When News is Hazardous to Your Health

By Keith Kloor | October 25, 2013 2:41 pm

Earlier this week, ABC News asked:

Can wind power be hazardous to your health?

Some residents of a Cape Cod town have complained about headaches, nausea and other symptoms that they attribute to noise from wind turbines near their homes. I’ve written about “wind turbine syndrome” a bunch of times, including here at Discover and over at Slate. I’ve also chided a journalist who’s become obsessed by it, and who after seeing the ABC piece, tweeted:

This is of course not true. I think these people are sincere. In fact, I think believers in wind turbine syndrome are just as sincere as those who believe they are being sickened from power lines and WiFi signals and cell phones. Similarly, I’m certain that some people truly believe that GMOs cause 1) cancer, 2) autism, 3) Parkinson’s disease, 4) obesity, and 5) Alzheimer’s.

I won’t question the motives or sincerity of people who fall into any of the above categories. But the cause and effect they assert is not backed by scientific evidence. That doesn’t mean someone’s high blood pressure or insomnia aren’t real–it just means they can’t be attributed to the noise from the wind turbine in their town. Science does not support the link, just as science does not support a link between’s someone’s brain tumor and cell phone use.

However, there is evidence to suggest that some people who consume news about such purported linkages are prone to becoming symptomatic. Those who are serial propagators of alarmist, thinly supported news should take note.

  • mem_somerville

    Yeah, I’ve seen the local news–and have also seen that every time they come up for a vote locally the town hangs on to the turbines.

    I was also just remembering this piece I had read recently: http://theconversation.com/wind-turbine-syndrome-farm-hosts-tell-very-different-story-18241

    The sample sizes are still pretty small for medical conclusions probably. But it seems these claims are also causing social friction in the community which is another unfortunate, but real, side effect.

    • Laura Griffin

      What that article fails to mention is that host landowners sign contracts which include a gag clause forbidding them from ever discussing any negative effects they experience.

      Wonder why those contracts have to include such a clause if wind turbines are so harmless.

      • mem_somerville

        You mean, when that article says this:

        Significantly, too, none of those interviewed say their contracts prevent them from speaking publicly about their experiences with hosting turbines, repudiating the mantra of wind farm opponents that suffering hosts are gagged from speaking out by evil wind companies.

        • Laura Griffin

          In our area, this is the clause that has been in the contracts that some landowners refused to sign. One mans lawyer told him not to sign it because he wouldn’t be able to speak about ‘anything’ regarding the wind turbine.

          “The Owner shall keep confidential all confidential information relating to the business of the [wind energy company], the operation of any Wind Turbines, the terms of this Agreement and any Ground Lease, all research data, trade secrets or proprietary know-how, processes, plans, equipment, instructions, manuals, record and processes (unless readily available from public or published sources or required to be disclosed by law) (“Confidential Information”) obtained from or in respect of business transactions between the Owner and [name of wind company].”

          • Bill C

            seriously? Where the heck does it say you can’t complain if operations of the turbine bother you or your dog? That clause in no way restricts anything resembling what you said.

  • Buddy199

    It is an actual medical condition: hypochondria.

  • KingB

    Keith,

    A very interesting study (one of many on the subject) came out earlier this year, that only reinforces our recognition of the importance of the nocebo effect. http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2013-07740-001/

    • Laura Griffin

      Same response to you. Exposing subjects to ten minutes of a controlled lab experiment is NOT the same as living next to these things 365 days a year.

      David Suzuki made this recent comment about controlled lab studies.

      “We simply don’t know enough to anticipate the consequences of very powerful technologies like this.

      Something much simpler called DDT when we used it, I mean, Paul Müller won the Nobel Prize for discovering DDT kills insects. But once it was used out in open fields — guess what — we discovered, “Oh my God! The open fields are very different from a controlled situation in a lab. And you end up affecting birds and human beings. Unintended consequences. And we simply don’t know enough now, to be able to anticipate all of the consequences.”

      “If it’s so safe, why is it that every time a study is done which seems to show a negative effect, they are pounced on by the wind industry and absolutely pounded. Rather than saying, “Hey, wait a minute now. We’d better find out about this.”

      “I think it’s far too early to say what the effects will be.”

