April 2, 2013

See no evil, hear no evil, nocebo

Can expectations produce symptoms from infrasound associated with wind turbines?
Fiona Crichton, George Dodd, Gian Schmid, Greg Gamble, and Keith J. Petrie, University of Auckland, New Zealand
Health Psychology, March 2013, doi:10.1037/a0031760 [update: republished online November 25, 2013. The Power of Positive and Negative Expectations to Influence Reported Symptoms and Mood During Exposure to Wind Farm Sound.]

First paragraph:  Harnessing wind energy is a critical component of long-term strategies for securing sustainable power supply in countries throughout the world, with the potential to help address global climate change. However, recent opposition to wind farms has seen a substantial increase in rejection rates for new wind farm developments, which threatens the achievement of renewable energy targets. Much of the opposition to wind farms stems from the belief that the infrasound produced by wind turbines causes health complaints in nearby residents. Although there is no empirical support for claims that infrasound generated by wind turbines could trigger adverse health effects, there has been a lack of other plausible mechanisms that could explain the experience of nonspecific symptoms reported by some people living in the vicinity of wind turbines. In this study we investigate whether exposure to information that creates negative expectations about symptoms from infrasound could be a possible explanation for this relationship.

Spatio-temporal differences in the history of health and noise complaints about Australian wind farms: evidence for the psychogenic, “communicated disease” hypothesis
Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health, Alexis St George, Research Fellow, Karen Waller, and Vince Cakic, Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia
March 2013, unpublished [update: published online October 16, 2013. The Pattern of Complaints about Australian Wind Farms Does Not Match the Establishment and Distribution of Turbines: Support for the Psychogenic, ‘Communicated Disease’ Hypothesis. PLoS ONE 8(10): e76584. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076584]

Abstract (background, objectives, and conclusions):  With often florid allegations about health problems arising from wind turbine exposure now widespread in parts of rural Australia and on the internet, nocebo effects potentially confound any future investigation of turbine health impact. Historical audits of health complaints across periods when such claims were rare are therefore important. We test 4 hypotheses relevant to psychogenic explanations of the variable timing and distribution of health and noise complaints about wind farms in Australia. ... In view of scientific consensus that the evidence for wind turbine noise and infrasound causing health problems is poor, the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are “communicated diseases” with nocebo effects likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints.

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The bias of both of these papers is glaring. The Crichton paper seems more worried about wind development targets than about human health, and Chapman expresses his long established contempt and mockery of people adversely affected by wind development with the phrase "often florid allegations".

Both papers disingenuously claim that there is no scientific support for the claim that infrasound can have physiological effects. In fact, there is, and mechanisms for such effects are currently being elucidated (see, eg, Responses of the ear to infrasound and wind turbines, Low-frequency noise: a biophysical phenomenon, Infrasound: your ears “hear” it but they don’t tell your brain, Owen Black affidavit re: wind turbine syndrome, and the work of Mariana Alves-Pereira and Nuno Castelo Branco in Portugal: Vibroacoustic disease, Vibroacoustic disease: biological effects of infrasound and low-frequency noise explained by mechanotransduction cellular signalling, Industrial wind turbines, infrasound and vibro-acoustic disease (VAD), In-home wind turbine noise is conducive to vibroacoustic disease). [Update: see bibliography of PubMed-indexed studies at www.aweo.org/infrasound.html.] Both papers thus set out only to prove that "hysteria" is the cause, seeing no reason to test that hypothesis against the evidence for physical causes which they simply ignore.

Nor do they seem to consider the barrage of "positive" information that has accompanied the buildup of wind power. Related to this, they fail to consider the possibility (never mind the many reports) that people with a favorable view of wind development become adversely affected after a nearby facility began operation.

For these reasons, Chapman's paper is simply a joke. There is not even a pretense of testing his hypothesis, only a laughable effort to demonstrate it.

