6 Problems with Wind Turbine Syndrome

Some believe that wind turbines are sickening people. Might there be anything to this?

Filed under Environment, Health

Skeptoid #388
November 12, 2013
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Today we're going to take a look into the high-powered world of wind generated electricity, and of one of its alleged side-effects: Wind Turbine Syndrome. For the past few years, a growing number of activists have charged that proximity to a wind turbine causes detrimental medical effects in humans. It's called Wind Turbine Syndrome, and depending on who you ask, it causes everything from fatigue to cancer. Is it possible that such a relatively simple and common machine could be sickening people?

For a long time, these giant modern windmills, usually clustered in wind farms, were known only to be ugly and annoying, as well as visually distracting. Other than being audible, mainly from the industrial roar of an air conditioning unit attached to the larger ones, they are not known to have any other environmental effects.

I wanted to hear what they sound like, so I went out to some nearby, some really huge 3-bladed ones that are pretty typical. I found that the air conditioners, which appear to be the same size and type as my own at my house, were the only audible noise. However, when you stand almost directly under the blades, you can hear a faint whoosh as each blade goes by. Here is a recording I made by pointing my phone up at the blades:

Note that it's really hard to hear anything other than the hum from the air conditioners. Here's another I found online:

And here's one more, said to be from a smaller wind turbine on a really windy day, note how you can hear the blades better:

Things changed in 2009, when a New York pediatrician, Dr. Nina Pierpont, self-published a pamphlet she called Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment. Her "natural experiment" was to speak on the telephone with 23 people who answered her advertisement asking if they lived near a wind turbine and if they ever felt sick. 15 of them of them said they had family members who would probably agree. Based on these 38 personal assessments, Pierpont claimed science proved her belief that wind turbines cause a vast array of maladies.

A number of activists, including a handful of other doctors, have joined her crusade, convinced that wind turbines are causing a huge number of physical ailments that we all previously took for granted. Unfortunately, she has failed to win any significant support from the science or medicine communities. Let's now look at six reasons why that's the case:

Problem #1: There is no consensus on what it does or who it affects.

The first thing you'll notice if you do any independent research on Wind Turbine Syndrome is how non-specific it is. Do pay attention to the fact that every article lists different causes and different effects. Is it sound, light, radio frequency, electromagnetism? Does it cause headaches, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, dizziness, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis? Just about everyone who's written about Wind Turbine Syndrome has a different idea about what it is and what it does. This fact doesn't prove anything, but it should serve as a radiantly waving red flag to warn you that the subject might be something upon which there's little agreement. And, on matters of sound science, there's generally at least a standard model of some kind. So while this doesn't prove anything, it should give any responsible researcher cause to reconsider.

Problem #2: The symptoms attributed to Wind Turbine Syndrome do not require any cause.

The complaints boil down to a few basic symptoms that are most often reported: fatigue, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, dizziness, irritability. These are among what we call "symptoms of life" — things that happen to everyone very often, none of which require a specific cause. We all feel fatigued sometimes, we all get headaches, everyone's got anxiety about something, and we all sometimes have trouble sleeping. In other words, the symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome are indistinguishable from normal, healthy responses to life.

I searched and searched, and have found exactly zero blinded studies done to see if the proximity of active wind turbines produces a physiological reaction that deviates from the norm. So at this point, there is no reliable evidence that the problem exists at all. There are any number of personal stories — Nina Pierpont relates dozens on her web site — but without any controlled study, her reports of those people's personal beliefs tell us nothing.

Problem #3: The timing of complaints is too unlikely.

If wind turbines did cause medical problems, we would expect to find a relationship between when they are installed and when people begin experiencing symptoms. But we don't.

Nina Pierpont's Wind Turbine Syndrome web site tells us that symptoms come on as early as ten minutes after getting close to a turbine. The first complaints, though, began not within minutes or days, but more than ten years after people began to be exposed.

