Wind turbine syndrome: a classic ‘communicated’ disease

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It is common to read accounts of people having been adversely affected within minutes of being exposed to wind farms.

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At the beginning of this year I started collecting examples of health problems some people were attributing to wind turbine exposure. I had noticed a growing number of such claims on the internet and was curious about how many I could find. Within an hour or two I had found nearly 50 and today the number has grown to an astonishing 155.

I have worked in public health on three continents since the mid 1970s. In all this time, I have never encountered anything in the history of disease that is said to cause even a fraction of the list of problems I have collected.

The list of 155 problems includes “deaths, many deaths”, none of which have ever been brought to the attention of a coroner. It includes several types of cancer, and both losing weight and gaining weight. You name it. Haemorrhoids have not yet been named, but nothing would surprise me.

Many of the problems are those which affect large proportions of any community: hypertension (high blood pressure); mental health problems; sleeping difficulties; sensory problems (eyes, hearing, balance); and learning and concentration difficulties. Every day in Australia many hundreds of Australians receive their first diagnosis with these problems, and most live nowhere near wind farms.

So is it reasonable to suggest that all these problems – or even a fraction of them – are caused by wind turbines? Wind farm opponents repeatedly argue that turbines cause both rapid and long-gestation health problems. It is common to read accounts of people having been adversely affected within hours or even minutes of being exposed. If this was true, there is a big problem here.

Wind farms have existed in Australia long before the first claims about health ever surfaced. The Ten Mile Lagoon wind farm near Esperance, Western Australia has been operational for 19 years. Victoria’s first, the Codrington wind farm, just celebrated its 11th birthday, and has 14 turbines each capable of producing 1.3 megawatts. And yet health complaints are relatively recent, with the few in Codrington post-dating a visit to the area by a vocal opponent, spreading anxiety.

In this sense, “wind turbine syndrome” (which incidentally produces zero returns from the United States National Library of Medicine’s 23 million research papers) is what we can call a “communicated” disease: it spreads via the nocebo effect by being talked about, and is thereby a strong candidate for being defined as a psychogenic condition.

One prominent opponent of wind farms says he can hear them 35km away. Others talk about electricity from the turbines “leaking” into the soil and causing deaths of hundreds of cattle and goats. Such catastrophic events would always attract huge news attention. But try to find such coverage and instead you will only find website anecdotes about what happened on a neighbour’s farm.

Opponents also say that only “susceptible” people are adversely affected by wind turbines. But they repeatedly say animals such as sheep, cattle, dogs and poultry are badly affected, with problems such as malformations, sudden death, sterility and yolkless eggs being common.

Against this, on any trip to a wind farm region, one can find thousands of livestock grazing contentedly around the turbines. In Tasmania there is a poultry farm with a wind turbine at the front gate. Is the argument now that only some animals are “susceptible” too?

There have now been 17 reviews of the available evidence about wind farms and health, published internationally. These are reviews of all studies, not single pieces of research. Each of these reviews have concluded that wind turbines can annoy a minority of people in their vicinity, but that there is no strong evidence that they make people ill.

The reviews conclude that pre-existing negative attitudes to wind farms are generally stronger predictors of annoyance than residential distance to the turbines or recorded levels of noise. In other words, people who don’t like wind farms can often be annoyed and worried by them: some might even worry themselves sick.

There are two main anti-wind farm groups in Australia busily fomenting anxiety and opposition. One is the Waubra Foundation, a group of mainly wealthy individuals, none of whom live in or near the town of Waubra, near Ballarat. Several of them, NIMBY style, have opposed turbines near their own properties elsewhere. They are led by an unregistered doctor, Sarah Laurie, and a wealthy mining investor, Peter Mitchell who also has connections to the Landscape Guardians. Despite their name, the Guardians have never attempted to guard our landscape from over-zealous residential developers, open cut coal or coal seam gas mining. They only target wind farm developments. All three – Waubra, the Guardians and Mitchell’s mining investment company share a South Melbourne post office box.

