“The patients suffered from nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness, and neuralgic pains ... in some cases ...objective lesions, such as a subinflammatory condition of the membrane tympani … All the trouble speedily vanishes if the ear is allowed a sufficient measure of physiological rest; this it can only obtain by the cause of the evil being withdrawn. The victims … seem all to be of markedly nervous organization, and the moral may be drawn that such persons should not use the telephone.”
British Medical Journal, September 21, 1889
The history of the introduction of new technology has often featured highly publicised panics about the miseries that will be visited upon those who fall prey to these Mephistophelean temptations. The industrial revolution in the nineteenth century was the golden age for technophobes and those convinced that modern society was toxic.
George Miller Beard, an American neurologist, popularised the long-discredited diagnosis of neurasthenia. He argued that “wireless telegraphy, science, steam power, newspapers and the education of women; in other words modern civilization” was responsible for widespread anxiety, depression, headaches and fatigue.
While we can laugh at the amusing conflation of ideologies about the social order with disease, such attributions are not hard to find today. At 60, I’m old enough to remember neighbours telling my parents that they wouldn’t have one of those televisions in the house. Electric blankets, microwave ovens, computer screens and most recently, mobile phones and towers have all attracted panic.
With there being many more mobile phones than people in Australia today, and mass use going back now more than 15 years, the flatline data on the incidence of brain cancer doesn’t suggest much evidence to support the populist rumour that mobile telephony causes cancer.
Panics about wind farms are the latest example of technophobia, although those convinced that wifi emits death-rays have recently joined the queue. I’ve been closely following the claims that wind turbines cause illness for about two years. Many aspects of this unfolding and increasingly hysterical saga point to large psychogenic factors.
Psychogenic illness is defined as a constellation of symptoms suggestive of organic illness, but without an identifiable cause, that occurs between two or more people who share beliefs about those symptoms. The idea that fear of illness can precipitate symptoms goes back at least to the time of Francis Bacon who said, “Infections … if you fear them, you call them upon you.”
A key component of psychogenic illness is that sufferers are warned that they should fear some agent. They are truly ‘communicable diseases’. The internet is awash with such warnings and Australia’s very own Waubra Foundation, with unregistered doctor Sarah Laurie at the helm, is doing all it can to spread alarm in rural communities. Media monitoring records of alarmists’ messages in rural communities provides important evidence for the strong likelihood of a nocebo effect at work.
Here are just a few problems with such claims.
Is there anything that wind farms don’t cause?
For the past few months, I’ve been scouting websites and anti-wind farm blogs compiling a list of diseases, symptoms and behavioural problems said to be caused by wind farms. I’ve come to the view that there is almost nothing that these pernicious contraptions can’t cause.
The list today stands at 125 and is continually growing. I’ve highlighted some of the more bizarre claims here. There is nothing – remotely – in medicine that ‘causes’ such an alphabet soup of problems, except perhaps for the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Many of those named are extremely common problems in any population, and many increase with aging. It’s no news that they would be prevalent in wind turbine communities.
The portentous-sounding 'syndromes' and disease names' that have been coined are not are recognised by any disease classification authority
If you’ve found a new disease, it’s good to give it a name. This field has already got three of its very own candidates for disease classification: wind turbine syndrome, vibroacoustic disease and one I’ve spotted recently, the alliterative ‘Visceral Vibratory Vestibular Disturbance’. But mysteriously, none of these diseases are recognised by any disease classification authority other than in the echo chambers of anti-wind farm blogs.
The US National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database has over 21 million research papers in it, but not one of them comes up if you search for ‘wind turbine syndrome’. The Portuguese group who coined ‘vibroacoutsic disease’ is responsible for an unprecedented 74 per cent of self-citations to the term. Meanwhile, no less than 17 reviews of the published evidence have all concluded that complaints about wind farms are mostly predicted by pre-existing attitudes them rather than on any objective measure of exposure.
