Dr Bruce Rapley tells Senate: Wind Farm Nocebo Story “Nefarious Pseudoscience” & an “Insult to Intelligence”
Australia is blessed with a former tobacco advertising guru who is paid a packet by wind power outfits – like near-bankrupt Infigen – to pedal a story that the adverse health impacts caused by incessant turbine generated low-frequency noise and infrasound (such as sleep deprivation) are the product of “scare-mongering” – which, on his story, affects only English-speaking “climate deniers”; and that never, ever affects those farmers paid to host turbines.
This grab bag of nonsense is pitched up under the tagline “nocebo”. Now, that doesn’t sound altogether scientific, but nor does the term “anti-wind farm wing-nut”, used by the guru as part of his efforts to diagnose (without clinical consultation, mind you) those said to be suffering from “nocebo”. We think he uses a magic stethoscope mounted in an orbiting satellite to reach his long-distance, infallible medical diagnoses.
More fortunate, however, is the fact that the Senate Inquiry into the great wind power fraud got to hear from a relevantly qualified health and acoustic expert. Dr Bruce Rapley gave this blistering evidence to the Inquiry – which makes a complete mockery of the arguments pitched up by the chancers and showboats paid by the wind industry to downplay, diminish and deny the obvious impacts that incessant low-frequency noise and infrasound has on human health.
Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines – 19 June 2015
RAPLEY, Dr Bruce Ian, Principal Consultant, Acoustics and Human Health, Atkinson & Rapley Consulting Ltd
CHAIR: Welcome. Can you please confirm that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you?
Dr Rapley: I can confirm and I have read the document.
CHAIR: The committee has your submission. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement and, at the conclusions of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.
Dr Rapley: I understand that time is of the essence, so I have provided a full opening statement in writing to you but I will read a brief opening statement, if that is alright with you. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for this opportunity to address your Senate inquiry on this very important topic.
There are two main problems with the way the sound from wind turbines is measured and controlled. Firstly, by use of the A-weighting and, secondly, by the averaging over time. A-weighting is an anachronistic attempt to describe human hearing, initially conceived and averaged on the reception of pure sounds heard through earphones by 23 laboratory workers at the Western Electric Laboratories of the AT&T Telephone Company in the late 1920s.
The salient point is that the human organism is a frequency modulated difference engine. That is why we react to differences between instantaneous sound pressure levels—that is, the peaks. Averages are a human, anthropomorphic, construct used to generate a single descriptive value to describe a complex dataset. In creating such a statistic, much of the variance of the data is necessarily lost. The 10-minutes averages, used in almost all environmental noise controls, have little value in terms of human or animal response.
The reason that animals, including humans, respond to instantaneous sound pressure levels is a simple matter of evolutionary adaptation. Single, often sudden, or pulsating, acoustic events are very descriptive of the environment in that they frequently contain information that is indicative of a threat and therefore essential for survival. While averages have some uses, hence their invention, the danger is not in what they reveal; rather it is in what they conceal. The use of the 10-minute average so commonly used in environmental noise monitoring is designed to smooth out the peaks, thereby missing the most important part of the soundscape: sudden loud noise events, or in the case of wind turbines, pulsating peaks of low-frequency sound.
This methodology favours the wind industry. Thus, in one fell swoop, they have managed to hide the very sound effects that are causing much of the adverse biological response. The wind industry can and does hide behind the statistics, much to the detriment of public health. With the ever-increasing size of these industrial generators comes a significant overhead: noise pollution.
It is my understanding that one such mitigation strategy that has been suggested to this commission: phase desynchronisation. This is in fact not only impractical but deeply flawed on basic principles of physics. It is my intention to correct this misunderstanding so that no precious time is wasted on an idea that is without merit.
Further, the wind industry’s strategies of denial, obfuscation, sustained personal attacks on professionals advising of the problems, and ridicule of those who are suffering, followed by buy-outs with gagging clauses must be exposed for the ruse that it is. That the wind industry and its supporters continue to fly the flag of the nocebo principle must also be shown for the misapplication of science that it is. The nocebo principle cannot be applied to a palpable phenomenon by definition. To continue to fly this particular flag is to insult the intelligence of genuinely impacted people and to bring the scientific method and science into disrepute. It is a staggering misuse of the scientific method and does nothing to advance the understanding of this complex problem.
