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.
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.