Problems of falling and stagnant real estate prices in many of Australia’s rural areas are well known. When landowners with property that would be hard to sell see a wealthy energy company moving into an area and investing millions in turbines, it’s not difficult to predict that some will see potential in being “bought out” by such companies. Mining companies do it regularly. When this has happened in some communities, word spreads fast. I have been given accounts of lavish renovation and relocation “shopping list” demands that have been given to some wind energy companies by hopeful complainants.

 

Tellingly, four allegedly unlivable houses near Waubra where complaining residents were bought out now house non-complaining occupants.

When anti-wind farm leaders move around communities, sometimes with entrepreneurial lawyers, spreading anxiety that the turbines can harm heath, we can get a potent combination of poorly informed, worried and angry residents seeded with the idea that their protests might lead to a payout.

Other complainants appear to see the turbines as symbols of values and movements that they despise: totems of green politics, modernity and the urban artifice.

Almost daily, I receive heated email suggesting I should host a turbine in my inner city backyard. The irony is that for 22 years I’ve lived 300m under the main flight path into Sydney airport, 30 metres from a busy road and 200m from a railway line where the combined noise is incomparably louder than hundreds of wind turbines. I rather think I wear my fair share of community noise. But some in the bush believe that unlike city dwellers, it is their birthright to be sheltered from any intrusion in their pristine surrounds, the ultimate in NIMBYism.

Fortunately, anti-wind farm voices in the bush are in a small minority, as this CSIRO study shows.

Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney. This article was first published at The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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18 Comments
  1. George Papadopoulos 7 years ago

    Just another dose of Chapman’s rant…

    The CSIRO study included a hand picked group of 27 individuals. I wonder how Chapman makes credible conclusions from this.

    • Mike 7 years ago

      That doesn’t change the fact that not a single respected medical body recognises the syndrome. Not one.

      It does not exist. Clearly evidenced by the complete lack of symptoms experienced by those who have the turbines on their land.

      The syndrome is nothing more than a fabrication by nimby’s with a fetish for uninterupted agricultural landscapes and a suspicion that anything supported by the Greens is going to cause outbrakes of homosexuality in rural communities.

      • George Papadopoulos 7 years ago

        So which medical body has investigated, examined and rejected the wind turbine syndrome hypothesis?

        I don’t mean paper shuffling reviews, but hands on medical examinations. Of course none.

        • DavidC 7 years ago

          How do you examine something which does not exist?

          Maybe this will clarify the issue for you: no one who has wind turbines on their property suffers from ‘wind turbine syndrome’. In other words, people who live near wind turbines and receive benefit from them are not made ill by them. Funny that.

          Or another angle: if there were any scientific basis for ‘wind turbine syndrome’ the fossil-nuke lobby would screaming it out – but they are silent. They can’t find the evidence because it does not exist. All they have to work with is a bunch of anecdotal NIMBY stories.

          > To date, no peer reviewed articles demonstrate a direct causal link between people living in proximity to modern wind turbines, the noise they emit and resulting physiological health effects. http://www.ehjournal.net/content/10/1/78/abstract

          > Wind turbine sound and health effects: An expert panel review. “There is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.” http://www.awea.org/learnabout/publications/upload/awea_and_canwea_sound_white_paper.pdf

          • George 7 years ago

            It sounds like you haven’t been reading the news recently. David Mortimer farmer in SA, and wind turbine host; gone through two homes and now a third. Affected by the symptoms of WTS. And he is invited to talk at Sunday’s wind turbine awareness meeting at Wellington NSW.

          • DavidC 7 years ago

            @George

            I produce science. You respond with an anecdotal story about one person.

            Maybe I’m biased, but I think my argument is stronger.

      • DavidC 7 years ago

        > “The syndrome is nothing more than a fabrication by nimby’s with a fetish for uninterupted agricultural landscapes and a suspicion that anything supported by the Greens is going to cause outbrakes of homosexuality in rural communities.”