  • Kiplin

    Actually, there is ample evidence that low frequency and infrasound
    can cause all sorts of “Issues” from nausea to panic attacks to
    visual hallucinations! Specifically, researchers found that sounds between 7 and 19 Hz it could induce fear, dread or panic and has even been proven to be the cause of numerous “Ghost Sightings”. They did an experiment where acoustic scientists sneaked in low frequency sounds at a live concert. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3077192/#.UmrgmPmRFdg At
    the end of the experiment approximately 22 percent of the people involved in the experiment reported feelings of unexplainable dread, chills and depression when infrasound was blasted into the crowd. All of the things that create the sound are huge, powerful and dangerous like volcanos and even tigers! The frequency of a tiger’s roar is around 18Hz, right in that range mentioned earlier. Evolution might have taught us that this sound means Bad News.

    • KingB

      Or as suggested in the double-blind study cited below it may not be the case.

  • erikvance

    Oh, it’s a real thing all right. Just, you know, not real in the standard sense. http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/02/13/bad-wind-made-better/

    • Laura Griffin

      Even David Suzuki criticizes controlled lab studies. This is what he had to say just recently:

      “We simply don’t know enough to anticipate the consequences of very powerful technologies like this. Something much simpler called DDT when we used it, I mean, Paul Müller won the Nobel Prize for discovering DDT kills insects. But once it was used out in open fields — guess what — we discovered, “Oh my God! The open fields are very different from a controlled situation in a lab. And you end up affecting birds and human beings. Unintended consequences. And we simply don’t know enough now, to be able to anticipate all of the consequences.”

      “If it’s so safe, why is it that every time a study is done which seems to show a negative effect, they are pounced on by the wind industry and absolutely pounded. Rather than saying, “Hey, wait a minute now. We’d better find out about this.”

      “I think it’s far too early to say what the effects will be.”

  • jh

    Keith:

    You’re making the same mistake that almost all scientists make. You’re presuming that what’s currently known will be all that is ever known. The fact that there is no scientific evidence today doesn’t mean no scientific evidence will ever emerge to support this “condition”.

    Do I think such evidence will emerge? In the case of wind turbine syndrome, I’m doubtful to say the least. I suspect that there is some other cause of these people’s maladies.

    Nonetheless, the way to resolve the situation is to find the other cause. Until that happens, “wind turbine syndrome” is an open book.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Ah yes, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence argument.

      • Buddy199

        That’s what I’ve always said about Big Foot.

      • jh

        Well, I haven’t combed the literature, but I’m guessing there are no double blind studies of wind turbine syndrome (WTS).

        I see people pointing out this and that study regarding WTS. There might be, what?, 20 or 30 crappy studies on it? And we’re going to call that definitive scientific evidence? Seriously.

        We’ve been studying climate intensively for three decades, with tens of thousands of papers published, and we can’t do better than ±50% on climate sensitivity no matter who you talk to, and we can’t even tell if clouds produce a positive or negative feedback.

        So I guess the point is that it’s easy – and possibly correct – to dismiss WTS out of hand. But from the “scientific evidence” point of view, a few 10s of studies with a various of conclusions and no provable alternative explanation for the symptoms isn’t anything to call “scientific evidence”.

    • mem_somerville
      • jh

        sorry mem, not a youtuber

        • mem_somerville

          Let me transcribe for you:

          Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

          –Dara Ó Briain

  • farcebuster

    The passing off of the symptoms as in their head or whatever way you choose to word it is ridiculous. People don’t abandon their homes because of a fake noise. Entire families, pets and livestock are being affected. To suggest it isn’t real is plain ignorance. The University of Waterloo Research Chair in Ontario (funded by the Ontario govt) just released results showing definite sleep disturbance, vertigo and tinnitus associated with the proximity of homes to industrial scale turbines.
    Time for this bull to stop and help those who are suffering. There is reams of evidence. MSM has been shut down and won’t report on it.
    PS Wind developers wouldn’t be buying homes out if there wasn’t something to it. We all know they don’t have an ounce of kindness in them.

  • Benjamin Edge

    Don’t know about wind turbines, but I have been in a situation where a refrigerated truck/trailer parked right outside my motel room and the surging of the refrig unit was just the right rhythm to make it feel like my heart was about to stop.

  • Laura Griffin

    It’s so interesting that the people who scoff at those who get sick from wind turbine infrasound, don’t live anywhere near a wind turbine facility themselves.

    Infrasound has been a recognized weapon of war since WWII. It can cause serious damage to the human body. Not everyone is susceptible, just like some people experience car sickness and others don’t. Some people can’t ride rollercoasters because they get sick and others have no problem.

