide to not have an infection. If there were a way to make the diseases stop happening or go away through psychological intervention, that might have some implications for what we should be doing. But since no such intervention has ever been seriously proposed, let alone demonstrated to work, the whole point is rather moot.
I think that anyone who claims “these problems exist only in people’s heads, so we should not worry about them” should pledge to never take an analgesic and to refuse anesthesia for dentistry or surgery. After all, the pain sensation is something that exists only in their heads.
What should be done about wind turbines?
The health risks are clearly established by the evidence. What is needed is a complete cost-benefit analysis of this whole endeavor. There is no analysis out there that shows that installing IWTs makes any sense, all costs considered, and the failure to show that means that this is all just lunacy from the perspective of good public policy. (I suppose, more precisely, such an analysis has never been reported. Presumably the industry has done the analysis and would have reported it if they like the results, but decided to suppress it because it looks really bad for them.)
Such an analysis would compare the energy contribution of IWTs (the net contribution, that is, after accounting for the inefficiencies that come from having a power source that “decides” for itself when to turn on) to the costs of production and installation, as well as the health costs and the horrible environmental impact.
It is a potentially valid argument to say, with quantification, “yes, there are costs, and here they are; but here are the benefits justify the costs, including the harms to people’s health”. In free countries we usually demand very positive net benefits before we inflict harm on innocent victims, but sometimes that is considered justified. However, given that the IWT industry and proponents do not try to make such an argument, but rather seek to deny that there are any costs (health, environmental, electric grid efficiency loss), and refuses to even quantify the claimed benefits, it is pretty clear that they do not think an honest analysis supports their position.”
For a more extensive interview you can go to my blog and read more thoughts here.
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