Wind farms, public health and the nocebo effect

Let me begin this post with a big caveat: No source of energy is perfect. Every source of energy we could imagine has some kind of negative consequence. The job of policy makers is to assemble a portfolio of energy sources that meet the needs of society (as in all of us, not just the ones who can afford it today) while minimizing the negative impacts and distributing them equitably. Wind and solar, for example, are among the lowest-impact options we have available to us. They probably cannot meet the entirety of the world’s energy needs,and not every piece of sunny or land should be covered with panels and pylons,  but in general, good energy policy tends to promote their use.

In support of the generally beneficial nature of wind power, it’s heartening to see that the concern about health effects from wind turbines appears to be unfounded. Wind turbines, particularly large ones (>1 megawatt), had been accused of causing “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” a collection of somewhat vague symptoms including headache, nausea, dizziness, seizures and fatigue. There had been little peer-reviewed or otherwise conclusive evidence to support the threat of Wind Turbine Syndrome, but enough anecdotal evidence deserves at least a look. Advocates for sufferers often focused on infrasound, very low frequency vibrations in the air, outside of our range of hearing, as the cause.

Now, it appears that the cause might actually be the nocebo effect, basically a mirror image of the placebo effect. Placebos have a long and very well documented history of alleviating symptoms from physical disease through nothing more than the patient’s belief that they are being treated (often by sugar pills). Placebos are so effective that there has actually been discussion within the medical community of using them as a treatment for some chronic diseases that seem to defy other approaches; the connection between mind and body is quite strong.

The nocebo effect induces symptoms in otherwise healthy patients due to their belief that they should be sick, for some reason. This negative power of suggestion may be behind wind turbine syndrome. A recent University of Sydney study finds evidence of the nocebo effect specifically in relation to people’s perceived exposure to infrasound. The study found that people who watched a video about the harms of infrasound and then were told they were being exposed to infrasound, when in fact they were not, quickly manifested many of the symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome. Another study found that reports of Wind Turbine Syndrome symptoms were not well correlated with the actual presence of wind turbines, but instead with media and communication activity by anti-wind turbine groups (blog from the author here, scholarly articles here and here).

No two studies can completely close the book on any meaningful public health issue, but these provide strong evidence that there is no meaningful harm to human health from wind farms. Do they interfere with air-traffic control radar? Yes. Do they kill birds and bats? Yes, but not as much as cars, windows and cats. Do they cause a wide range of non-specific symptoms? No more so than EMF (which is a fancy way of saying almost certainly not).



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