Illness spread by word of mouth


Do wind farms make some people sick? Or do false claims of a connection between wind farms and illness make people sick?

The question arises because opponents of wind farms often contend they cause illness, but scientific studies have consistently found little or no evidence to support such a connection. [This report by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health is typical.*]

Now a team of public health researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia has collected every known public complaint of wind farm-induced illness in that country (those filed with the wind companies themselves, those filed with three government commissions, and those collected by an independent council that monitors media reports), and cross-tabulated them against the location, size, startup date, and number of people living within five kilometres of all 41 Australian wind farms.

The results are instructive.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the wind farms, including half of those with large (greater than 1MW) turbines, have never been subject to a single complaint.
  • Kangaroo_crossingThe state of Western Australia, with 13 wind farms, including three with large turbines, has never had a single complaint of turbine-related illness.
  • Of the estimated 32,677 people living within five kilometres of an Australian wind farm, only 120 have ever complained of turbine-related illness — a rate of 1 in 272.
  • Although almost 70% of Australia’s wind farms went into operation before 2009, 82% of the complaints occurred after that date, when wind-farm opponents began to promote warnings about alleged health effects.

The researchers noted:

As anti-wind farm interest groups began to stress health problems in their advocacy, and to target new wind farm developments, complaints grew. Significantly though, no older farms with non-complaining residents appear to have been targeted by opponents. The dominant opposition model appears to be to foment health anxiety among residents in the planning and construction phases. Health complaints can then appear soon after power generation commences. Residents are encouraged to interpret common health problems like high blood pressure and sleeping difficulties as being caused by turbines.

Their conclusion:

In view of scientific consensus that the evidence for wind turbine noise and infrasound causing health problems is poor, the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are “communicated diseases” with nocebo effects likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints.

Nocebo was a new one on me. Wikipedia defines it as, “the harmful, unpleasant, or undesirable effects a subject manifests after receiving an inert dummy drug or placebo. Nocebo responses are not chemically generated and are due only to the subject’s pessimistic belief and expectation that the inert drug will produce negative consequences.”

Download the full report here [pdf].

H/T: Stephen Manley

* For other examples, see footnotes 3 to 20 in the University of Sydney study.