Is Scaremongering Dangerous to Your Health?

By Keith Kloor | March 15, 2013 4:35 pm

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 Guardian story 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-windfarm anti-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?

 

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I have got to write a grant to study this for GMOs.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

      There is absolutely no way that you could study the subject because it would rest on double blinded controlled feeding trials and GMOs are not labeled. It is known in medicine that one has to rule out medical causes before directing research to psychological causes.
      So, do argue for labeling of each and every crop individually, in order to first study their medical impacts on a case by case basis–if you intend to seriously study the subject.

      • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

        Ena: I’m quite sure it would be possible to test people’s reaction to food before and after scaremongering. Seralini was able to get GMO corn, right? It’s really not that hard.

        But I’m told there are plenty of places where they do label GMOs. Yet not once has anyone been able to show me any evidence that there’s an allergy link, or any other evidence of any consequences of GMOs. You’d think it would be easy to find this kind of data if it was true. Have you got any evidence from where they label?

        I am sure organic sprouts killed a bunch of people though.

        I also know that an incredible number of people claim soy allergies increased after GMO soy was launched in Britain. When the claim, in fact, came from one of those quackery groups that sells those fake allergy tests to the worried well. It was a marketing stunt. And many people fell for it. I continue to see it flogged as evidence all the time too.

        The gluten thing is another good example of this. The actual incidence of people who are truly gluten-intolerant is quite small. The number of people who claim they are is very high. It would be interesting to know if the claimants read certain foodie-fear web sites.

        • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

          Ena: I’m quite sure it would be possible to test people’s reaction to food before and after scaremongering. Seralini was able to get GMO corn, right? It’s really not that hard. sorry, Mary -I don’t follow. Please explain what you mean.

          But I’m told there are plenty of places where they do label GMOs. Yet not once has anyone been able to show me any evidence that there’s an allergy link, or any other evidence of any consequences of GMOs.

          I know what you mean.
          I am used to randomized retrospective, prospective, cross sectional studies. In evidence based medicine the most sought out form of evidence would be a meta-analysis on the effect size of GMOs on a variety of chronic illnesses. Professionally, I am most interested in cats and dogs, while personally in population effects in people. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meta-analysis. Such population studies on GMOs are spectacularly well hidden. There might be some anointed scientists who know where retrospective, prospective and meta-analysis on GMOs are, but I haven’t run into any.

          I also know that an incredible number of people claim soy allergies increased after GMO soy was launched in Britain.

          I can imagine allergies to soy going up some– if this study is to be believed.
          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16119037

          The gluten thing is another good example of this. The actual incidence of people who are truly gluten-intolerant is quite small.

          I am not an expert on gluten intolerance and wont play one on the net, There is a version of genetic gluten enteropathy in veterinary medicine discovered years before GMOs were commercialized in Irish Setters, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1576718/?page=1
          but it turned out that Irish setters don’t make a great model for human celiac disease. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9894853

          The human version of gluten intolerance is very complex,http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480308/figure/F1/

          so I am not the best person to comment. Sorry.

  • http://twitter.com/Neowolf2 Neowolf

    Examples of the Nocebo Effect.

  • Buddy199

    Greens using hype and exploitation to advance an agenda? What these dolts don’t realize is that you can only get short term mileage out of a lie and that when it eventually blows up in your face you’re farther behind than if you told an honest story to begin with.

  • carolannie

    Once again, you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That many people have a crowd effect illness doesn’t mean that many people are not just plain made sick by (fracking, gluten, wind turbine noise) but are subsequently being mocked by the ones who desire to proceed with their pro (fracking, gluten, turbine) agenda. Don’t tell me that the frackers don’t have an agenda!

    • jh

      Of course they have an agenda: they want to produce the gas. People want the gas because they like to live in warm homes. Companies want to produce the gas for the profit. It’s a win-win if there ever was one.

  • jh

    I had the opportunity this summer to spend some time in Texas. I traveled around Midland, Odessa, and through some other traditional oil and gas producing areas. It’s interesting that despite nearly a century of production from these areas, with wells scattered near and even in towns and cities, people don’t suffer from mysterious diseases associated with oil and gas development.

