June 29, 2011

Health effects from wind turbines? Ontario government doesn’t know (and didn’t really try to find out)

This comes from a blog written by Dr Carl V. Phillips, en expert in epidemiology and related health sciences, who also has a PhD in public policy. He writes on the so-called “experts” who prepare reports based on questionable research and refers to the report by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, released in 2010, with the conclusion that there are no health effects from the noise and vibration produced by industrial wind turbines.

Not a single person living near turbine arrays was interviewed by the Ontario research team. Dr. Phillips:

The problem is that the further away someone is from understanding a scientific matter themselves, the more likely they are to believe someone who is not giving them accurate information, either out of ignorance or a hidden agenda.

You have to know something to even know who you should believe.

A policy maker who has absolutely no clue about scientific epistemology will depend on Wikipedia or 24-year-old aides (who will go to Wikipedia) to tell them what to think.  Even if it is not literally Wikipedia, it is some other source at that level, like news reporters or a local advocacy group, that interprets science at the level of what shows up in the conclusion sentence of research papers abstracts.  As readers of this blog know, such claims are not reliable in health science.  Indeed, Wikipedia and most news outlets intentionally cultivate this kind of uncritical-acceptance-based behavior. 

On a few occasions I have tried to correct errors in Wikipedia where something was once widely believed to be true, but was now shown to not be true (and, I think in all those cases, was never actually based on evidence – it was just one of those conventional wisdom problems).  But even if I made the change in terms of “it was once believed that but now it has been shown/established that….” the editor who controlled the page quickly changed it back.  I was informed, in effect, that most of what is out there on the web still presents the old view and does not acknowledge a controversy, and since science is democratic in the Wikipedia world, the old versions stands.  Given that experience I choose to focus on forums where most readers know enough to recognize at least the basic credibility of what I argue, even if it is contrary to what they thought they knew and what others claim.  My project in this blog is to figure out how to help people skip a few steps on this knowledge ladder, but that does not help much for those who do not even seek that knowledge.

The problem with knowledge at the news or Wikipedia level is that the people compiling it do not know who they should believe, or even how to distinguish when there is legitimate controversy.  Wikipedia is truly great at what other non-expert encyclopedias were always quite good at, getting non-controversial factoids correct, and it dramatically broadens the coverage (from “when did Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address?” to “who were the finalists in American Idol”).  It is pretty good with scientific controversies that do not have much of a worldly political angle (“when did humans arrive in the New World?” “what is the definition of ‘species’?”).  But it and newspapers fail when it comes to current controversies in active politicized sciences that public officials need to wade into.

The Wikipedia-level authors get their information from anyone who can publish an authoritative-seeming paper.  This gets pretty close to maximum current expertise in many sciences, where people authoring study reports mostly know what they are doing and generally know who look to when they do not.  There might be disagreement over ultimate conclusions and best methods, but not complete ignorance about best methods or who the leading thinkers are.  But this is not the case in health sciences.  Most people writing the epidemiology papers, the sources of the summary “knowledge” that is used in policy, have no idea what constitutes expert thinking in epidemiology.  Thu there is yet another layer of not knowing enough to really know that makes uneducated faith in experts and “common sense” that much less likely to identify good advice.

For example, on the question of whether there are health effects from industrial wind turbines, the government of Ontario, Canada (a major hotspot in that fight) seems to put a lot of stock in the thin report on the subject by their Chief Medical Officer of Health.  (CMOH is a strange Canadian institution wherein a physician administrator type is always the province’s chief public health advisor.)  I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when I saw a newspaper cite that report as if it were authoritative.  The problem is that the CMOH and her staff were in way over their heads in writing the report, and not only did not know what constitutes the available evidence, but did not know whose analysis to believe.

Funny story:  I was cross-examined by a lawyer representing Ontario at a proceeding where I had presented testimony that the CMOH report was a joke, albeit in a less combative and more detailed way, of course.  She asked me something along the lines of, “since you know so much, did you ever contact the CMOH to try to provide useful input into the writing of the document?”  It boggles the mind.  I expect it would require more search and processing power than Google has to be able to identify any time someone is writing a supposedly expert report that is beyond their capability, and then direct the real experts to proactively contribute to it.  It seems more promising for report writers to track down the experts and ask for input.  Of course, they have to know who to even ask.