In the future, I believe that the adverse health effects of wind turbines will eclipse the asbestos problem in the annals of history. In my opinion, the greed and scientific half-truths from the wind industry will be seen by history as one of the worst corporate and government abuses of democracy in the 21st century. I look forward to answering your questions, Senators. Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Rapley. In your submission, why do you think the A-weighting is inappropriate for the measuring for the acoustic output for wind turbines?
Dr Rapley: The A-weighting was a good idea 80 years ago but it is not a good idea now. It is an average, it is predicated on averaged hearing of a small number of people using very poor equipment, using pure tones, occluded headphones, in 1928. The equipment was very poor in those times.
The A-weighting has been revised a number of times as equipment has got better over the years. The problem is that it progressively discounts frequencies below 1,000 hertz, and it totally ignores everything below 20 hertz. It is not a good indicator of what is in the acoustic environment.
A very important point here is that human hearing sensitivities are continually changing. In much of this debate, I see a lot of talk about acoustics, physics and measurements. What I do not see is a good understanding of the basic science of human biology and hearing—and that is not just dealing with the human apparatus of the ear; it is also dealing with the processing by the human brain and the auditory cortex, and the filtering systems therein. It is a complex problem. The A-weighting is a poor indication of average hearing, badly implemented. It does not describe the frequency region, where most of the biological effects, we believe, are being initiated. It averages out the very values we need to look for and it cannot find the values that are actually causing the problem. Why this continues to be used is beyond my understanding. It is a complete scientific anachronism; it is inappropriate.
CHAIR: Dr Rapley, could you explain to us what are heightened noise zones?
Dr Rapley: Okay. Can I ask you: have you seen the second submission of mine: Elements of Wind Turbines Sound Synchronicity Phase and Heightened Noise Zones?
CHAIR: Yes, some of us have.
Dr Rapley: I think its best described there, but let me describe this, if I can, in a simple manner. Sound is an energy form which we describe as a wave. The way to look at this is let us imagine that we are looking at the surface of a still pond. Onto that pond we drop a stone. We all know what happens: the ripples will spread out. If you were to drop two stones into the pool at the same time, both would create ripples, and the ripples would interfere with one another. We call this superposition theory—the addition of wave energy as a vector quantity in space.
What happens is that, when one wave exactly coincides with another wave from another pebble, the two waves add together. It is a simple matter of algebraic addition; it is very simple. You get large waves and large troughs, but as the waves move out you will see that a crest and a trough will hit. They will cancel each other out. That is what we call a node in physics. That is an area which is not moving; it is a null spot. The null spots are a necessary creation of interacting waves in a three-dimensional environment. Heightened noise zones are simply zones where several or many crests and troughs of waves interact in such a way that you get a supercrest, supertrough.
The simple way to look at it is this. Stones dropped into a pond cause ripples. The ripples interact. Where the ripples cause double-height waves, that is a heightened noise zone. The one thing that you know is that, wherever there is a heightened noise zone, one of these antinodes, in close proximity—within half a wave length—there will be a node, the null spot. Simply waves hitting one another, combining, causes this problem. Phase, I am afraid, is not the question; it is not the issue.
CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Rapley. Senator Day?
Senator DAY: What sort of research do you think should be undertaken in the short term to better understand the science of this phenomenon?
Dr Rapley: I think that is one of the most important questions that you have to consider. Observational studies are urgently needed to study the low-frequency and infrasound emissions. It is of those people affected inside their homes—that is the priority. I have to stress this: laboratory studies cannot replicate the situation experienced by those people in close proximity to large wind turbines, and they cannot provide the study data we need.
What we have to do, now that we are in a crisis situation in terms of public health and regulation, is do the first studies on sensitised individuals. We should not be looking at large cross-sectional population studies of non-exposed people, laboratory studies. No longer are a few A-weighted sound levels and wind speeds of any use in correlating environmental conditions to subjects’ experiences.
We need to look at sensitised individuals first, because that is where the most rich data can be obtained. Research that relates to full-spectrum and also narrow-band analysis with an objective physiological measure in the people that you are investigating, who are suffering the worst impacts in their homes and workplaces, is the only strategy that can produce the results that we urgently need. We cannot afford as a country to waste time on other issues.
We must address those who are severely impacted in their homes, use the full-spectrum narrow-band analysis, and that needs to be combined not just with diaries of their experience but with real physiological measures. I have the technology to be able to do that; the technology has been invented. We can do this, but it has never ever been done. The technology is now available. Time is of the essence.