    Recently I lived a few miles from several large wind farms. I didn’t notice any ill effects from these either (other than the destruction of otherwise enjoyable views), although they’re not in residential areas.

    • Usama Ghafoor

      As for sickness due to fracking due to floor water pollution, then there are documented cases of fracking having pollution of floor water with toxic and carcinogenic compounds.

      Des Moines Boot Camp

  • http://www.facebook.com/afaunch Aaron Faunch

    Interesting and certainly true points are made here. How about Josh Fox’s rediculous suggestion that fracking had caused cancer in The Sky is Pink?

    However it doesn’t change the fact that the US Government is woefully inadequate at regulating large companies.

    Environmental groups have an agenda but is their agenda for protecting the environment worse than the oil and gas companies agenda for protecting their profits?

    Wading through the piles of PR from both sides in the debate is exhausting.

    • kkloor

      Aaron,

      All good points.

    • Stu

      I was a forest activist in my early 20s when somebody older than me (on the forest activist side) revealed to me offhandedly that ‘there is deception in ‘both’ sides of politics’. I remember it was strange that I’d never really considered that before.I guess it’s all been disappointment from that moment on. Haha ;)

    • jh

      Is “protecting the environment” their agenda? I think that’s open to question. Environmental groups have a funding constituency to please. So the question is this: do they seek to protect the environment, or do they lobby for the positions supported by their funding constituency regardless of whether or not those positions are intended to or likely will protect the environment?

      • Raindog

        I have started to wonder myself if the main goal for thse groups isn’t staying funded. They do that by finding issues that are likely to trigger a deeply fearful response in potential check writers. The prospect of cancer-causing frack fluids seeping upward into the groundwater is enough to set this certain kind of person into a check writing frenzy. Of course, the fact that it isn’t happening and isn’t going to happen is besides the point. Note that the most polished of these organizations never say it is going to happen, only that it “may” happen. So the statement “Fracking may lead to contamination of our precious drinking water supplies with cancer-causing chemicals” Is technically correct. It “may.” It doesn’t, but they cover themselves with the word “may.” Of course all this certain kind of person hears is that the water IS going to be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals and that is enough to get the checkbook out.

  • mtvessel

    Back in the 1960s, the town I grew up in had a massive debate about fluoridating the water supply. supporters claimed great health benefits while opponents talked of fluoride poisoning and severe health effects. After a long debate, the city council finally approved fluoridation As part of the fluoridation equipment installation tests were made to the water, it was found that the town water was naturally fluoridated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

    The hazards of wind turbines are in no way analogous to the hazards associated with fracking. Sorry.

    A number of primary and secondary pollutants are linked with this web of facilities.4 One of them, methane, is over 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) when emitted directly to the atmosphere.5 Hydrogen sulfide and VOCs such as benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, mixed xylenes, n-hexane, carbonyl sulfide, ethylene glycol, and 2,2,4-trimethylpentane are classified by the EPA as hazardous air pollutants, or air toxics.6 Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and ground-level ozone are classified as criteria air pollutants.7 Both classifications of pollutants cause adverse human health effects, but whereas criteria air pollutants are regulated by air quality standards that localities must achieve, hazardous air pollutants are regulated by requiring specific control technologies for the targeted emissions.

    Among human health effects that have been associated with these pollutants are cancer; cardiovascular, respiratory, neurologic, and developmental damage; and adverse outcomes such as premature mortality, emergency department visits, lost work and school days, and/or restricted activity days. The pollutants are also associated with reduced visibility, climate change, and/or vegetation damage.4,9

    Oil and natural gas production is the United States’ largest industrial source of VOCs, although a smaller source than the nation’s leading overall contributor, gasoline-powered vehicles.8 The industry also emits nearly 40% of the nation’s total methane.4 In 2015, even with the new rules in place, the oil and natural gas industry’s total VOC emissions will fall by only about 15% and its total methane emissions by only about 13%, according to figures provided by an EPA spokeswoman who spoke on condition of anonymity. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404676/

  • peter steager

    Wind farms, smart meters, fracking……What I see here in every case is a conflict framed as victim vs. victimizer. Once you get trapped on one side or the other, there is little or no way out. Playing the rational, let’s sit down and examine the facts role, will (nearly) always get you assigned as either a victimizer or dupe of victimizer. Attempts to present the side of the ‘victim’ as something other than delusion or romantic naivete will get you expelled from your rational, scientific camp.. So what do you do? Is there any way to sneak you way into this universe, like a clever parasite maybe, without triggering the collective immune system into rendering you powerless?