    The tobacco industry used to produce studies that said their product was harmless. Thalidomide manufacturers vowed that their product was harmless as well. Just because the wind industry touts studies that it commissioned and paid for supposedly ‘proving’ there are no ill health effects, doesn’t mean that other independent studies that show turbines do cause health problems should be ignored.

    • Buddy199

      So it’s a conspiracy by “Big Wind”? That’s a new one.

      • Laura Griffin

        Big Oil IS Big Wind. Enbridge, Suncor, Shell and BP are all heavily into wind. Because they want to save the planet? No, because of the massive subsidies and tax breaks.

        • Buddy199

          Who’s giving massive subsidies and tax breaks to these corporations? Wait till President Obama finds out!

    • Ketan Joshi

      Hi Laura,

      Wind isn’t the only technology to have been compared to tobacco, asbestos and thalidomide. I’ve written on this, here:
      http://reneweconomy.com.au/2013/why-new-technology-often-attracts-bad-science-74527

      The image below shows the same argument being used for Wi-Fi. You can’t logically state that wind energy is likely to be harmful, because tobacco is harmful. At the very best, you could say we ought to be skeptical of corporate claims.

      Which is why you could refer to Australian health agencies like the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Victorian Department of Health, NSW Health or the South Australian Environmental Protection Agency.

    • http://thegreenmiles.blogspot.com/ Miles

      Hi! I live a half mile from two wind turbines, and I think wind turbine syndrome is all in your head.

  • Buddy199

    Wind mills. And here I thought GMO’s were the ultimate loon power bait.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Bill Koury

    Maybe it’s a simple as they hate being near the wind turbines and that causes them anxiety resulting in headaches, stress, and emotional and physical issues.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

    See also my post on this topic – Windfarms, Wifi and Self-Fulfilling Myths.

    • kkloor

      Thanks for reminding me of that excellent post. I remember reading it.

  • Dan Wrightman

    Meanwhile research conducted this year at the University of Waterloo for the Ontario government is showing a correlation between distance to wind turbines and sleep disturbance, vertigo and tinninitus.

    The University of Waterloo – Ontario Ministry of Environment funded IWT health study was publicly displayed during the symposium on sustainability held at York University , Toronto on October 17, 2013.

    It is reported that 396 surveys were included in the analysis (excerpts include):

    “In total there were 412 surveys returned; 16 of these survey respondents did not provide their home address. Therefore, 396 surveys were included in the analysis.”

    Of note is the acknowledgement that as the distance from the IWT increases, sleep improves:

    “The relationship between ln(distance) (as a continuous variable) and mean Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) was found to be statistically significant (P=0.0096) when controlling for age, gender and county. This relationship shows that as the distance increases (move further away from a wind turbine), PSQI decreases (i.e. sleep improves) in a logarithmic relationship. Multivariate analysis involved assessing distance to the nearest wind turbine as both distance and ln(distance). In all cases, ln(distance) resulted in improved model fit.”

    In addition the authors state that the relationship between vertigo and tinnitus worsened for those living closer to IWTs:

    “The relationship between vertigo and ln(distance) was statistically significant (P<0.001) when controlling for age, gender, and county. The relationship between tinnitus and ln(distance) approached statistical significance (P=0.0755). Both vertigo and tinnitus were worse among participants living closer to wind turbines.”

    The conclusion states:

    “In conclusion, relationships were found between ln(distance) and PSQI, ln(distance) and self-reported vertigo and ln(distance) and self-reported tinnitus. Study findings suggest that future research should focus on the effects of wind turbine noise on sleep disturbance and symptoms of inner ear problems.”

    Counties and projects in the study include:

    Bruce (Enbridge project);

    Chatham-Kent (Raleigh);

    Dufferin (Melancthon);

    Elgin ( Erie Shores );

    Essex (Comber):

    Frontenac ( Wolfe Island );

    Huron (Kingsbridge); and

    Norfolk (Frogmore/Cultus/ClearCreek).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com John Schenkel

    The argument that there is no scientific evidence therefore the null hypothesis is valid is an embarrassment to science. The only intellectually honest answer is “I don’t know.” It is this sort of scientific fundamentalism that drives people away from science. You really have no idea at all if these people have suffered symptoms due to infrasonics or not. The list of diseases that were considered hypochondriacal until a cause had been elucidated is substantial. This has blackened medicine’s eye. Maybe one day we will find a cause and a cure for fundamentalism.

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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.

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