Senator URQUHART: In your submission you said the acoustic emissions from wind turbines are unique. Can you outline what makes wind farm infrasound unique?
Dr Rapley: Yes, I can. The wind farms produce wave forms which are unlike any other naturally occurring forms of infrasound. This is well documented in the scientific literature. The fact that they are different, by definition, means they are unique, and the unique character is that they are like impulsive sounds. But there is a complexity here that few understand. I will try to explain it.
We are not just dealing with a single low frequency like one hertz, two hertz or whatever it happens to be. What we are looking at is a combined effect of the infrasound in addition to all of the other sounds emitted plus all of the sounds in the environment. When you look at the environment you see a range of frequencies, which includes the hiss of the wind in the trees and the wind going through the turbines and their structures. All of that white noise, plus the acoustic noise that wind turbines produce by nature of their gears and the air flowing over the nacelle, the tower and the blades, gives you a complex sound packet.
The wind turbines are unique because the low frequency, because the rotation of the blades, essentially throws you packets of sound. It is likened to amplitude modulation of the existing sound. That is not just a physical phenomenon. That is also a phenomenon within the human organism, and that would take a lot more time to explain. But what we hear is a facsimile of what is in the environment, in the same way that a fax machine does not send your words; it sends dots and dashes which are reconstructed. The human brain reconstructs the sound.
With wind turbines, the unique combination of pulsing low-frequency bursts not only causes amplitude modulation effects in the atmosphere—the physical molecules of the air itself—but actually confuses the ear so the biological mechanism is tricked. It is not used to hearing this combination of sound. It is a very unique sound. I know of nothing in the natural soundscape that is even within cooee of this type of sound. So when that sound—this complex series of packets of pulsated noise—hits your ear, it affects the muscles that hold the ossicles and therefore determine the status position of the oval window in the cochlea but it also affects the outer hair cells, which have the main role of controlling the volume or the sensitivity of all of the cochlea in little tiny individual pieces.
When you inject infrasound pulsations what you are doing is introducing low-frequency pulses below the normal human hearing, which interferes directly with the afferent and efferent control systems of the sensitivity of the cochlea. What this does is magnify and amplify the amplitude modulation. It is kind of like listening to your stereo and turning the knob up and down so you get this changing volume. The sound does that, but the ear makes it far worse because of the physiology of how it works.
The brain is not designed, as far as we understand it, to deal with low frequencies being imposed on the control circuitry of the gain or the feedback control of sensitivity. That sound is doing something that nothing else in the world does. That is why it has such an important effect on humans—because it actually confounds the control circuitry that allows us to hear. I hope that gives you some explanation. It is exceedingly complicated.
Senator URQUHART: Thank you for that. You also mentioned in your submission that thousands of people living in close proximity to wind farms report similar adverse health effects. The committee has heard that there are many countries where health impacts of wind farms are rarely raised as a concern, particularly in non-English-speaking countries. What factors do you think could account for these geographic differences?
Dr Rapley: There are undoubtedly going to be geographic differences, but this is the problem with data collection. The same thing occurs when you start to look at the incidence of diseases in a population or the incidence of crime in a community. It is the reporting which is largely at fault. The fact is that people are affected by this, and the numbers are in the thousands. I only have to look at the emails that cross my desk from all over the world. I get bombarded from the UK, Ireland, France, Canada, the United States, Australia, Germany.
There are tonnes of these things out there but, because the system does not understand the problem, nor does it have a strategy, many of those complaints go unlisted. If I were to look, for example, at the list of complaints for the wind farm which is in my territory, in the Manawatu, in New Zealand, we are talking hundreds upon hundreds of complaints. They were all logged but never actioned. Nothing happens about them; they just get lost. Unless you go looking for them, you will not find the data. You have to burrow down into the data to find it. You cannot just rely on the simple reporting. That is highly erroneous and a very bad way to do science.
Senator URQUHART: The Health Canada study, which looked at 1,200 residents, found that there was no correlation between wind farms and self-reported sleep problems, illnesses, perceived stress or quality of life. If wind farms are causing the health impacts, why do you think they are not showing up in large-scale epidemiological research such as the Health Canada study?