  • DMAllen

    Scaremongering has been more than dangerous to health. Keith, I wish you had the same passion about the climate change/global warming scaremongering that you have about GMF and fracking. Having read many of your articles and knowing you as a conservationist who once worked at Audubon mag, I find you a trusted source of information. It’s pretty lonely to be a liberal trying to stick to science and discuss rational policy when most of my liberal friends who don’t know the difference between a computer generated hypothesis and “science” call me a denier. Most journalists don’t seem to know the difference either and maybe never heard of climate sensitivity and attribution. While fracking and GMF can and probably already do play a part in creating cheaper and more plentiful food and energy, the climate change/global warming scaremongering has done the opposite. How many third world poor at the margins have starved because we’re using food for fuel. How much tropical forest has been cleared for palm oil plantations? How many, even in Britain and Germany, had insufficient energy to heat their homes this winter because of all the hype and scaremongering that led to wind farm boondoggles and now, perversely, a return to coal.
    I’m a life long conservationist and teach an OLLI course in globalwarming/climate change, and reach a few. You have the ability to reach many more. Please do.

    • kkloor

      DMAllen,

      Perhaps you haven’t been following this blog too closely over the past four years. I’ve been as critical of climate hyperbole and catastrophism (and received my share of blowback for it) as I have of the Morano/Watts/Bishop HIll crowd.

      That’s why the two camps who continually reinforce their mutual hatred and suspicion of the other love me so much. :)

      • DMAllen

        Keith, I follow you pretty closely and consider you a brave fellow for stirring up that hornet’s nest, bur really isn’t the global warming/climate change scaremongering turned out to be far more detrimental to both science integrity and journalistic credibility than any other contemporary issue. Why do so few journalists who write about global warming/climate change appear to have any understanding of climate sensitivity and attribution and also show little knowledge of temperature and sea level data by which to judge the hyped claims and counter-claims. You’re in a position to answer this. I’m not. Journalists can not be experts, but my take is that they can inform themselves a whole lot better than they are doing about these several contentious issues. Are your students earnest in trying to understand issues before writing about them? If they were better informed, we might have a lot less scaremongering and hype. BTW, my Dad (at Newsweek) and I, to a much lesser extent, have been members of the fourth estate.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bonejob William Irving

      I am a liberal. Having lived during my life near freeways and international airports as well as near wind turbine farms, I can say for myself that I would much prefer to live near the latter than either of the former. And I have seen NO compelling evidence that wind turbine noise is a health hazard that can stand up to scientific scrutiny.

      As for sickness caused by fracking due to ground water contamination, though, there are documented cases of fracking having caused contamination of ground water with toxic and carcinogenic compounds. As for sickness caused by such contamination, it should be easy to document water supply contaminant levels both before and after the onset of fracking operations, and to see if: one, any change in the chemical composition of the water supplies takes place, and two, any correlations exist between actual measured changes in water supply contaminant levels and illnesses suffered by people using these supplies. Either the water supplies are contaminated or they are not. Either correlations between water contamination and illness exist or they do not.

      But, while I’ve seen no compelling evidence that consumption of GMO-source foodstuffs is harmful in itself, there is at least one issue around GMO that should give people pause. Producers of GMO crop seed have shown signs that they intend to apply and extend intellectual property law very aggressively to GMO. The idea of patented life forms – particularly food crops – carries economic implications that will be detrimental to everyone, but especially ruinous to farmers in poorer parts of the world. What happens when all seed become proprietary? What happens when – as Montsanto claims – all so-called “accidental hybrids” – between their GMO crops and non-proprietary crops growing in adjacent fields – become THEIR PROPERTY? What happens when these companies achieve a stranglehold on GMO crops the world grows to depend upon ever more? What happens when poor African farmers have to go to Montsanto for all their seed? And pay whatever Montsanto tells them they must pay? What happens when GMO companies demand that farmers pay a “royalty” percentage of the proceeds for sale of crops grown from their proprietary GMO seeds? What happens when food crops cease to be bought and sold in commodities exchanges and instead become proprietary products controlled by three or four GMO mega-agribusiness firms who own ALL the patents for nearly ALL food crops grown on the planet?