The situation in Ontario is that the lawmakers trust an authoritative sounding government official who knows more than they do but is far from an expert in science, and in turn she does not know who to believe or how to interpret it.  Perhaps those who she believed know who are really expert, but they have shown no evidence of that.  I am not sure whether Ontario legislators follow the same pattern of education as Americans, but it really would not take much scientific understanding, when coupled with a bit of partisan education (lobbying) in the subject matter, to realize that the CMOH report is worthless.  But if the local lawmakers do not have the skills to understand (when given some information and advice about thinking in the spirit of what I do in this blog) when their “experts” are giving them bad information, it does not really help much that true expertise exists, merely a few layers away.

July 12, 2010

Take THAT: CanWEA and Dr David Colby!

More opinions—

Anyone who has been involved in health research knows what a travesty the Candian Wind Energy Association/American Wind Energy Association report on potential health effects from industrial wind turbines was, particularly the suggestion that people reporting effects are really just “annoyed” and upset (i.e., it’s all in their heads) and then, amazingly, something NEVER seen in medical research, the conclusion that not only are there no effects from exposure to industrial wind turbines, there is no reason to do any further research.

Appalling. Insulting. Unprofessional. And, you could say more, like politically motivated, deliberately obtuse, and more.

Well, now someone has said more and coming from him, the criticisms carry a lot of weight. You can download Dr Carl V. Phillips’ full report from Wind Concerns Ontario, but his comments about the report written by a panel of “experts” headed by Ontario’s Dr David Colby are amazingly to the point, and very critical not only of the quality of “research” behind that report but also the motivations for it.

Here are some of the highlights:

-there is ample evidence to conclude that industrial wind turbines cause serious health problems; compelling evidence has been overlooked

-questions could be answered if resources were devoted to finding the answer

-reports that claim no evidence of health effects are based on a “very simplistic understanding of epidemiology” … “they do not represent proper scientific reasoning

-various attempts to dismiss the evidence appears to be based on a misunderstanding of epidemiology and semantic games

-“the dismissal of the evidence is sometimes so bald that it seems like parody. … Colby et al. go so far as to write ‘ There is no evidence that sound at the levels from wind turbines as heard in residences will cause direct physiological effects. A small number of sensitive people, however, may be stressed by the sound and suffer sleep disturbances.’ Even if the latter characterization did not comically understate the evidence, these authors, within the space of a two-sentence paragraph, claim there are no physiological effects but note that there are observed cases of turbines causing a physical problem.”

-“Some of the attempts to dismiss the importance of the observed health problems are semantic games and belittlement, cheap tactics that are typically used to obscure the lack of legitimate scientific arguments.”

-“Language games like these tend to suggest an attempt to avoid direct discussion of the evidence that there really is a problem.”

-“It is notable that the Colby et al. panel did not include any population health researchers, even though the question they claim the report addresses is one of population health. Their expertise seems to be limited to the relevant physical sciences and clinical medicine.” [ Editor: note that while Dr Colby’s specialty is in infectious disease, he does claim to have some experience with sound and safety issues.] ” … they seem quite anxious to claim that we have seen the cases but they do not really exist, very unphysician-like behaviour.”

-the “errors paint a picture of authors who are dramatically overstepping their expertise and hoping that no reader will ever have the expertise to notice, and a forum like the present report in which to expose it.”

Wow. Had enough?

Puts into perspective comments from CanWEA execs, corporate wind developers and politicians. Recall that Prowind Canada’s Bart Geleynse Jr said in a CBC radio interview that people reporting health problems from turbines had “psychosomatic” problems.

Bullying. Obfuscating. Deliberate manipulation of the truth.

It is time to demand that Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health revisit this issue (her 14-page report published in May being based in part on the Colby et al. very flawed and distorted “research”) and start fresh with proper medical research.

Contact your city councillor, your MPP, the Premier.

The North Gower Wind Action Group may be contacted at

May 3, 2010

Independent investigation needed on health effects of wind turbines

The Canadian and American wind development lobby keeps saying that there are no health problems associated with living next to industrial wind turbines but they also don’t support any health studies that would actually involve speaking to, or (God forbid) having a doctor physically examine people who are undergoing this experience. One Ontario doctor has suggested that a simple sleep study would provide plenty of information.

In our view this is immoral and indicates that the development lobby and the developers have a great deal to hide. They are now just aiming to whack these things up in Ontario as quickly as they can, because once  they’re up, they’re not coming back down.

