Properly interpreting the epidemiologic evidence about the health effects of industrial wind turbines on nearby residents
Epidemiologist Carl V. Phillips explores the debate concerning wind turbines and their impact on human health. The abstract and conclusions of his paper are posted below. To read Dr. Phillips full paper, click on the link at the bottom of this page.
There is overwhelming evidence that wind turbines cause serious health problems in nearby residents, usually stress-disorder type diseases, at a nontrivial rate.
The bulk of the evidence takes the form of thousands of adverse event reports. There is also a small amount of systematically-gathered data.
The adverse event reports provide compelling evidence of the seriousness of the problems and of causation in this case because of their volume, the ease of observing exposure and outcome incidence, and case-crossover data.
Proponents of turbines have sought to deny these problems by making a collection of contradictory claims including that the evidence does not "count", the outcomes are not "real" diseases, the outcomes are the victims' own fault, and that acoustical models cannot explain why there are health problems so the problems must not exist.
These claims appeared to have swayed many non-expert observers, though they are easily debunked.
Moreover, though the failure of models to explain the observed problems does not deny the problems, it does mean that we do not know what, other than kilometers of distance, could sufficiently mitigate the effects.
There has been no policy analysis that justifies imposing these effects on local residents. The attempts to deny the evidence cannot be seen as honest scientific disagreement, and represent either gross incompetence or intentional bias.
It is always possible that further research will reveal that, under certain circumstances, turbines can be sited near people's homes with minimal health risk. Such is always possible for any exposure, given the nature of science (open to additional information) and changing technology.
But our current knowledge indicates that there are substantial health risks from the existing exposure, and we do not know how to reduce those risks other than by keeping turbines several kilometers away from homes.
Similarly, it is quite possible a public policy case could be made for the claim that the costs are justified by the benefits. But the key is that the case must be made, including a quantification of the impacts on local residents, which has not been done.
Those who pretend that there are no serious impacts on local residents cannot contribute any useful analysis.
Moreover, it seems unlikely that it will ever be considered ethically acceptable to force susceptible individuals to suffer serious health problems, to say nothing of the non-health complaints and effects on communities, without much greater and more reliable compensation than has been offered to date.
Dismissal of health effects cannot be seen as honest disagreements about the weight of the evidence. Honest disagreements about scientific points are always possible. But when proponents of one side of the argument consistently try to deny the very existence of contrary evidence, make contradictory claims, appeal to nonsensical and non-existent rules, treat mistaken predictions as if they were evidence of actual outcomes, play semantic games to denigrate the reported outcomes, and blame the victims, then they are not being honest, scientific, or moral.
They are preventing the creation of optimal public policy and damaging the credibility of science as a tool for informing policy.
Moreover, since their lack of plausible arguments suggests there are no defensible arguments to be made on that side of the issue, their persistence in making implausible arguments is directly responsible for hurting significant numbers of people.