Science

Anti-wind farm groups insist the turbines are making people sick, but new studies suggest a surprisingly different cause. By Wendy Zukerman.

Wind turbine syndrome answers blowin’ in the wind

A wind farm near Albany, Western Australia.
Credit: LAWRENCE MURRAY

The language is startling. It speaks of “utterly desperate” people, “fundamental injustice” and residents “left to rot by the authorities”. The words are in emails from Sarah Laurie, CEO of anti-wind turbine lobby group the Waubra Foundation. She’s responding to my questions about her cause. They are startling because emerging evidence suggests the work of organisations such as hers may be inadvertently causing at least some of the harm they are so desperate to stop.

The Waubra Foundation is an anti-wind farm lobby group that insists wind turbines are making people sick, a phenomenon known as wind turbine syndrome. In February, the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s peak health funding body, showed some sympathy for the Waubra cause, announcing it would set aside up to $2.5 million for research into wind farms and human health over the next five years. Applications for the grant close next month.

The announcement came as a surprise to many in the scientific community. According to Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, since 2003 there have been 23 reviews on this topic, as well as one published by the NHMRC this year. These papers tend to arrive at the same conclusion as the NHMRC: there is “no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans”. 

Yet, the NHMRC’s report also noted that there was “poor quality” evidence on this issue, with only 13 studies available to genuinely help to answer the question of whether wind turbines cause harm. The funding body cited the need for “high-quality research” in its explanation for the new research funds. 

Unravelling this question is critical for promoting wind power development, currently the cheapest form of renewable energy. Plans to develop wind farms in Australia have been scuttled because of community concerns. And, according to energy company AGL, which operates seven wind farms across Victoria and South Australia, concerns about wind turbine syndrome “have made new developments more difficult and costly”. 

The syndrome was coined by US paediatrician Dr Nina Pierpont, in her self-published 2009 book entitled Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment. According to Pierpont, emanations from wind turbines cause headaches, disturbed sleep and cognitive problems, such as difficulties with memory, reading and writing. The Waubra Foundation’s website also lists panic episodes, heart attacks and disorders of diabetes control among the many maladies of this syndrome.

According to Laurie, these effects “are real and debilitating if you are one of those who is unfortunate enough to be susceptible”. Chapman has calculated that 129 people in Australia have complained of illnesses from wind turbines. Given that about 32,789 people live near turbines, the rate of those susceptible appears to be about 1 in 254. So what could be making these individuals feel sick?

Pierpont blames the low frequency sound and infrasound radiating from wind turbines. Sound, in general, travels in a waveform. The number of waves passing in one second is the frequency of the wave, measured in Hertz. Sound at 20 to 20,000 Hz can normally be heard by humans, while slower waves called infrasound are below our audible range. Pierpont argues that slow-moving waves can stimulate, and damage, the inner ear. This part of the body houses the vestibular system, which plays an important role in balance, co-ordination and attention. As such, Pierpont says that damage to the inner ear ultimately disturbs the vestibular system, generating a range of symptoms she collates as wind turbine syndrome.

But infrasound does not uniquely emanate from wind farms. It radiates from beaches, storms and road traffic, none of which have been shown to damage the vestibular system. And while a few studies have found that the vestibular system can detect low frequency sound, there is no evidence that such stimulation causes pathological effects in humans. 

Pierpont also cites the work of Dr Michael Nissenbaum, a radiologist from Maine. A board member of anti-wind turbine lobby group The Society for Wind Vigilance, Nissenbaum has conducted several surveys of people living near wind turbines that suggest turbines disturb sleep and impair mental health. However, the NHMRC’s review called his work “poor quality” and his evidence has been thrown out of several legal proceedings for lack of scientific rigour. Nissenbaum’s surveys tend to have small sample sizes and risk bias. In one court document, brought to halt the development of a wind turbine in Canada, Nissenbaum stated, “One hundred per cent of the persons I interviewed reported they had considered moving away.” Such compelling statistics recall elections in one-party states.