In fact, the literature seems devoid of any cases of Wind Turbine Syndrome prior to Nina Pierpont's 2009 book. But pointing to this raises an obvious counterargument: Just because we didn't know how to diagnose it yet doesn't mean nobody suffered from it. While this sounds like a valid argument, it doesn't stand up. Whenever we've discovered the cause of a disease, like tuberculosis or leukemia, we have data that tells us people still suffered from the condition, undiagnosed though it may have been. With wind turbines, there has never been any evidence to suggest that "symptoms of life" have increased since the early 2000s when construction really started to take off.

In short, the timing of "symptoms of life" and the appearance of wind turbines show no relationship.

Problem #4: The geographic dispersion of complaints is too unlikely.

If wind turbines did cause medical problems, we would expect to find a relationship between prevalence of the syndrome and populations living near wind farms. But we don't.

In fact, it's almost the case that the opposite is true. The people who should be most affected are those who live on the land where the wind turbines actually are. However a number of surveys of registered complaints have found that not a single person who has leased land to wind companies has reported illness as a result; and that worldwide, the residences of anti-wind activists are no closer to wind turbines than other people. Activists have charged that gag orders prohibiting complaints are part of all such lease agreements, but Dr. Simon Chapman, a public health researcher in Australia, has reviewed many such contracts and has yet to find such a clause.

It's also noteworthy that Wind Turbine Syndrome seems to happen almost exclusively in English speaking countries. In countries where little media coverage or activism has taken place in the local language, nobody seems to have noticed any problem with wind turbines. In countries like Germany and Spain, which are major users of wind power, mentions of Wind Turbine Syndrome have only just begun to appear; creating an even starker contrast than that in the English speaking world between how long the farms have been in use and when complaints of problems have appeared. China has the world's largest installation of wind turbines, with over a quarter of the world's total; and Wind Turbine Syndrome remains virtually unheard of.

In short, the locations of wind turbines and the locations of people suffering from them show no statistical relationship.

Problem #5: Only implausible causes have been suggested.

When you read the whole history of Wind Turbine Syndrome, various activists have suggested various mechanisms by which it causes physiological damage. Electromagnetic radiation has been suggested, but has largely dropped out of the popular literature; perhaps due to the fact that wind turbines are not significant sources. The glint of sunlight reflecting off the spinning blades has been blamed, but this seems to have been dropped also; probably because the white-painted blades don't make any noticeable glint and actual glints from reflective office buildings, etc., don't produce any ill effects. About the only cause that remains in the literature is sound — infrasound, to be specific: sound that is of such low frequency that it's below the audible spectrum.

There are two massive problems with this lone remaining claim. First and most obviously is the easily measurable fact that wind turbines do not produce any significant infrasound; and second and only slightly less obvious is the fact that infrasound has never been shown to enhance the symptoms of life: headaches, insomnia, and so on. A number of laboratory experiments have found potentially interesting effects on people from infrasound, but they don't include these symptoms, and have only been found when infrasound was played at high levels in an enclosed room. Out in the open, where the source is far away and producing almost no infrasound to begin with, we shouldn't (and don't) find any effects.

Problem #6: Almost nobody seems to agree that it exists.

From a survey of the published literature, I could only find the names of eleven authors who had written more than one published piece claiming that wind turbines are dangerous — published by someone other than themselves or each other (and I am including blogging as self-publication). In terms of impact factor (a common way to gauge the influence or reliability of a published source), this puts Wind Turbine Syndrome below just about any crazy idea you can come up with, less popular even than the claim that world leaders are reptilian aliens wearing electronic disguises.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Considering this, it's received an outrageously disproportionate amount of attention from the press. Why? Probably the same reason the press promotes any wild or sensational idea. It garners eyeball share and sells ads.

Now, obviously, the lack of support among researchers does not prove that Wind Turbine Syndrome doesn't exist; the bandwagon fallacy explicitly states that popular belief does not constitute proof. It's absolutely possible that Nina Pierpont and her supporters are that much farther ahead of today's scientific understanding. But fringe beliefs remain on the fringe for one overwhelming reason: they're wrong far more often than they're right. If it does turn out that science is wrong and Pierpont is right, then Skeptoid (and the rest of the scientific literature) will gladly report on that new development.

