Want to start a dinner-party row? Bringing up wind farms is a foolproof way to divide a room – we either love them or hate them. But while debates in the UK focus on aesthetic appeal and efficiency, an entirely different storm is raging in Australia, where there is fear that wind farms are damaging people’s health.
Although more than 25 reviews of the scientific literature have failed to find convincing evidence for harm caused by wind farms, it hasn’t stopped people from blaming them for everything from depression to diabetes.
In fact, wind turbines have been blamed for causing or exacerbating at least 247 symptoms, diseases and behaviours, according to a list compiled by Simon Chapman at the University of Sydney, who has been a vocal critic of such claims. In 2012, Chapman described how he had “never encountered anything in the history of disease that is said to cause even a fraction of the list of problems”. And that was back when it named 155 problems, nearly 100 fewer than now.
After a year-long study by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) into health problems caused by wind farms drew a blank last year, many mocked the call for more research that so often comes at the end of a paper.
Yet astoundingly, the NHMRC has recently approved a further A$3.3 million (US$2.4 million) in funding for two research projects to study the question in even greater depth. The studies will investigate links between infrasound generated by wind turbines and changes in sleep, balance, mood and cardiovascular health – a surprising decision, given that dozens of studies have already turned up nothing, and that there are plenty of other important questions going unanswered through a lack of funding.
Crucially, there is also a very simple explanation for health complaints about wind farms that the new research will find difficult to rule out. The placebo effect’s evil twin, the nocebo effect, has long been known to stimulate harmful symptoms in people who fear side effects when taking an inert sugar pill.
This effect isn’t limited to sugar pills. In one experiment, researchers attached fake Wi-Fi routers to the heads of participants in a study on electromagnetic radiation. Over half the volunteers experienced adverse health effects, thanks to fear alone. Their symptoms – head pain and tingling sensations – were remarkably similar to those of people who suffer from “wind turbine syndrome”.
Similar findings have been made with infrasound – sound waves too low-frequency for human hearing to detect that can be generated by wind turbines. When people are given negative expectations about the effects of infrasound, they report symptoms both when it is present and absent.
But these symptoms do not occur in people who haven’t been told that wind farms are harmful. And in an experiment in which participants were led to believe that wind-farm sounds are beneficial to health, they actually reported positive symptoms.
Guy Marks, an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney, is one of the recipients of NHMRC funding, having been awarded more than A$1.9 million. His team is planning two placebo-controlled trials – a short-term lab trial and a six-month field study – and he says its randomised and controlled design should exclude nocebo effects. “We are fairly confident that we will be able to demonstrate whether or not measurable adverse health effects can be attributed to infrasound,” says Marks.
Compared with similar previous studies, Marks says his trials will involve longer exposure periods and measure a wider range of outcomes. Sham devices will be used as a control, but how exactly his team will set up a convincing fake wind farm remains to be seen. Wind turbines are typically several hundred feet in size, cost millions of dollars, and don’t fit in a lab. The researchers have a huge task on their hands if they are to produce strong evidence to outweigh that which already exists.
The other project to receive NHMRC funds is being led by sleep researcher Peter Catcheside of Flinders University in Adelaide. His team will spend A$1.36 million comparing the quality of sleep near wind farms with that near heavy traffic. Obviously, it will be impossible to blind participants in the wind-farm condition to the fact that they are in close proximity to a wind turbine, leaving the experiment wide open to nocebo effects.
All around us
Whether such experiments are a good use of millions of public research dollars raises an ethical dilemma. After all, we arealso exposed to infrasound generated by air turbulence, ocean waves, road traffic and air conditioners, among other causes, and often at far greater levels than those produced by wind farms. Infrasound is even produced by our ownheartbeat.
Chapman suggests there may be questionable motives among some who say they have wind turbine syndrome. It is not uncommon, for example, for energy companies that are eager to build turbines to end up buying out residents – renovating their homes or relocating them.
“When anti-wind farm leaders move around communities, sometimes with entrepreneurial lawyers, spreading anxiety that the turbines can harm health, we can get a potent combination of poorly informed, worried and angry residents seeded with the idea that their protests might lead to a payout,” Chapman wrote in The Conversation in 2012.
As unlikely as it may be, if wind farms do cause minor health problems, it probably won’t make a difference to whether we continue building them. Wind farms provide clean energy while causing far less noise pollution than other everyday sounds such as road traffic and aeroplanes.
This begs the question: what’s behind the seemingly never-ending gravy train of funding for this kind of research? It may have something to do with recent prime minister Tony Abbott. During his time in office, he said that the only thing holding him back from reducing the number of wind farms was Australia’s Senate. It may be no coincidence that Abbott has previously referred to climate-change science as “absolute crap”, a statement that 97 per cent of climate scientists would disagree with.
At a time when 85 per cent of grant proposals to the NHMRC are rejected, it seems odd that Catcheside has been awarded the biggest grant he has ever received to research this problem. Meanwhile, Colin Butler, editor of Climate Change and Global Health, has had several grant applications concerning the impact of climate change on health rejected by the NHMRC. Butler believes the NHMRC is “politicised” and has accused the grant review process of being “corrupted”, writing in 2012 that “I do not expect to ever get an NH&MRC grant”. He says his views remain the same to this day.
Could there be a silver lining? Perhaps these two studies will finally put an end to the unfounded claims. Then again, maybe this is “blisteringly naive” – at least according to Rod Lamberts of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. If previous studies have done little to quiet such complaints, he says, there is little to suggest that two more will persuade.