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Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Classic “Communicated” Disease

Credit: iStockphoto

Credit: iStockphoto

By Simon Chapman

Is there any evidence that wind farms cause illness in the community?

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 35 km away. Others talk about electricity from the turbines “leaking” into the soil and causing the 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 has 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 300 metres under the main flight path into Sydney airport, 30 metres from a busy road and 200 metres 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 (see box below).

Box: Exploring Community Acceptance of Rural Wind Farms in Australia

CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship has undertaken a preliminary study to consider community acceptance of wind farms from a variety of stakeholder perspectives.

Wind-generated electricity is a proven renewable energy technology with excellent resources in Australia.

The Australian Government’s Renewable Energy Target (RET) requires that 20% of Australia’s electricity be produced from renewable energy sources by 2020. Previous projections anticipate that wind technology could contribute to the majority of this target.

Given this target and interest in wind farm development, CSIRO has explored community acceptance of the technology.

Technology into Society is a group within the CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship. A key area of research for these social scientists is technology acceptance and social attitudes towards energy technology.

The group has conducted a preliminary study on nine rural wind farms in Australia, interviewing the community, industry and other stakeholders associated with the nine farms. The aim was to provide a snapshot of the issues and identify future areas of research.

The preliminary study produced four key findings.

1. There is strong community support for the development of wind farms.

2. Many of the benefits can be shared or communicated in ways that would enhance community support for the development of wind farms in a region.

3. Existing regulatory approaches provide an appropriate framework for negotiating wind farm developments, but there is scope for improving outcomes.

4. The emerging notion of a “social licence to operate” provides a useful framework for wind farm developers to engage local communities in ways that could enhance transparency and local support. Source: CSIRO

Simon Chapman is Professor in Public Health at the University of Sydney. This article is reproduced from The Conversation (theconversation.edu.au).