The Logical Extension of Wind Turbine Syndrome

By Keith Kloor | February 8, 2013 3:07 pm

If you google Wind Turbine Syndrome, the first link will take you to a book by Nina Pierpont, an author with all sorts of impressive-looking medical credentials, who wastes no time in revealing “wind energy’s dirty little secret”:

Many people living within 2 km (1.25 miles) of these spinning giants get sick. So sick that they often abandon (as in, lock the door and leave) their homes. Nobody wants to buy their acoustically toxic homes. The “lucky ones” get quietly bought out by the wind developers—who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that Wind Turbine Syndrome exists. (And yet the wind developers thoughtfully include a confidentiality clause in the sales agreement, forbidding their victim from discussing the matter further.)

Is this really true? Last year, the UK’s Daily Mail claimed that thousands of people living near wind turbines have come down with an array of maladies (because of the whirring blades), from tinnitus and insomnia to depression and high blood pressure. The Daily Mail based its report on people it interviewed and this 2011 study.

It seems like we’re hearing more about this every week, connected perhaps to a growing anti-wind movement. But one researcher who has investigated “Wind Turbine Syndrome” says it is

a classic “communicated” disease: it spreads by being talked about, and is therefore a strong candidate for being defined as a psychogenic condition.

In other words, as I wrote here, it is a

phenomenon akin to mass hysteria—an outbreak of apparent health problems that has a psychological rather than physical basis.

Stephen Colbert had some fun with this a few months ago:

Now, Wind Turbine Syndrome might just seem like a collection of unrelated health complaints to the untrained eye. (By the way, untrained eye? Also a symptom of Wind Turbine Syndrome.) For the reason it seems that way is because it probably is. Several studies have concluded that there is no evidence of health effects from wind turbines. But just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it’s not contagious. Wind Turbine Syndrome is what we can call a communicated disease. It’s spread via the NOCEBO effect, by being talked about.

Others are treating Wind Turbine Syndrome with bit more seriousness. Earlier this week, three medical doctors published a study in the The Journal of Laryngology & Otology. It’s called

“Wind Turbine Syndrome”: Fact or Fiction?

On the one hand, the authors acknowledge:

There is an abundance of information available on the internet describing the possibility of wind turbine syndrome. However, the majority of this information is based on purely anecdotal evidence. Whilst it is biologically and physically plausible that low frequency noise generated by wind turbines could affect people, there is insufficient evidence on which to base conclusions.

Yet they conclude:

There is ample evidence of symptoms arising in individuals exposed to wind turbine noise. Some researchers maintain that the effects of wind turbine syndrome are clearly just examples of the well known stress effects of exposure to noise, as displayed by a small proportion of the population. However, there is an increasing body of evidence suggesting that infrasound and low frequency noise have physiological effects on the ear. Until these effects are fully understood, it is impossible to state conclusively that exposure to wind turbine noise does not cause any of the symptoms described. The effects of infrasound and low frequency noise require further investigation.

This suggests to me that the authors of the paper are playing it safe. They certainly don’t answer the question raised in the title of their paper. So I asked the lead author, Amir Farboud, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist to clarify the takeaway finding in his paper. He responded, via email from Britain:

I think it’s important to recognise where we are with regards WTS (Wind Turbine Syndrome). Many groups  around the world are concerned about WTS, but currently this is not a recognised medical condition. The significance of our review is that this is the first time that anyone from the ENT community has come forward and published an article in a well established peer reviewed journal. This means that the scientific community is considering the possibility that there could be detrimental physiological effects of living near wind turbines.

Initially when investigating WTS, I was convinced that there was a nocebo effect as you suggested. However, the more we looked, the possibility that infrasound causing deleterious effects became apparent. We have come to learn two important things. 1. That infrasound can cause a stress type response in humans and potentially the symptoms of dizziness, tinnitus and even hearing loss. 2. Wind turbines produce infrasound. What we are not able to do is to stand up and confidently state unequivocally that the infrasound that wind turbines produce cause all the symptoms that aggrieved parties claim. This would require detailed controlled experiments, ideally with an animal model.

What’s interesting to me are the potential wider implications raised from this line of research. What might they be? Let’s return to the website for the book by Pierpont, the author who supposedly coined the phrase “Wind Turbine Syndrome.” It states:

Since publishing the book in late 2009, Pierpont has heard from people around the world who are discovering that Wind Turbine Syndrome is not confined to living in the shadow of industrial wind turbines. It turns out people suffer identical symptoms from living close to natural gas compressor stations, industrial sewage pumping stations, industrial air conditioners, and other power plants. In each case, low frequency noise and infrasound appear to be the chief disease-causing culprit—basically, Wind Turbine Syndrome without the turbines.

It turns out that everybody gets to play. So no favorites!

  • harrywr2

    So sick that they often abandon (as in, lock the door and leave) their homes.

    Reminds me of a conversation I had with a waitress at the Painter Outpost restaurant on Chief Joseph Scenic Byway in Wyoming. (About 40 miles from Cody Wyoming, population 10,000.

    I assumed the waitress must have commuted from Cody…as there didn’t appear to be any residences or side streets on the Chief Joseph Highway and asked about her commute times…she told me she couldn’t stand living ‘in town’ because it was ‘too crowded’ and ‘too noisy’.

    Obviously, an Urban Dweller would find someone that ‘couldn’t stand’ living in the tiny town of Cody because of over crowding and noisiness to be something of an anomaly…but out in ‘extreme rural land’ such people are quite common.

    • Joshua

      Harry –

      Your anecdote reminds me of quite a few Asians I’ve worked with – who come from massively crowded cities in Korea, Japan, and China – and tell me that they have trouble feeling comfortable in Center City Philly because it’s so quiet and there are so few people on the streets.

      • harrywr2

        It’s probably safe to say…without a major academic/medical study that some people will have difficultly adapting to changes in noise level, population density etc etc etc.

  • jh

    Fortunately for sufferers of WTS, researchers now recognize that WTS and the closely allied GFS (Gas Fracking Syndrome, suffered by people living near new natural gas wells) have similar origins.

    • Buddy199

      The personal injury lawyer full employment program.

    • http://www.facebook.com/raj.arjan.5 Raj Arjan

      True. Although it seems strange that it’s only in the news nearly 60 years after they first began “fracking”.

  • Buddy199

    Think back to your childhood (1960′s, 1970′s). How many kids who you went to school with suffered from peanut allergies? Zero. Then suddenly millions were afflicted. Now it’s Wind Turbine Syndrome. Better known as narcissistic hypochondria.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      I had a peanut allergy in the 70s and I still have it. We just didn’t used to tell everyone about it incessantly, and expect everyone else to deal with it. It was our own problem and nobody else’s business.

  • Tom Scharf

    I have a feeling about 100,000 lawyers here in the US are taking these reports very, very seriously. A client with deep pockets, vague symptoms. Sounds like statistics are about to be giving another thorough abusive beating at the hands of those biased in the outcome.

    • Buddy199

      Sounds like the perfect way for John Edwards to make a come back.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »