Scrutiny after 'violent' reaction in noise test

A New Zealand university is investigating the conduct of researchers who let the subject of a "noise sensitisation" experiment drive a vehicle despite experiencing a "severe" response after visiting a wind farm in NSW.

Massey University said it had already undertaken an "educative review" with two researchers - among the four in total - who teach at the institution.

"Retraction of the research is an option open to the university," Giselle Byrnes, an assistant vice-chancellor at Massey, said in a letter responding to a complaint about the study.

One issue is the lack of an ethics review of the study before it was conducted, a standard requirement for experiments involving humans.

Scientist have also raised concern about the standard of the non peer-reviewed paper - Cross-sensitisation to infrasound and low frequency noise (ILFN) - presented in June in Zurich, Switzerland, to the triennial gathering of the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise.

Partly funded by the Waubra Foundation, an Australian anti-wind farm lobby, the work's presentation at a global accoustics gathering has given it a sheen of credibility. Copies are understood to have begun circulating to residents near a proposed wind farm in Victoria, one government scientist said.

Its authors include Bruce Rapley, a Massey graduate and noise consultant. Dr Rapley stirred controversy in 2015 when he told a Senate inquiry "the adverse health effects of wind turbines will eclipse the asbestos problem". He also likened the wind industry's tactics to Adolf Hitler.

Wild ride

The paper is based on the travails of a couple who claimed to have developed a range of health complaints from nausea and shortness of breath after moving close to a coal mine and power stations near Lithgow, west of the Blue Mountains.

Part of the experiment involved having the "noise-sensitised" couple drive researchers 160 kilometres to Taralga, a Southern Tablelands town located a few kilometres from a large wind farm.

"At the very end of a long day that had been disappointing scientifically in that very few of [wind turbines] in the visited area were operating", an "episode" began when "Mrs T" got out of the car to visit local public toilets, the paper said.

After passing down a corridor between buildings, Mrs T "experienced a sudden reaction of nausea" and began "swaying like a ship at sea",, the paper stated.

(See images from the paper below.)

The group returned to the car. "Mr T", the other subject, drove a kilometre before the toilet block suddenly became visible again. He "reacted violently and instantly", before jumping from the vehicle and dry retching in the middle of the road.

"The entire team was shocked at this physical reaction, as the onset was so rapid and so physiologically violent," the paper said.

Mr T was allowed to resume driving, but after moving "forward a few metres", he made "an emergency stop", where he dry-retched "uncontrollably for about five minutes". Mr T then "recovered sufficiently" to drive them all back home.

'Totally incredible'

While not explicitly blaming the wind turbines, the researcher who presented the paper - Lisbon-based academic and one of its authors, Mariana Alves-Pereira - showed the Zurich audience a slide of the turbines and their distance from Taralga.

"The implication [of blame] was very strong because these wind farms were in the vicinity," said Norm Broner, a former president of the Australian Acoustical Society, who was at the Zurich event. "This was just totally incredible."

Simon Chapman, a Sydney University professor emeritus of public health who raised the complaint, was confirmed in writing by Massey University the researchers had failed to submit research plans to its ethics committee.

"Your complaint has ... raised serious and significant questions about the apparent lack of ethical approval," Professor Byrnes said in the letter.

Fairfax understands Massey is trying to determine whether the paper was conducted in a private capacity, which could limit its ability to censure the researchers.

"Massey University would be highly embarrassed that this bizarre and potentially dangerous exercise escaped their ethical review and got paraded at a prestigious international meeting," Professor Chapman said, adding that letting their subject drive also placed them and other road users at risk.

"If he had injured himself, them or the public, damage and costs could have been catastrophic."

Several of the researchers involved were "doyens of the anti-wind farm lobby", a movement he details at length in a soon-to-be-published book, Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Communicated Disease.

Dr Bakker, one of the two Massey academics, declined to comment to Fairfax Media. Fairfax also sought comment from the Wahbra Foundation, which helped pay the researchers' travel costs, and Dr Rapley.

Jeff Parnell, chairman of the NSW division of the AAS, said the Zurich paper was among "the most scientifically flawed papers I have ever read".

"What is most concerning is the level of anxiety that occurs in a community following such scaremongering," he said. "Unfortunately, the AAS struggles to take action against these individuals, particularly if they do not belong to a reputable acoustic consultancy or academic institution"

Dr Broner, who is on the ICBEN board, said the organisation may withdraw the paper if Massey University rules against it: "I think the board will be interested in that."

He said organisers were in a dilemma about such papers. To ban their presentation "might be the best decision but what will happen as a result, of course, is that these people go and say, 'the community doesn't want to hear the truth'".

"My personal decision is [to] let them talk, and hopefully there are people in the audience who recognise what they've been told is bullshit", with no substantial data to back the work up.

This story Scrutiny after 'violent' reaction in noise test first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.