Wind farm syndrome and other imaginary ailments

Science cannot explain how wind turbines cause the illness known as wind farm syndrome. By Norman Swan.

Wind turbines appear more likely to cause illness in neighbours who do not profit from them. – GETTY IMAGES

For some, wind farms are a joy to behold; they like that the woob-woob of the turbines are helping to save the planet. But others believe the vibrations are making them ill. Their symptoms include fatigue, mental fogginess, insomnia, headaches and nausea.

The condition even has two names: vibroacoustic disease and wind farm syndrome. Both have been picked up around the world by those who believe they are affected, and a few doctors. One theory is that wind farms produce infrasound – low frequency sound waves at or below our hearing threshold – which can travel long distances and exert significant pressure, causing biological damage.

In Australia, one senator has been a critic of wind farms on behalf of rural communities. The political pressure has provoked inquiries and reviews, none of which have found credible science to support wind farm syndrome. But because of the political heat the National Health and Medical Research Council has diverted scarce funds to research the condition. This, at a time when competitive research grants for heart disease, cancer and diabetes have a pitiful success rate south of 20%.

From a scientific standpoint, wind farm syndrome fails the test of cause and effect, which generally has to fulfil two criteria: that harm from infrasound makes biological sense; and that there is a dosage effect. What’s reliably known about the effects of infrasound on the body cannot account for how these effects might cause the symptoms. In addition, if an illness has a known cause – such as smoking or radiation – then almost always the more you are exposed, the higher the risk. But there’s no dose effect with wind farm syndrome. Interestingly, it is vanishingly rare in farm families who are paid to have turbines on their land.

New technologies are also notorious for producing ill-health

A contributor to developing the syndrome seems to be a sense of losing control: a neighbour puts in a wind farm for personal gain, ruins your view and leaves you feeling angry and helpless. There’s ample evidence that people become sick if you remove their sense of control over their lives. One example is Sir Michael Marmot at University College London’s finding that lower grade British civil servants had more heart attacks than their bosses.

New technologies are also notorious for producing ill health, especially if they have been introduced without a sense of ownership. Australia suffered an epidemic of arm and neck pain in the mid ’80s when computers were introduced to offices. It was attributed to repetitive movements at badly designed work stations, although research showed that in most cases neither was a significant factor. The causative issues included uncertainty about the technology, poor change management and fear generated by unions and the media.

It’s important to be clear that what’s in contention is not whether the symptoms of wind farm syndrome are real but how sufferers and some doctors explain them. This collection of non-specific symptoms is common and often leave doctors at a loss – so they do multiple tests. If you do enough investigations in anyone you’re bound to find some random abnormality which, while probably meaningless, puts people on a merry-go-round of further interventions with their own risk of harm. And some groups of non-specific symptoms, such as bloating and fatigue, can be signs of ovarian or pancreatic cancers, which doctors are not good at recognising. So attributing the symptoms to a non-existent condition such as wind farm syndrome could be dangerous.

This non-specific symptom complex goes back to the 19th century – long before wind turbines – and has had many names. Florence Nightingale had it when it was called neurasthenia. Chronic fatigue syndrome is similar and more recently sufferers have claimed they have chronic Lyme disease when again there’s little or no replicable evidence that this tick-borne disease is the cause.

The pattern is the same: desperate, unwell people cling to fragments of science, ‘experts’ emerge who join up dots that have no meaningful connection, and sometimes a pathology industry responds with lucrative tests of doubtful benefit. It’s a mutually reinforcing cycle.

There is a more constructive response.

We need to start acknowledging that the symptoms are real. Doctors need to eliminate known causes such as hidden cancers and thyroid disease.

We also have to start accepting that interactions with our environment can have profound effects on our health – our mind is a part of our body. Anger and loss of power are miserable feelings. When something new and potentially intrusive is to be introduced into peoples’ lives, efforts should be made to consult communities and involve them in the decision-making, giving them back a sense of control.

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