Dr Rapley: There is an old biblical reference, ‘Seek, and ye shall find.’ If you deliberately set out not to find something, there is a very good chance you will not find it. I think that study is flawed on so many levels it is not even worth considering.
Senator URQUHART: In which areas do you believe that that study is flawed?
Dr Rapley: The way I think they collected the data is a problem. The questions that they asked to collect that data were flawed. But it is such a huge issue we would need several hours for me to sit down and explain it. I am happy to do that in writing, but if we are short of time—there are so many things wrong with that study. It is too big a topic to do in a couple of minutes. I see I have nine minutes remaining.
Senator URQUHART: Okay.
Dr Rapley: I am happy to answer that in writing later.
Senator URQUHART: Thank you.
Senator BACK: Dr Rapley, you made the comment with regard to the nocebo effect and you said, ‘It can’t be applied to a palpable’—I did not get the last word.
Dr Rapley: Phenomenon.
Senator BACK: Could you expand on that for us, please? Obviously it is a topic of quite intense interest in this inquiry.
Dr Rapley: Yes, it is. Firstly, quite bluntly, on first scientific principles it is the wrong terminology.
It is a piece of very poor academic science to even invoke the term. The definition of nocebo, in medicine, is—from the Latin ‘I shall harm’—an inert substance or form of therapy that creates harmful effects in a patient. Therefore, the nocebo effect is the adverse reaction experienced by a patient who receives such a therapy. Wind turbines are not a therapy. Sound is not an inert substance devoid of biological perception or effect.
Nocebo is the wrong word. It is very simply a bastardisation of a term invented for nefarious purposes to attempt to invoke some sort of pseudoscientific authenticity. The term that should be used is psychogenic or psychosomatic.
It just stuns me that people continue to use this. It is the wrong term to begin with and it does not explain the effects that we see. It is simply a ruse. It is a red herring that is put out and promoted by certain academics and the industry to explain a phenomenon. It fails on first principles. But it fails because it cannot account for those who were pro-turbine prior to commissioning only to experience adverse health effects post-commissioning that they were later able to relate back to turbine emissions. I think Dr Swinbanks will be talking on this.
We have animals affected by this. Normally we would believe that animals are not really susceptible to media hype, so the fact that animals are doing this is showing that that cannot work. We also have physiological mechanisms of action now that have been proposed—and this is years ago. The nocebo effect is akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is akin to what I call ‘the magician’s dilemma’—are you familiar with that concept?
Senator BACK: No, I do not think I am. But I am about to be!
Dr Rapley: The magician’s dilemma is this: suppose you watch a magician performing a trick, perhaps sawing a lady in half. We know that you cannot actually saw a person in half, because they are going to die. That happens every day in surgery. But you think about this and you say: ‘Gee, I think I’ve worked this out. I know how he’s making this appear to happen.’ You have come up with the answer: this is how magicians cut a woman in half; it is a complete ruse; it is a trick.
That is true, but the fallacy in the logic is that just because you have proposed one theory to explain the phenomenon, that does not mean that all magicians use the same tricks to do the same bit of magic. They may have a completely different method that you have not thought of, and this is why you cannot latch on to any one single explanation, because of multiple causation. The magician’s dilemma is that you think that you have found the answer and that it is the only answer. There are many ways to skin a roo, as I think you say over there—or a cat in New Zealand—and there are many ways to do a trick.
There are many reasons why there are health effects of wind turbines. We now know that there are good physiological mechanisms to explain this. We have known for 30 or 40 years that the effects are there. Science is an empirical art form. First it involves observation, and after observation we then start to think, ‘How did that happen?’ We create a hypothesis, we find a way of testing that and we carry out those tests to see if it agrees with our theory of how the woman was cut in half. That is what science is about. We have the observations over decades. We have a new situation with larger wind turbines—
Senator BACK: We have only got seconds left, and I know another colleague wants to ask a question. So I do thank you for that very extensive explanation.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Can you just keep your comments brief please; we are running out of time. You do not think very much of the A-weighting. What measure would you use if you wanted to monitor compliance with a standard? What standard would use and what process would you use for determining an appropriate sound level?
Dr Rapley: I would use unweighted sound levels. I would use no weighting at all. It would be unweighted and it would be the equivalent of what you may understand by ‘narrow band’.
Senator LEYONHJELM: We asked one witness that question and he just said straight 30 dB, unweighted. Would you agree?
