Are Wind Farm Critics Suffering from Psychogenic Illness?

For years, people opposing the rise of wind farms as a viable method of generating energy have been reporting health problems apparently related to the noise of the turning wind blades.   With complaints ranging from headaches to conjuctivitis,  the existence of "wind turbine syndrome" continues to generate controversy.    While this new syndrome has never been formally recognized by medical doctors,  wind farm opponents insist that the symptoms are real and not due to the power of suggestion.    To date, virtually all of the evidence supporting the existence of wind farm syndrome has been purely anectodal with few consistent symptoms being identified.   In fact, the various complaints reported more than two hundred different symptoms supposedly affecting humans and animals alike.  Since 2003, eighteen reviews of the anecdotal reports collected showed that only a minority of people exposed to wind turbines report developing any kind of symptoms 300px-Shepherds_Flat_Wind_Farm_2011[1]with little real evidence of actual illness.

Some of the variables that have been linked to reported complaints include negative attitudes relating to wind farms (including objections to "landscape aesthetics"), having a "negative personality", being able to see wind turbines from nearby residences,  and subjective sensitivity to noise.  On the other hand, people reporting positive benefits from wind farms (including enjoying reduced electricity bills) experienced no negative symptoms at all. 

A new study undertaken by a team of health researchers at the University of Sydney's School of Public Health takes a critical look at reported cases of wind farm syndrome occurring in Australia.    The study examined the complaints relating to fifty-one wind farms operating in Australia between 1993 and 2012 along with court affidavits and news stories about wind farm syndrome.   What the researchers determined was that the pattern of reported symptoms do not reflect the actual locations of the different wind farms in operation.   In fact, thirty-three of the fifty-one farms, including farms with the largest turbines, have been operating with no complaints at all despite the density of the nearby population.    Of the 129 people who did lodge complaints, ninety-four lived near wind farms that had been specifically targeted by anti-wind farm groups.  

Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of complaints came after 2009 when anti wind farm groups began publicizing wind farm syndrome as part of their platform.   There were few complaints prior to 2009 which may have been due to most of people living nearby not being aware of the sort of complaints that had been associated with "wind farm syndrome."    Also, wind farms in Western Australia and Tasmania had no complaints recorded despite thousands of potentially susceptible residents living nearby. 

Based these results, the researchers concluded that "wind farm syndrome" is a mass psychogenic illness (MPI) similar to reported health problems related to other environmental causes such as proximity to cell telephone towers and senstivity to electromagnetic radiation.    Among the common features seen in other examples of mass psychogenic illness are:

  • a constellation of symptoms suggestive of a somatic cause which are seen in two or more socially connected people who share beliefs relating to those symptoms and their cause.
  • transmission of symptoms is increased by news reports, researchers taking an interest, and the use of a clinical label which gives the symptoms a certain legitimacy
  • growing fear triggered by media stories and/or word of mouth

While the researchers recognize that not all people experiencing symptoms may have made complaints that could be included in the study, the overall pattern of complaints that were studied seem to bear out their conclusions about the psychogenic nature of wind farm syndrome.   As the battle over wind farms continues, complaints of wind farm syndrome will need to be eveluated carefully to rule out the possible influence of psychological factors.

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