        Beautifully and amusingly put!

        Sadly, opposition to renewables has become another identity badge for the Angry Rightwing Brigade. They’ve been primed by their natural opposition to anything those damn greenie-liberal-Marxist-commie-socialists support, and fed a pack of lies by the establishment rightwing propaganda mill.

        It’s really just an extension of climate change denial. Much the same people behaving in much the same way. No fact or rational argument will move them. Rather depressing to think what damage these few people are inflicting on the planet, and what could be possible without their sabotage.

        • George 7 years ago

          Anti-wind has got to do a lot more with common sense than right wing politics.

          • DavidC 7 years ago

            Yeah, climate science deniers also invoke “common sense” a lot.

          • Humblebee 7 years ago

            ‘Common sense’ aint that common. Especially around those who deny the inconvenient truth of proper peer reviewed science and use anecdotal evidence and psuedo-science to back themselves up.

        • Bonzo 7 years ago

          Chill David. The fact is wind farms are growing in number and will increasingly supply the electricity needs of a large population of willing, supportive and entirely contented Australians despite the pathetic attempts by vested interests to thwart it. These are the bleatings of a misguided, defeated minority.

          • DavidC 7 years ago

            Bonzo, you really need to spend some time reading up on the basics of climate science and energy policy if you think everything is going to be alright on current trajectory.

            The renewable energy deniers are successfully sabotaging a viable future.

            Put the bong down, learn what is happening and inject a little passion. 😉

  2. Beat Odermatt 7 years ago

    This is funny! I know a person very “concerned” about the ill effects of wind turbines. The person however is not a bit concerned about smoking a packet of cigarettes a day and drinking a couple of six packs. Why feel guilty about your own shortcomings if it is possible to blame somebody else!

    • Chris Fraser 7 years ago

      Hear, Hear and Amen !

  3. Mike 7 years ago

    windbaggers!…think about it.

  4. Bonzo 7 years ago

    DavidC’s broadside deserves a right of reply.
    Deniers are a nuisance but they aren’t the reason or even the main reason RE deployment isn’t as fast as we would like it to be. It’s the market stupid. Once RE becomes cost competitive no force on earth will be able to resist its stellar trajectory, let alone a bunch of whingers with imaginary illnesses.
    If you’re looking for good information on these market forces you’ll find articles written and debated in a dissapointingly prosaic way in this very magazine.
    Nothing wrong with “passion” my friend but if you want to deliver a result best temper it with reality.
    By the way, how will you cope when the MDMA runs out… 🙂

    • DavidC 7 years ago

      Deniers: those who deny renewables are viable or necessary, and those who fight against them. That includes the most powerful industries on the planet along with many psychotic billionaires who either own the media or want to.

      I’m afraid your faith in the gentle, guiding hand of the ‘free market’ is naive and misplaced. There is no free market. It’s a system of subsidies and regulations, most of which are set by the fossil-nuke corporations that own the politicians that create them.

      That is amply demonstrated by the sabotage of renewables in the UK at the moment. The ‘conservative’ Tories have sabotaged the nascent solar PV industry, now they are going after onshore wind while desperately trying build more nukes – to the point of inviting the Chinese pay for them in return for access to the UK’s national grid. How could that possibly go wrong?!

      Sadly, your breezy belief that everything will be fine is not borne out by the unfolding climate reality nor the clear warnings from climate science.

      There is no happy ending in sight on current trajectory. The only debate is how hard the crash landing is going to be. Those nations with the highest RE capacity and blind luck of being least afflicted with drought will suffer the least.

      P.S. “Broadside”?! That was a gentle joust, my delicate friend. 😉

  5. LeeNhan 6 years ago

    I have one method for solving integrity of energy no storage needed without losing landscape and environment ..I say this is seriously —Please do not let the wind energy wind, the wind becomes toxic

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