There's one piece of consistency with Wind Turbine Syndrome, and that is that it bears all the signs of a psychogenic condition. Stress affects everyone, producing the effects we term symptoms of life. When we hear that some new cause has been identified that's said to trigger those symptoms, we tend to attribute our suffering to that cause. When life happens to take us near that cause (wind turbines in this case), anxiety causes us to focus our attention on those symptoms. From our anecdotal perspectives, the reality of the syndrome has just been confirmed. Once a sufferer has made a correlation between the wind turbines and the symptoms, it's a virtual certainty that that sufferer will attribute the symptoms to the wind turbines. This has, so far, been the conclusion of the vast majority of serious researchers who have sought a cause for what Pierpont calls Wind Turbine Syndrome.

 

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Brian Dunning

© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Chapman, S. "The Sickening Truth about Wind Farm Syndrome." New Scientist. 6 Oct. 2012, Issue 2885: 26-27.

DTI. The Measurement of Low Frequency Noise at Three UK Wind Farms. London: Department of Trade and Industry UK, 2006.

Leventhal, G. "Infrasound from Wind Turbines: Fact, Fiction or Deception." Canadian Acoustics. 1 Apr. 2006, Volume 24, Number 2: 29-36.

NHMRC. Wind Turbines and Health: A Rapid Review of the Evidence. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, 2010.

Pierpont, N. Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment. Santa Fe: K-Selected Books, 2009.

Rogers, A., Manwell, J.,Wright, S. Wind Turbine Acoustic Noise. Amherst: Renewable Energy Research Laboratory, University of Massachusetts, 2006.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "6 Problems with Wind Turbine Syndrome." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 12 Nov 2013. Web. 19 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4388>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 93 comments

That is an example of the cruel ridicule that people who are certainly ill for whatever reason are being subjected to Logan. I have extreme doubt that you would have looked far in to this issue if you can come up with an idiotic statement like yours relating to an entirely different device.

We are talking about colossal metal turbine structures with vastly different blades and driving vastly different machinery.

All that is being asked for, is a properly conducted ,thorough examination of the possibility that present design could be causing problems. My personal motivation would be to se these projects go ahead on an acceptable basis, not forced through - as has happened recently in Australia by using present parameters of planning legislation argued before paralegal rather than medical tribunals. The whole point of the Wind Farm matter is that it claims the parameters are wrong.

In fact they probably are. Meter read noise levels are not a proper indicator of distress caused by noise. In particular an air reading does not accurately indicate how the sound is experienced. With neighbouring air conditioning unit noise, air readings are a very bad guide. A surprisingly low level of rumble and hum can keep a would-be sleeper awake for hours, until collapsing into sleep with pure exhaustion.

Logan, fighting an issue like this with derision doesn't devalue the matter derided, it only devalues the deriders ability to judge fairly - and that is all that is being asked.

Phil, Sydney
November 27, 2013 6:23pm

If it is the large-metal-strucure thing, then the Large hadron collider would have left everyone able to analyze the Higgs boson unable to work. This would be massive. Higgs massive.

And I see that the 'rumble' would not interrupt sleep TEN YEARS later.

Bill, Canberra
December 11, 2013 10:32pm

Brian has obviously been paid off by "Big Wind".

But seriously, the noise and vibration etc. of a windfarm is insignificant compared to a busy railway, large freeway, or airport. People fear and dislike change, and it helps to have a scapegoat for the symptoms of life. I guess WTS victims would rather complain than move away and see of their symptoms improve. My guess is that that even if their symptoms remained they would say that the turbines had done permanent damage. There is no getting around attribution bias.

John Wetherill, VANCOUVER
December 11, 2013 11:10pm

Thanks Brian for the podcast. It's amazing that this report garnered 80 odd comments. The comments tell me that you should not mess with someone's home without fear of a sustained willingness to disregard the hull hypothesis - belief trumps science. After more than 18 scientific reviews some people still think that since it does not match their beliefs it must be poorly conducted. *sigh* WTS is really the anglophone countries' version of the Korean Death Fan.

