Do We Need to Worry About Wind Turbine Syndrome?

Wind Turbine

Wind Turbine Syndrome? 

 It isn’t recognized by the Centre for Disease Control and odds are you’ve probably never heard of it before today, but Wind Turbine Syndrome has crept back into news headlines. Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS), also known as vibro-acoustic disease and visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance, is a collection of symptoms allegedly cause by the infrasound emitted by industrial-sized three blade wind turbines.  


Infrasound refers to low frequency noise outside of conscious human hearing and, according to WTS sufferers, induces a range of symptoms in certain people. There are a few questionable outlying symptoms, but the core complaints remain consistent: insomnia, headaches, tinnitus, dizziness and heart palpitations. Wind Turbine Syndrome first came into public awareness in 2009 after Nina Pierpont, a paediatrician with a PhD in population biology self-published a book on the subject and coined the phrase. Since then small advocacy groups for wind turbine syndrome have appeared in Australia, Canada and now Ireland. On the other side of the world in Australia the Waubra Foundation encourages researching the effects of wind turbines on health and provides “advice and assistance” to people who have been affect by wind turbines. In the United States residents in the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod filed a lawsuit against Notus Clean Energy in 2013 citing three of their wind turbines as the local source of migraines, anxiety, insomnia and dizzy spells. The turbines stand 1700 feet (518 meters) away from residents, a full 500 feet (152 meters) further away than state law requires and as of March 2014, the town is still debating over zoning to try and resolve the complaints.  


Several studies, including a peer-reviewed one from 2013 by Fiona Crichton and colleagues, concluded that the symptoms associated with wind turbine syndrome are the result of a nocebo effect – cousin of the placebo effect.  Psychogenic diseases describe a phenomenon where people develop symptoms simply because they hear about them and expect them to appear. These symptoms can be positive, such as taking a sugar pill to cure a headache and then experiencing pain relief. In this case the sugar pill would be a placebo, because it contains no medicine, but the person still experienced a positive effect. For wind turbine syndrome the effects are negative, making it a nocebo effect. During Crichton’s experiment, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, the research team made one group of participants watch a video about the potential harmful side-effects of wind turbines and the infrasound they produce. Researchers then exposed these participants to fake infrasound (aka silence) but told them it was the harmful low frequency noise. These participants reported headaches and ringing ears, even though there was no cause. Participants that got exposed to real and fake infrasound, but without watching the informational video, displayed no symptoms (and were probably pretty confused as to why they were sitting in a room listening to nothing). Like the placebo effect, some people are more susceptible to noceboes than other, so these findings also explain why only some people living near wind farms experience symptoms while others report nothing.


Despite these studies and many more like it, the Australia federal government decided to proceed with another program to study the impacts of wind turbines on health this January. The announcement humoured few as the issue has been brought up several times since 2009 only to be dismissed and now more tax-payer dollars will be used to investigate it again. A similar routine played out in Ireland at the beginning of March: a small group of people complained of symptoms, so an investigation (this time a literature review) sifted through the evidence looking for a cause, only to find nothing new, just the same old nocebo. Curiously, countries such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, which have both a highpopulation density and high density of wind turbines, seem to be immune to wind turbine syndrome and lack reports of health problems.  So why is this bizarre illness – psychogenic or physiological – surfacing again, but only in certain places?


It is possible that because large-scale utility wind power has fallen subject to the same fears that cell phone towers created in the 90s when they first appeared in suburbs and cities. Today, the idea that cell phone towers cause cancer and other health problems has been thoroughly debunked and people welcome new towers because it means better reception and faster internet. If this is true, the fear feeding wind turbine syndrome should dissipate as people become more educated and accepting of the transition to renewable power.


An alternative reason could be that whether wind turbine syndrome is cause by infrasound or created psychologically, the symptoms are still real and the sufferers still feel real pain and discomfort. For these people being told their symptoms are a type of placebo effect doesn’t make them going away, and the syndrome stays put. Dr. Steven Rauch who spoke with ABC about the issue, suggested this middle point may be responsible for the persistence of wind turbine syndrome. Dr. Rauch, an otologist at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, posited that some people may be more susceptible to the pulsing and low frequency sound created by the turbines and as a result have a distorted and intense reaction.


While this explanation acknowledges both sides of the argument, it doesn’t offer a solution to the problem. In today’s energy landscape it isn’t practical to derail a renewables project because a few people might have a reaction -- the alternative conventional solutions (such as coal and nuclear) pose greater and heavily proven health risks. In fact, in the case of Australia, as the federal government announced the investigation into wind turbine health risks, the town of Morwell in Victoria, had to evacuate children from the schools because a coal fire at the nearby Hazelwood mine caused noxious fumes and smoke to waft through the town.


The results of the literature review conducted by the Irish government and the studies being carried out by the Australian government will hopefully be available later this year and so far the uncertain outcomes do not appear to have stalled wind farm projects. In the long-range, wind turbine companies and local governments may need to better educate residents about wind farms and the effects of infrasound and nocebo effects, before installing the turbines. In cases where education is not enough, the renewables industry may have to look for new wind turbine technologies that can meet the utility-level demands of the three-blades, but don’t generate a detectable pulsing or low frequency noise.