Can Wind Turbines Make You Sick?
A new syndrome appears to be highly contagious.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
In the past several years, scores of people living near wind farms have claimed to have been sickened by noise from the rotating blades. They have complained of everything from headaches and depression to conjunctivitis and nosebleeds. Is “wind turbine syndrome” real? Is it just another imaginary illness stoked by loons on the Internet? Are the victims a bunch of fakers?
Noisy environments can be irritating and sleep-disrupting. But advocates of the new syndrome (which is not medically recognized) say that wind turbines pose specific dangers. They claim that exposure to wind farms’ low-frequency noise, even vibrations below the threshold of human hearing, is having dangerous physiological effects.
Several recent studies might explain what’s going on here. One of them, published in Health Psychology, found that the power of suggestion can induce symptoms associated with wind turbine syndrome. Researchers exposed 60 participants to 10 minutes of infrasound (vibrations too low in frequency to hear) and sham infrasound (that is, silence). Before the listening sessions, half the group was shown television footage of people who lived near wind farms recounting the harmful effects they said were caused by noise from the spinning blades. Within this group, the people who scored high on a test of anxiety became symptomatic whether they were exposed to low-frequency noise or sham infrasound.
As one of the authors of the study points out, this appears to be a classic case of the nocebo effect. It’s the evil twin of the placebo effect, which is often a pain-alleviating response to a sham pill or treatment. Nocebo effects are harmful symptoms that arise from negative information. For example, some participants in medical trials who are warned of potential adverse side effects experience precisely those side effects, even though they’re really taking a phony medication. The nocebo effect is psychogenic, a case of the mind making the body sick.
Several factors appear to be contributing to the sudden onset of medical problems attributed to wind turbines. A study released last week from the University of Sydney found that most of the health complaints about wind turbines came from an area of Australia where an organized anti-wind movement has been publicizing health concerns since 2009. (Coincidentally, the term wind turbine syndrome was coined in 2009 as the title of a self-published book.) "Health complaints were as rare as proverbial rocking horse droppings until the scare-mongering groups began megaphoning their apocalyptic, scary messages to rural residents," says study author Simon Chapman. As he pointed out to the Guardian: "If wind farms were intrinsically unhealthy or dangerous in some way, we would expect to see complaints applying to all of them, but in fact there is a large number where there have been no complaints at all."
And yet, the number of health problems attributed to wind turbines seems to multiply by the day, according to a compendium that Chapman maintains. His list now tops more than 200 maladies, which leads him to ask sardonically if there has ever been a bigger threat to humanity.
The epidemic also attests to the power of modern media, especially those outlets that have hyped anecdotal claims of wind turbine syndrome. A study published late last year in Health, Risk & Society calls this the "fright factor." Researchers surveying newspaper coverage of wind power in Ontario, Canada, between 2007 and 2011 found that many articles focused on “environmental risks and human health” concerns. It turns out that the press may be just as responsible as anti-wind activists for triggering the nocebo effect in those who believe they have fallen ill from wind turbines.
That jibes with a finding from a study published earlier this month in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research that asked in its title, "Are media warnings about the adverse effects of modern life self-fulfilling?" The study addressed another supposed danger—electromagnetic fields from Wi-Fi signals—that also has the power to evoke a nocebo response. As in the wind turbine study, participants watched a TV report of people claiming that Wi-Fi signals had caused them to fall ill. Researchers exposed participants to sham Wi-Fi signals and found that a number of the people (once again, those who were already identified as having an anxious personality) exhibited symptoms such as stomach pain and headaches.
Reports on the supposed dangers of electromagnetic fields from cellphone towers and overhead power lines have been circulating in the media for years. The roots of EMF hysteria in the United States can be traced back to the 1980s and 1990s and the work of a crusading journalist who published stories in The New Yorker under the heading “Annals of Radiation.” People have attributed a myriad of illnesses to EMF, particularly neurological disorders and brain tumors. But after many millions of dollars of peer-reviewed research in the past few decades, there is no credible scientific evidence for such claims.
Still, concerns are so persistent globally that the World Health Organization (WHO) has looked comprehensively into the matter, concluding: "Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields."
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.)
Meanwhile, people living near wind farms, including a number of residents in one Massachusetts community, say they are experiencing headaches, insomnia, ringing in the ears, and other symptoms. It’s impossible to know whether they are extra-sensitive to low-frequency noise, would have had insomnia and headaches wherever they live, or are psychologically predisposed to react badly to negative information on wind turbines. For the time being, perhaps Stephen Colbert's take on wind turbine syndrome as a "communicated disease" seems the best explanation. Here's hoping this article doesn't spread it any further.
Keith Kloor is a journalist based in New York. You can find him on twitter here. He is a former editor at Audubon magazine and often writes about environmental issues.