The Crichton paper at least pretends to set up a controlled experiment. Unfortunately, since the researchers ignore the work of acousticians who have measured infrasound from wind farms, they don't come close to recreating the experience of actual wind turbine noise (as, e.g., explored in Development of experimental facility for testing human response to ILFN from wind turbines), let alone its reported effects over time. They thus end up only showing the effect of suggestibility in two different "sham" situations. No group was actually exposed to infrasound levels and patterns like those from wind turbines.

Finally, these researchers exploit the fact that this phenomenon is indeed new, and consequently not yet extensively investigated, having developed along with the relatively recent growth of wind power development closer to homes. Furthermore, as with all noise phenomena, not everyone is affected, and those that are, to different degrees. There has been no robust epidemiological study of the issue, so it is irresponsible as well as unethical to dismiss it out of hand. Neither of these papers betrays the slightest humanity towards the many people who are truly suffering, many of them forced out of their homes. Nor does either one express the slightest interest in actual study of the cases. Both papers seem instead to be attempts to run ahead of the continuing medical and acoustical research and declare the issue dead. But the science has already left them well behind.

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Update:  Another recent paper following Chapman's lead:

Fright factors about wind turbines and health in Ontario newspapers before and after the Green Energy Act
Benjamin Deignan, Erin Harvey, and Laurie Hoffman-Goetz, University of Waterloo, Ontario
Health, Risk & Society, March 2013, doi:10.1080/13698575.2013.776015

Abstract:  In this article, we analyse coverage of the health effects of wind turbines in Ontario newspapers relative to the Green Energy Act using published risk communication fright factors. Our aim was to provide insights into the health risk information presented in newspapers serving Ontario communities where wind turbines are located. ... We conclude that Ontario newspapers contain fright factors in articles about wind turbines and health that may produce fear, concern and anxiety for readers.

According to the abstract, this paper did not make any attempt to correlate the "fright factors" with health complaints, nor did it compare coverage of health concerns (which would of course be "negative") with coverage of wind energy development in general (which I dare say is overwhelmingly "positive"). And again, there does not seem to be any interest in examining actual cases, only in establishing theoretical bases for ignoring them.

This one seems even sillier (or more chilling) than Chapman's exercise, in that it is raising alarm about language. Are they suggesting that the Government of Ontario censor news coverage as part of its support for wind development?

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Update:  And another recent paper along the lines of Crichton/Petrie:

The influence of negative oriented personality traits on the effects of wind turbine noise
Jennifer Taylor, Carol Eastwick, Robin Wilson, and Claire Lawrence, University of Nottingham, U.K.
Personality and Individual Differences, February 2013, doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.09.018

Abstract:  Concern about invisible environmental agents from new technologies, such as radiation, radio-waves, and odours, have been shown to act as a trigger for reports of ill health. However, recently, it has been suggested that wind turbines – an archetypal green technology, are a new culprit in explanations of medically unexplained non-specific symptoms (NSS): the so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome (Pierpont, 2009). The current study assesses the effect of negative orientated personality (NOP) traits (Neuroticism, Negative Affectivity and Frustration Intolerance) on the relationship between both actual and perceived noise on NSS. All households near ten small and micro wind turbines in two UK cities completed measures of perceived turbine noise, Neuroticism, Negative Affectivity, Frustration Intolerance, attitude to wind turbines, and NSS (response N = 138). Actual turbine noise level for each household was also calculated. There was no evidence for the effect of calculated actual noise on NSS. The relationship between perceived noise and NSS was only found for individuals high in NOP traits[, suggesting] the key role of individual differences in the link between perceived (but not actual) environmental characteristics and symptom reporting.

According to the abstract, high NOP traits are correlated only with general health complaints, as would be expected, not with perceived turbine noise or attitude to wind turbines, as the authors imply. Furthermore, actual noise measurements were not made, and small urban wind turbines are nothing like the rural giants that give rise to most complaints considered to represent "wind turbine syndrome". The authors' bias is also evident in describing "wind turbine syndrome" as "non-specific symptoms"; in fact, Pierpont recognized a recurring set of symptoms that suggest inner ear disturbance. Others have attributed the complaints as compatible with sleep disturbance, a factor that Taylor/Lawrence do not seem to have considered. The concluding sentence of the abstract also reveals bias by insisting that NOP plays the key role (not just a contributing role) and that any noise or other disturbance is perceived but not "actual".

