Wind turbines: unsightly and expensive, but are they also a health risk?

David Atherton catches up with Professor Carl V. Phillips for an exclusive interview on the health effects of wind turbines

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Wind turbines don't look great, but are they also dangerous?
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David Atherton
On 4 September 2012 13:36

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.

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