Higher frequency, audible noise from turbines has also been attacked for causing disease. In modern turbines, a “swish” can be heard when air flows past the blades. Sometimes a mechanical sound also radiates from the generators. According to Maarten Wolsink, an associate professor of environmental geography at the University of Amsterdam, any environmental noise, including traffic and aircraft, can cause detrimental health effects if the sound is loud enough. Current restrictions on wind turbine noise in Australia, however, make it unlikely that wind turbine noise would cause harm. According to the NHMRC report, the sound of a wind farm 500 metres to 1.5 kilometres away is about as loud as some household devices, such as fridges.

The most comprehensive study on the health effects of wind turbines has also found no association between noise levels from wind turbines and ill health effects. Published by the Canadian government in October last year – too late to be captured by the NHMRC’s review – the work studied more than 1200 households at varying distances from wind turbines. Tellingly, the only factor it found that was linked to the symptoms of wind turbine syndrome was the level that residents were annoyed by them. Those more annoyed by the turbines were statistically more likely to report experiencing negative health effects, such as headaches and tinnitus. They also tended to have higher stress levels, as measured by the stress hormone cortisol. 

The paper suggests that people exercised by the possible health effects of living near wind turbines were apparently being made ill by their concern. “They are worrying themselves sick,” says Chapman.

Following the Canadian report, the Waubra Foundation published a statement that the findings “support the health effects ‘conclusively demonstrated from exposure to wind turbine noise’ ”. The misinterpretation of the results is poignant. The study implies that by whipping up discontent towards wind turbines, groups such as the Waubra Foundation are perhaps partly responsible for making people feel sick. 

In scientific terms it’s called the “nocebo effect”. The dark cousin to placebo, this phenomenon emerges when merely expecting painful symptoms brings about their reality. It’s often seen in medical students, who are prompted to believe they are sick after reading about the symptoms of a disease. The idea is not new. In the 16th century Francis Bacon wrote, “infections … if you fear them, you call them upon you”. 

In 2013, Fiona Crichton at the University of Auckland and colleagues published a study showing that students given misinformation about ill health effects from infrasound were more likely to report feeling negative symptoms after being exposed to infrasound. Students even reported feeling the expected ill effects when they thought they were being exposed to infrasound but in fact were not being exposed to anything. When Radio National’s Sarah Dingle asked Laurie about this work, she said: “I’m not telling them that it’s going to make them sick, and in fact I’m very careful when I go to these meetings to say to people that not everybody experiences symptoms.”

Meanwhile, Chapman has amassed further evidence to suggest that the power of suggestion is playing an important role in spreading affliction. “It’s just voodoo,” he says. Chapman conducted a review of wind turbine syndrome complaints from across Australia’s 51 wind farms. Although wind turbines have operated here since 1993, 90 per cent of people made their first complaint after 2009, once Pierpont’s book was published and anti-wind farm campaigners began disseminating information. Most of the complaints – 73 per cent – were confined to the six wind farms often targeted by anti-wind farm campaigners, including Waubra, home turf of the Waubra Foundation. 

Western Australia has 13 wind farms, yet as at Chapman’s 2013 study no complaints had been made about them. “So, what is it about Western Australians and their apparent imperviousness to wind farms?” Chapman asks. He points to the lack of co-ordinated resistance to wind farms in the state. The same is true of Tasmania, though he admits that since his studies, there have been co-ordinated campaigns against proposals such as a Hydro Tasmania farm on King Island and at Kojonup, south-east of Perth, WA.

In some cases people may not be stressing themselves into illness, but rather misattributing blame for common maladies. Last year, Crichton and Chapman wrote in Frontiers in Public Health that many of the ailments considered part of wind turbine syndrome are common in everyday life. Just under half the population are prone to headaches and about a quarter of us experience sleeping problems. According to the researchers, residents concerned about wind turbines shape their pains under the rubric of that syndrome, focusing on symptoms consistent with its schema and dismissing those that aren’t. Without this blueprint, they argue, residents may explain their symptoms as “a parcel of normal life”. 

Attributing sickness to the nocebo effect is not to belittle those feeling pain. Science is just beginning to understand the power of the mind in relation to our health. Meanwhile, however, advocacy groups may have to consider whether they are harming the very people they seek to help.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2015 as "Blowin' in the wind". Subscribe here.

Wendy Zukerman
is a science journalist and host of the Science Vs. podcast.