Dr Rapley: Not at all. Not with a 30 dB, because the one thing that you are missing from the equation is the biology and the human response. You must not look at this purely as a physical phenomenon. That is where the mistakes are made. You need to understand the response of the biological organism and the fact that human hearing is changing. There is no one magic decibel level; it depends on environments.
Senator LEYONHJELM: That presents a regulatory issue. How do you set a standard? In your submission you went to great lengths to criticise the New Zealand standard. But governments and regulators like standards. If there was to be a standard, what should it have in it?
Dr Rapley: That standard can only be proposed after the research that I am saying is vitally important and urgent is done. When we understand what you would call in general terms the dose-response relationship, then I can give you the standard. I cannot do that in the absence of that science. That must be completed first. I am happy to answer it when the science has been done.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Just to clarify, you also talked about nodes, and what you are suggesting is that there is no way of replicating those nodes in a laboratory environment. Is that right?
Dr Rapley: I think you are confusing two answers there. The point is that nodes exist with complex waveforms—complex sound in a complex environment. Therefore, what I am saying is, forget the nodes; the fact is you cannot replicate in a sealed room, a little laboratory room, what is happening in the real world for people living in a house near wind turbines.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I am also working on an assumption—correct me if I am wrong—that, with respect to ordinary emissions from a wind farm, you could be in reasonable proximity to a wind farm and not be affected, but if you move to another area that is a similar distance from a wind farm, where the sound is exaggerated, amplified or whatever, that is more likely to adversely affect you. I am assuming that that might be a node. Am I wrong there?
Dr Rapley: The node is in fact the quiet part. It is the antinode that is noisier. I know it is a funny piece of terminology. I first discovered it some years ago. I walked down a country road at quarter past 10 in the evening. It was a still night. There were no stars. It was totally black. I really had to feel the road. I had never heard wind turbine sounds. What I heard was what to me sounded like a didgeridoo. It occurred very suddenly. I took two steps forward and it disappeared. I took two steps back—that is about two metres—it came back.
Nodes and antinodes are sometimes very small in area, sometimes large, but they are forever moving. As they are forever moving, you cannot use phase cancellation to make all of the houses in an area get no sound. It is an absolute impossibility. Wherever there is a node there is an antinode. You just cannot make that happen.
Senator LEYONHJELM: We have had anecdotal evidence presented to the committee about adverse effects on animals, but others have said that there have not been any at all. Are you aware of any published work on the effect of turbines on animals?
Dr Rapley: Yes, I am. I would have to go and look those references up. They certainly do exist. It is interesting that in the veterinary medicine textbook of diseases of cattle, sheep, pigs and horses by Blood, Henderson and Radostits—
Senator LEYONHJELM: I know it well.
Dr Rapley: they tell you in chapter 30 of the importance of sound effects on animals. It is a brilliant textbook. It is obviously still in use today. There are papers and references I could find for you and send to you. But can I bring you back to one more important point. The scientific method is predicated first on observation. Much needs to be looked into in the grey literature, the anecdotes, to find that data. Once we have that, then the papers will come. There are papers in the literature, but I would have to go and dig those up. I do not have them in front of me.
Senator LEYONHJELM: We get the impression that if the wind farms made available their data on their operating hours, their wind speed, their own sound measurements, their energy emissions and that sort of stuff they could be analysed in conjunction with separate sound monitoring in order to improve our scientific understanding of this. Would you agree?
Dr Rapley: Absolutely. That is not a question. That is rhetorical. It is a no-brainer. Of course it would. The problem that we have been beset with for many years is that the wind turbine people will not release their data. They say it is commercially sensitive. They are absolutely inhibiting us from getting that data. They are hiding. We cannot get it.
I can give you, on another occasion, chapter and verse of trying to get that data where I myself have monitoring stations set up. The wind industry is deliberately hiding that data so that we cannot use it. This means that, as scientists, we have to get it for ourselves. We have to duplicate that effort, which is a waste of time and resources and doggy in the manger. Public health is what is suffering here.
CHAIR: Dr Rapley, are you happy for us to send you questions on notice?
Dr Rapley: Absolutely. I would be more than happy to respond to questions in a timely manner.
CHAIR: Thank you for your appearance before the committee today, Dr Rapley.
Dr Rapley: Thank you for your time.
Hansard 19, June 2015
Dr Rapley’s evidence is available from the Parliament’s website here.