      Frankly, THAT is what scares the whee out of me! Personally, I see GMO as a TERRIBLE threat – not because it is bad to eat, but because of the long-term agenda of their developers. Their goal is NOT benevolent. Providing ever-expanding human populations with pest-resistant, drought-resistant, salt-water-resistant crops with greater nutritive value is but a Trojan horse. Their real goal is to become the future oligarchs who literally own and control pricing for the entire world’s food supply.

      It’s frustrating that two companies – Microsoft and Apple – supply the operating systems for over 90% of the world’s computers. But the prospect that two or three agribusiness companies could gain control of the entire world’s FOOD SUPPLY(!) should scare people silly.

      Want to stop GMO? Easy… Negotiate international agreements that life forms – specifically animals and plants intended for human food – are not patentable. GMO research and development would cease overnight.

      It’s too bad. GMO has the potential to be a benefit to mankind, enabling the world to produce more and better food for people everywhere. But thanks to the unstoppable force of human greed, the price of this benefit would likely be a form of 21st-century world-wide corporate fascism more oppressive than the Soviet-style Communism of the Twentieth.

      • DMAllen

        No statement or belief by me that wind turbines are themselves dangerous to human health- bird health and bat health yes, but not human. However, wind turbines are responsible in many areas, especially Britain, for a steep increase in energy costs resorting in fuel poverty that has caused suffering and premature death. Christopher Booker and James Delingpole in England have written about this. They are not liberals like you or me, but I find no reason to dismiss their analysis. I don’t have a strongly held position about fracking and GMOs because I haven’t studied them in depth. That, as I wrote, is why I tend to trust Kloor, a fellow liberal conservationist who has. And I do, I think, understand how green fanaticism has harmed both climate science and the world’s poor, many who live on a few dollars a day, and require affordable food and energy that wind turbines, biofuels, and perhaps, GMOs deny them. I absolutely agree that concentration of power is always dangerous and especially in our food supply. It’s all I can do to try to stay informed in the climate science debates and, in my small way, try to rescue climate science from the fractious fanatics on both sides of the debate. Come to think of it- for the first time- perhaps the IPCC is an example of a concentration of power.

      • Raindog

        Show me one example where fracking has been conclusively demonstrated to have contaminated groundwater supplies with toxic and carcinogenic compounds. You believe that this has happened due to tricky reporting and tricky wording from environmental groups. There are in fact no cases where this has occurred. They always say “fracking MAY contaminate groundwater with toxic and carcinogenic compounds” but never actually offer any proof that this has occurred.

  • Raindog

    Great post and exactly right. I would wager that the greatest negative health impacts of fracking are the psychological effects of the fear-mongering. I have seen people literally shaking with fear and anxiety over perceived threats to the environment, almost none of which are real. This can’t be good for you. I’d go a step further to say that people who knowingly perpetuate falsehoods about fracking are literally terrorizing their neighbors. Many people are just parroting things they have heard, but there are some who are knowingly spreading misinformation.

    One positive impact on human health that results from shale gas development is increased income and associated increased access to good healthcare. I’d wager that there will be a net improvement in the health of people in the area where gas drilling is being done, largely due to this increase in income. I’d also wager that water quality in these areas will improve rather than get worse. not because fracking is benign but because everyone’s water is getting tested prior to drilling and many people are finding out that there water was not safe to drink in the first place. About half the water wells in the area where the MArcellus shale is being developed have water that does not meet EPA drinking water standards. Homeowners are learning this and then taking steps to clean up the existing problems with their wells using the money they get from royalties. This in turn will also lead to an improvement in health.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hennick.5 Chris Hennick

    Imagine if a study came out saying that reading news reports about medical research could be hazardous to your health. Would the papers ever report on it?

  • VitorRibeiro

    Isn’t it also possible that, when people are more alarmed, that they pay more attention to symptoms and are also more active about them?

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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