Wind turbines allegedly cause acute health effects … so what took the complaints so long to manifest?
If you trawl the web, you will quickly find examples of people claiming to be affected by turbines within hours of exposure, sometimes more quickly. Sarah Laurie, the high priestess of wind turbine syndrome in Australia, is one who’s experienced it first hand. She told a meeting in 2010, “I was staying at a house for one night [near turbines], was up for half an hour with intense nausea.”
Now, there’s a bit of a problem here. The first clinical reports of turbines causing illness were made by a Welsh GP in 2003. By 2003, there were already many hundreds of wind turbines operating globally, with the first on-shore farm opening in the UK in 1991 at Delabole. So why did it take 12 years before anyone noticed a problem if the effects can be felt within hours?
The problems are said to be caused by sub-audible infrasound
Audible noise can annoy people and sometimes make them ill. But the noise that urban residents are surrounded by is a cacophony compared to typical rural noise. So wind farm opponents have needed to make a special case for the sound of wind turbines being uniquely problematic. Turbines emit sub-audible infrasound and much is made of this by opponents, using throw away lines like ‘it’s not true that what you can’t hear won’t harm you’.
However, there are many natural and artificial sources of infrasound other than wind turbines. These include wind, storms, ocean waves, refrigerators, sub-woofers, pumps, compressors, low speed fans and trains and even respiration, heartbeat and coughing. People living with uninterrupted access to beaches and the coast are exposed to constant infrasound. But far from being desperate to escape, beachfront real estate prices tell the opposite story. The UK’s Health Protection Agency concluded there was no evidence that infrasound was harmful to health.
Those affected are shy of providing their medical histories
It’s an open secret that several of the most complaining people in the Waubra district of Victoria are known by neighbours to have had long-standing health problems which preceded turbine construction in the district. Such people’s medical histories are therefore of great relevance to the question of whether the turbines caused the problems they complain about.
In a recent case in Canada, lawyers for the wind farm company concerned requested that all those complaining of health impact be required to supply the tribunal with their full medical records going back 10 years prior to taking up residence near the wind farms. Interestingly, the case against the farms then collapsed. Medical records are routinely obtained in medical negligence and insurance cases, but now the shoe is on the other foot, these records will be a big problem for opponents.
Magically, money appears to prevent symptoms
Those who host turbines on their land can get a nice large, drought-proofing earner and rarely complain. Wind companies are reluctant to publicise how much they pay hosts per turbine, as this can vary depending on the topography and energy generated. But figures of $6-15 thousand per turbine annually are in the ballpark.
Those living adjacent on unsuitable topography can be understandably envious of their neighbours’ windfall. Wind companies have told me about the correspondence they have retained from unsuccessful turbine host applicants who have now morphed into vocal opponents. Some might reason that if they make enough noise, they might get bought out.
The opponents then claim that hosts are contractually ‘gagged’ from speaking out about the misery they suffer. Understandably, hosts are prevented from publicising how much money they are being paid in turbine rent, as this could force rents up. But no contract can negate common law rights to sue for negligence should the turbines be actually harming resident hosts.
Complainers need to be put in perspective: all reports that have investigated how representative they are of local residents have concluded they are in the small minority. For example, a 2012 CSIRO report included data from a NSW study of 2000 regional residents’ and 300 businesses’ attitudes to wind farms, with 85 per cent supporting their development.
In the UK, a 2007 report on complaints concluded: “that 27 of the 133 wind farm sites operational across the UK at the time of the survey had attracted noise complaints at some point. An estimated total of 239 formal complaints have been received about UK wind farm sites since 1991, 152 of which were from a single site. The estimated total number of complainants is 81 over the same sixteen year period. This shows that in terms of the number of people affected, wind farm noise is a small-scale problem compared with other types of noise; for example the number of complaints about industrial noise exceeds those about wind farms by around three orders of magnitude.”
Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney. Twitter: @simonchapman6