Here is a letter sent by an Ontario resident to Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Medical Officers of Health around the province. Ottawa’s MoH has declined to even look at the situation.

Dear Dr. King
I am a resident presently facing the construction of a 24 Industrial Wind Turbine project near Harrow Ontario.  It is my understanding that Minister Gerretsen has  indicated that you will be undertaking a review of the existing information on Industrial Wind Turbines and their link to adverse health effects.  He also indicated  that your report will soon be  available and as such I would respectfully request that you  consider  several concerns that I and all the residents within this project (1,600 in total) will be facing. 
1)  there will be a minimum of 15 points of reception, as listed by the wind developer’s noise assessment,  which are  less than the minimum distance now prescribed under the new GEA of 550 meters.  Despite the fact that this project did not start construction until after the proclamation of the new REA process,  it is  considered under transition and will need to meet only the setbacks my municipality developed under the pressured guidance  of the wind developer (min. 450).   I myself will be facing 3 turbines within 1 km of my home and the full 24 within 5 km.  Many projects within Chatham/Kent area are also facing these reduced setbacks with even greater numbers of turbines.  Despite MOE’s clear indication for an increased set-back now incorporated with the REA process, projects under transition will be allowed to proceed with less than the 550 minimum. 
2) despite this however, the new 550 meter min. is much too small as evidenced by those who are abandoning their homes with larger setbacks (4 homes in the Norfolk region (approx. 700 meters) 3 in Ripley area (approx. 800 meters) and  6  in the Amaranth area ( 450 to 600 meters) who have specifically been bought out by the former Canadian Hydro Developer (now TransAlta)  
3) In a technical review of the Harrow Wind project noise assessment,  over 70 residents will be bombarded with noise levels above the present 40 dBA minimum that MOE has established as a max. noise level.  This also did  not include a penalty for cyclic noise, (5 dBA)  which MOE refuses to apply despite the swoosh, swoosh repetitive noise characteristic of Industrial Wind Turbines.    This technical review also indicates that the developer is using wind shears in their noise modeling well below commonly known levels for Ontario.
4) It should also be noted that the Wind developer generated noise assessment do not take into account any kind of low frequency levels that is associated with many of the adverse health effects such as described in many parts of the world today (Japan, Maine, U.K., Denmark, Canada, Australia).   Health Canada has acknowledged that  there is peer-reviewed evidence that wind-turbine noise may cause health problems.  
5) Gov’t and independent noise audits in Ontario are well in excess of the MOE guidelines. Support data is available for review.
6)  MOE  does not have in place a scientific methodology to assess for  post construction noise, and as such cannot establish legally for residents  whether the wind developers noise levels are within compliance, leaving people with no recursive action to attenuate noise which is disrupting their sleep and creating other symptoms such as nausea, joint pain, and ringing in their ears.
7) the recent A/CanWEA Health Impact Review which concluded that no further health study is necessary has been thoroughly discredited by the recent rebuttal report from the Society for Wind Vigilance. .
8) the chair of this industry sponsored Health Impact Review, Dr. Colby indicated in a recent news article that “there’s no evidence to indicate that money should be wasted on such a study (epidemiological study) “which will never satisfy people anyway“.  Dr. Colby in his review of Health Impacts from Wind turbines  has never  examined or interviewed people with known noise complaints.   Please also note a letter from the College of Physicians and Surgeons indicated the following: 
Furthermore,  the Committee observes,  Dr. Colby expertise is in medical microbiology and infectious disease, an area quite distinct from audiology or other fields related to the physical impact of wind turbines on human health.  Thus,  the Committee wishes to remind Dr. Colby, going forward, of the importance of fully disclosing the extent of his qualifications in a field in which he has been retained as an “expert” and also to ensure that he fully disclose to the public the organization or corporation by whom he has been retained as an expert.  Such actions on Dr. Colby’s part may help prevent additional, similar complaints  being lodged against him“.  

In closing,  it is clear to me that wind developers are aware that they are breaching noise regulations and causing health problems which is why they are buying out residents (six at Amaranth alone).  There is now so much distrust of the McGuinty government and the way it has trampled upon the concerns of residents of rural Ontario that an independent body should be responsible for the health impact study.  I am therefore pleading with you to do an independent investigation and find some kind of assistance to those who are presently suffering from the noise generated by Industrial Wind Turbines.
Respectfully yours
Colette McLean

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