Joe, Penshurst, Australia
January 14, 2014 2:46am

Today we have WTS, I wonder if a few 1000 years ago did we suffer from BEBSWBTS. Been Eaten By Something With Big Teeth Syndrome. Seems humans will always find something to complane about :)

Domi, Finland
January 14, 2014 9:27am

I want to point out that your anecdotal experience was pretty meaningless as wind-turbine noise of concern is below the threshold of human hearing. So ya, it was 'quiet' for you even while generating considerable sound energy. Infrasound has been shown to induce anxiety and nausea.

The idea is that long term exposure to this low frequency vibration body causes anxiety and related symptoms (headache, nausea, etc). Resonant frequency of eyes is about 11Hz, for example and may cause one to feel 'strange' and have the sensation of seeing things in peripheral vision that aren't there.

It seems a reasonable theory and I'm not going to dismiss it without a serious study (certainly not based on your anecdotal evidence and misunderstanding of the issue) . Seems likely such studies have already been done - anyone have references?

Ian, Canada
January 16, 2014 11:11am

Coming from the only known area where a turbine farm has been legally halted and publishing a "skeptic" website, I was curious as to what science had to say on wind turbine syndrome. Naive me! Science seems to be all over the place so I finally ended up publishing examples that show how many shades of "truth" there are on the subject. Needless to say, I'm as confused as when I started.
"The Prof"
http://www.bunch-of-malarkey.com/

Regis Yaworski, Prince Edward County, ON, Canada
February 28, 2014 8:24am

I am living near a wind farm and I am suffering of a lot of WTS. My son started nose blooding without recognizing any visible reason. Nearly every day-very strong. so I wrote the dates of blooding into a calender for one year. Then I could see that there was a connection with the windmills (when all three were working) for 100%. 28 other people of our village suffered of the same symptoms. Migrena,nose blooding, brain bloodings, heart-rhythm-problems and also Schlaganfall (brain strikes).... I went to the law because the infrasound measure was more than79 decibel in my living room. seven years later, after I knew already this symptoms I discovered the study of Nina Pierpont. It goes hand in hand with my observations and I am sure she is right. You cannot hear infrasound- but you will feel it- be sure. You cannot see radioactivity - but you will feel it - be sure. But there would be a solution -take the right dose and the right distance - and ther would not be a problem. But first you have to win against political power, money and energy concerns who try to make true science wrong to gain moro andmore money.

Auguste, Austria
April 02, 2014 2:42pm

You are comparing different types of sound.

http://bst.sagepub.com/content/31/4/296.abstract

The low frequencies from wind turbines can not only be annoying, but prevent you from getting sleep, especially if when they are cited within 550M as they are allowed to be in much of North America. Ignoring this will result in negative experiences for countless people who are against their will forced to live next to wind turbines is a SURE FIRE way to turn people against it.

Instead of dismissing any concerns and telling people they are imagining things, how about asking for standards that site large turbines far enough away that people cannot be bothered by the infrasound. At least 2km would be a good start.

But it looks like the wind industry is just going to go ahead and ignore popular concern, just as the nuclear industry did in the 1970s which killed development for over a generation.

Norskediv, St.Louis, USA
April 09, 2014 11:54pm

Every time you drive your car at highway speeds you are exposing yourself to between 80 and 120 decibels of multi-frequency infrasound. Auto makers try to reduce it because it gets annoying above 120 db or so.

Given the logarithmic pressure scale of decibels, it means that riding in a car subjects you to thousands of times the infrasonic pressure variation as standing under a wind turbine at full speed.

Somehow we manage to survive highway driving without becoming quivering blobs of goo. I've seen parents drive their babies around to get them to sleep.

Given this, and all the other gaps in the WTS argument, I will say, yes, you are imagining things. You are imagining things vividly enough that it is inducing emotionally derived real physical symptoms.

Imagine if a trusted friend told you that he saw your child/parent/spouse die in a car accident. You would have an extreme emotional reaction that would, in turn, induce a severe set of physical reactions. Now imagine that your trusted friend was mistaken, but you didn't know that. You would still be experiencing real physical symptoms from the emotional shock, but for no real reason. That is what we have here.

Canute, Central Vermont
April 11, 2014 11:29am

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