Science: Anti-wind groups appear to spread illnesses they complain of

For many years, an unfounded assertion about wind power has thwarted the best of debunking efforts. That is the claim that wind turbine sound–in particular "infrasound," which normally cannot be heard, but which can come from turbines as well as many other sources in the natural and human environment–has some mysterious characteristic causing a wide variety of illnesses.

Government studies in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the U.S.–many of which you will find in the list of references below–have all found no evidence of any mechanism by which wind turbine sound could actually have a direct physical effect on the human body. Instead, as an independent panel of expert acousticians commissioned by AWEA and the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) reported in late 2009, the evidence suggests that a person's own psychological concerns (annoyance, fear, anger, etc.) are responsible for the symptoms reported by some wind project neighbors.

Now, two new studies–one from New Zealand appearing in a peer-reviewed journal, one from Australia released for comment prior to publication–have strongly bolstered this suggested explanation. In so doing, they point toward the conclusion that the power of suggestion, in the form of the spreading of unscientific, poorly documented "studies," rumors about them, and anecdotal information, is far more likely to be responsible for the ailments complained of than wind turbine sound.

Taken together, the studies provide strong evidence that the maladies ascribed to wind turbine sound result from what is called the "nocebo" (like placebo) effect, in which individuals who are led to expect symptoms from some stimulus experience those symptoms whether the stimulus is actually present or not. 

The first study, published in Health Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association, by Crichton et al., examined the question of whether symptoms could result from information given to subjects about wind turbine infrasound. The study's abstract summarizes the procedure and findings:

"Method: A sham-controlled double-blind provocation study, in which participants were exposed to 10 min of infrasound and 10 min of sham infrasound, was conducted. Fifty-four participants were randomized to high- or low-expectancy groups and presented audiovisual information, integrating material from the Internet, designed to invoke either high or low expectations that exposure to infrasound causes specified symptoms. Results: High-expectancy participants reported significant increases, from preexposure assessment, in the number and intensity of symptoms experienced during exposure to both infrasound and sham infrasound. There were no symptomatic changes in the low-expectancy group. Conclusions: Healthy volunteers, when given information about the expected physiological effect of infrasound, reported symptoms that aligned with that information, during exposure to both infrasound and sham infrasound. Symptom expectations were created by viewing information readily available on the Internet, indicating the potential for symptom expectations to be created outside of the laboratory, in real world settings."

The second study, by Simon Chapman, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, examines the timing and number of health complaints registered by neighbors, about turbine sound, over a 20-year period (1993-2012) at all of the 49 wind farms in Australia. Among Mr. Chapman's findings:

– The number of those complaining amounted to just 1 in 272 residents within a 5-kilometer radius of the wind farms.

– Complaints were highly concentrated (81 of a grand total of 120 complaints filed) around five wind projects which have been heavily criticized by anti-wind groups.

– No complaints at all have been made about 31 of the 49 wind farms. According to Dr. Chapman's report, "The 31 farms with no histories of complaints, and which today have some 21,530 residents within 5km of their turbines, have operated for a cumulative total of 256 years."

– Complaints escalated sharply after 2009, when anti-wind groups began stressing health concerns in their publicity about proposed projects.

Slate columnist Keith Kloor, in a recent article on the two studies and others, provides a number of useful links and examples of other cases in which the nocebo effect appears prevalent, such as the long-running scare about electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation. Concludes Mr. Kloor, "In the United States, paranoia over EMF seems to have died down in recent years, though there are plenty of dead-enders who still flog the issue. Those who might have been inclined to fret about the danger of power lines may now instead be focusing their fears on cellphones. (This subset of chronic worriers should know that everything gives you cancer.)"

The studies also help to explain:

– Why one self-published author, who coined the term "wind turbine syndrome" to describe the various physical complaints some neighbors of wind farms reported, has been unable to narrow the symptoms down to a specific list, as is commonly done with other medical conditions so that they may be diagnosed.

– Why the list of ailments, both human and animal, ascribed to turbine sound is so vast.  Mr. Chapman maintains an ongoing list, with the number now topping 200.  It's a remarkable range of allegations, given that hundreds of thousands of people around the world work and live within or near wind farms without reporting ill effects.

The studies also provide a clear rationale for urging that anti-wind groups tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric they often employ and that media use more caution in their reporting on wind farm controversies.  They may be unwittingly causing and spreading not only distrust, but physical illness.  As the New Zealand study's lead author Fiona Crichton says in an article, "How the power of suggestion generates wind farm symptoms," about her work, "A recent study has shown that media reporting about health effects and wind farms in Ontario, Canada, contain factors likely to induce fear, anxiety and concern. Thus the media must take particular care that they are not creating and perpetuating health complaints attributed to wind farms."

Further coverage of the studies:

Sydney Morning Herald, Wind turbine sickness 'all in the mind': study
Metro Toronto, Wind farms don't make you sick, anti-wind-farm activists do, researcher says
DeSmogBlog, Research Finds Wind Farm Health Concerns Probably Caused by Anti-Wind Scare Campaigns
EarthTechling (blog), Wind Farm Illnesses Linked to Anti-Wind Farm Lobbying
Environmental Defence (Canada) (blog), Why fear-mongering about windmills is bad for our health

Related articles:

Ontario resident's personal testimony: 'Anti-wind groups make me sick', March 13, 2013
GMP reports on Kingdom Community Wind sound levels, March 5, 2013
South Australia study finds infrasound from wind farms not a concern, February 4, 2013
Science proves that wind energy is safe for Wisconsin, January 9, 2013
Ontario tribunal turns down anti-wind appeal, December 26, 2012
Reason trumps fear in Australian debate on wind energy and sound, December 5, 2012
Nissenbaum paper on turbine sound recycles claims on wind energy and health already found inadequate by courts and expert panel, November 16, 2012
Negative oriented personality traits and wind turbine sound, November 2, 2012
Quality of research on wind farms published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, September 25, 2012
'Say No to Wind Turbines'–and Yes to ?, July 25, 2012
Fact check: On turbine sound, it's Bryce vs. science, July 24, 2012
Wind turbines not a threat to human health, another study finds, May 31, 2012
Opinion: Wind turbines are good for our health, March 2, 2012
Review of wind turbine sound studies gives debate needed balance, February 28, 2012
Anti-wind-farm "astroturfers" in Australia, February 27, 2012
NBC4's 'iReporter' lacks context on wind turbine sound, February 14, 2012
Fact check: Bryce misleads again on land, sound, resource use, January 31, 2012
Massachusetts clears wind of health effects after independent experts review evidence, January 20, 2012
Opinion: Dr. W. David Colby: Turbines and health, December 2, 2011
Canadian researchers: No direct link between wind turbines and adverse health impacts, November 29, 2011
Wind power: A quiet solution to climate change, June 27, 2011
Sierra Club Canada 1.1: Time to confront anti-wind fear campaign, June 15, 2011
Environmental Defence (Canada): 'No basis' for health impact claims, June 6, 2011
Sierra Club Canada: Time to confront anti-wind disinformation campaign, June 3, 2011
WHO guidelines on sound are … guidelines, March 28, 2011
Scientists, doctor weigh on wind and health, November 30, 2010
Wind Turbines and Health, fact sheet
Maine physician: distortion in anti-wind health claims, November 3, 2010
Australian health agency: Turbine sound has no health effect, July 6, 2010
UK report debunks wind turbine syndrome, June 9, 2010
Wind gets clean bill of health from Ontario, May 20, 2010
Expert panel concludes wind turbine sounds not harmful to human health, December 15, 2009

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