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Update:  Crichton/Petrie and Chapman join forces:

The link between health complaints and wind turbines: support for the nocebo expectations hypothesis
Fiona Crichton, Simon Chapman, Tim Cundy and Keith James Petrie
Frontiers in Public Health, 2:220 (2014). doi:10.3389/fpubh.2014.00220

Abstract:  The worldwide expansion of wind energy has met with opposition based on concerns that the infrasound generated by wind turbines causes health problems in nearby residents. In this paper we argue that health complaints are more likely to be explained by the nocebo response, whereby adverse effects are generated by negative expectations. When individuals expect a feature of their environment or medical treatment to produce illness or symptoms then this may start a process where the individual looks for symptoms or signs of illness to confirm these negative expectations. As physical symptoms are common in healthy people, there is considerable scope for people to match symptoms with their negative expectations. To support this hypothesis we draw on evidence from experimental studies that show that, during exposure to wind farm sound, expectations about infrasound can influence symptoms and mood in both positive and negative directions, depending on how expectations are framed. We also consider epidemiological work showing that health complaints have primarily been located in areas that have received the most negative publicity about the harmful effects of turbines. The social aspect of symptom complaints in a community is also discussed as an important process in increasing symptom reports. Media stories, publicity or social discourse about the reported health effects of wind turbines are likely to trigger reports of similar symptoms, regardless of exposure. Finally, we present evidence to show that the same pattern of health complaints following negative information about wind turbines has also been found in other types of environmental concerns and scares.

Edited by: Loren Knopper, Intrinsik Environmental Sciences Inc., Canada, industry consultant. Reviewed by: Robert G. Berger, Intrinsik Environmental Sciences Inc., Canada – industry consultant – and James Rubin, King’s College London, UK – author of studies blaming electromagnetic sensitivity on psychological conditions

This article simply reviews the authors’ previous articles, repeating their errors and shortcomings and adding nothing new to what they have already badly said.

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Update:  Chapman openly joins forces with the industry:

Fomenting sickness: nocebo priming of residents about expected wind turbine health harms
Simon Chapman, Ketan Joshi and Luke Fry
Frontiers in Public Health, 2:279 (2014). doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2014.00279

Abstract:  A nocebo effect hypothesis has been proposed to explain variations in where small minorities of exposed residents complain about noise and health effects said to be caused by wind farm turbines. The hypothesis requires that those complaining have been exposed to negative, potentially frightening information about the impact of proposed wind farms on nearby residents, and that this information conditions both expectations about future health impacts or the aetiology of current health problems where wind farms are already operational. This hypothesis has been demonstrated experimentally under laboratory conditions, but case studies of how this process can operate in local communities are lacking. In this paper we present a case study of the apparent impact of an anti wind farm public meeting on the generation of negative news media and the subsequent expression of concerns about anticipated health and noise impacts to a planning authority approval hearing in Victoria, Australia. We present a content analysis of the negative claims disseminated about health and noise in the news media and available on the internet prior to the hearing, and another content analysis of all submissions made to the planning authority by those opposing the development application.

Edited by: Loren Knopper, Intrinsik Environmental Sciences, Canada – industry consultant. Reviewed by: Claire Lawrence, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom – co-author of papers blaming noise complaints from wind turbines on personality traits – and Jeffrey M. Ellenbogen, Johns Hopkins University, USA – co-author of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection review that attempted to minimize and dismiss health effects from wind turbines

Now they have lowered the bar from denial of actual health consequences of actual wind turbines to decrying the fact that raising concerns about adverse effects of wind turbines during a permitting process meant to raise concerns, raises concerns, even though the permitting agency ignored those concerns anyway.

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Also see:  "Notorious Falshoods" — The Drapier’s Fourth Letter: To the Whole People of Ireland (Jonathan Swift, Oct. 13, 1724)

wind power, wind energy, wind turbines, wind farms, human rights