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Environment

Is Scaremongering Dangerous to Your Health?

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A researcher looked into claims of health effects from exposure to a source of energy that has become controversial in recent years:

Then in about 2009 things started ramping up and these people discovered if you started saying it was a health problem, a lot more people would sit up and pay attention. It's essentially a sociological phenomenon.

Take a guess what he's talking about. It's probably not what you think. Here's the opening to the Guardian story containing the aforementioned quote:

Sickness being attributed to wind turbines is more likely to have been caused by people getting alarmed at the health warnings circulated by activists, an Australian study has found. Complaints of illness were far more prevalent in communities targeted by anti-windfarm groups, said the report's author, Simon Chapman, professor of public health at Sydney University. His report concludes that illnesses being blamed on windfarms are more than likely caused by the psychological effect of suggestions that the turbines make people ill, rather than by the turbines themselves.

Well, well, what are we to make of this? Before you respond, let's look at a different example. Last year, Earthworks, a Washington D.C.-based environmental advocacy group surveyed more than 100 people living near gas drilling infrastructure in Pennsylvania. The gas has been tapped via the controversial hydraulic fracturing method. An Earthworks report on the responses of residents, coupled with air and water samples taken by the environmental group, concluded that

many residents have developed health symptoms that they did not have before—indicating the strong possibility that they are occurring because of gas development.

The Huffington Post did a story on this. The Earthworks report, it said,

suggests that widespread contamination of air and water by natural gas drillers in Pennsylvania has triggered an array of health problems, including sinus, respiratory and mood problems.

These and other adverse health effects have been chronicled in communities around the country where gas development has occurred. Now I'm not going to argue that fracking is not without legitimate environmental and public health concerns. But have those concerns been hyped and exploited to advance an agenda? (Still, the convictions of some in the anti-fracking movement are intensely felt; see this exchange between Josh Fox and Andrew Revkin, for example.) What am I getting at? Let's look at the excerpt I highlighted from the Guardianstory on Wind Turbine Syndrome--with just a few word substitutions by me (bolded):

Sickness being attributed to wind turbines fracking is more likely to have been caused by people getting alarmed at the health warnings circulated by activists...Complaints of illness were far more prevalent in communities targeted by anti-windfarmanti-fracking groups...

As you ponder this, keep in mind that reports of sicknesses associated with both wind turbines and fracking have one thing in common: They are all anecdotal. That doesn't mean the symptoms aren't real. But in the case of Wind Turbine Syndrome, blame is being attributed to scaremongers. Dare we consider that anti-fracking campaigners might be guilty of the same thing?

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