Friday, 2 September 2011

Medical baggage and barriers

This first 'health impact' related post is about removing some of the baggage that is usually seen accompanying comments surrounding the possible health implications surrounding wind turbines. Both sides of the argument are guilty I'm afraid, but the drivers behind the transgressions are I believe, different.

The potential health impacts of wind turbine operation is an area that many who are opposed to wind farms have historically focussed upon - and this is a perfectly understandable position to take, after all would you want to have something imposed on you if you believed that it could have a detrimental impact on your health? I should expose my personal beliefs with regard to the health implications of the inconsiderate sighting of wind turbines relative to human beings and their residences before I go any further. I personally believe that there may well be negative health impacts - the anecdotal evidence is quite strong in this regard, and I believe that such evidence warrants a more in depth and rigorous study.

Now, the first thing we need to clear out of the way are statements such as '..there is a lack of peer-reviewed evidence that wind farms have a detrimental impact on human health'. Many wind farm operators and government representatives focus on the 'peer review' process as the definitive standard with regard to research and its' value. It is perfectly sensible to look for peer reviewed research to help establish something new or to provide supporting evidence to a case being made, after all a paper that makes it through the peer review process is quite likely to be accepted by eminent individuals in the relevant field as sound. It is however, a totally illogical argument to say that because there is no peer-reviewed evidence of something, it doesn't exist or shouldn't be a concern. Such a statement is nonsensical. After all, how can we know about something until we look at it properly? Such statements need to be taken as a statement in their own right, and shouldn't be used as a tool with which to dismiss concerns. The simple fact of the matter is that nobody has done much (or any) really targeted, in-depth, rigorous research in this area, so the possibility of negative impacts cannot reasonably be dismissed on the basis of a lack of evidence. If you don't look for something, you probably won't find it.

I have come across quite a lot of statements recently along the lines of 'no peer reviewed papers have appeared in mainstream scientific or medical journals demonstrating negative health impacts with regard to wind farms'. This again is another nonsensical statement when used as a method of research validation. A piece of research that does not appear in a 'mainstream' journal is not rendered valueless as a result of its' non-publication. Lots of perfectly valid research is not published in mainstream journals, and whilst it is fair to say that such publication often adds an additional layer of validation to the report of paper concerned, it is in no way the ultimate acid test in terms of research validity.

Finally, attempts are often made to debunk the anecdotal evidence surrounding negative health impacts of wind farms as 'of no credible value'. This again is another worthless statement when used as a reason to ignore such evidence. In medical science, anecdotal evidence and the recognition of patterns of symptoms is often the trigger for a more in-depth study. Whilst it is unreasonable to expect the cause of every sneeze, cough or headache to be established through rigorous research, where symptomatic patterns and uncertainty do exist I don't think it is unreasonable to start to look a little more closely.

The three types of 'health baggage' cited above seem, on the surface at least, to be pedalled by individuals desperate to ensure the continued rollout of wind farms across our landscape at all costs, and who seem not to be prepared to entertain the remotest possibility there could be a problem that warrants serious investigation. Consequently, we really must treat these statements with a high degree of contempt.

On the other side of the argument, it has to be said that the anecdotal evidence which is quite frequently published with regard to the health impacts of wind farms by people opposed to such developments tends to be somewhat sensationalist in its presentation. Such tabloid style headlines tend to play into the hands of the group of individuals identified in the previous paragraph, to the extent that the evidence itself becomes somewhat tainted. Additionally, groups and individuals immediately jumping on a 'new piece of evidence' and quoting it out of context definitely do not help the overall case. It should be said however, that I believe what drives this group of individuals is not an effort to 'gloss over the possibility that something may be amiss' but in many cases, a genuine and heart-felt concern with regard to possible health impacts which appear not to be given any credence.

So, what are the barriers to research? The major barrier is funding: who would finance the research? In considering funding such research, the Government are likely to balance cost and risk against benefit in the sense that a) it's a relatively small sub-set of the population who could be at risk, b) it would cost a considerable amount of money to undertake such research and c) the results may prove to be 'inconvenient'. So, probably not much immediate help on that front. In general, research and academic funding are more limited than ever - so it is unlikely that in the current financial climate we can expect help from that quarter. How about a philanthropic individual willing to write a large cheque? Great - where can I find one? How about the turbine manufacturers? Well, unfortunately their position may be at odds with what should be the objective of such research: the proof (or denial) that their equipment does not pose a health risk.

Where do we go from here? I believe the best way forward is to try and consolidate the growing quantity of anecdotal evidence and combine this with the rigorous research, papers and articles of note that do exist in an effort to build the case for stimulating proper, objective research. In future posts I will attempt to start to unravel the maze of evidence and try to build the case for further research. To this end, I have added a new link to the top of this blog labelled 'Medical Data'. As I add linked references to this page of the blog, I will post about what I perceive to be the more significant items. I know immediately that the first post will be concerning Dr Pierpoiont's research which is often the centre of debate surrounding the health implications of wind farms, but in the meantime I will start to build a linked list of relevant material.