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Wind turbine syndrome full of hot air?

By Michael Harrington • Mar 6, 2019 at 1:00 PM

BELLEVUE — Wind turbine syndrome? 

It’s either an illness caused by wind turbines, or it’s an imagined affliction used in the battle to stop development of wind farms, such as the one proposed for Erie and Huron counties. 

As Apex Clean Energy moves to get the permitting it needs to build about 75 wind turbines, some in the anti-wind movement are expressing concerns about infrasound from the turbines causing illness. But infrasound — any sound below the threshold of a human’s ability to hear — isn’t unique to wind turbines.

“We are bathed in infrasound all the time. It’s everywhere,” said Roger Waxler, a principle research scientist at the National Center for Physical Acoustics.

Waxler said infrasound is more common than people think and there haven’t been enough studies to say if and to what extent it can affect a person’s health.

What research that has been done, however, disputes claims of infrasound causing wind turbine syndrome, which includes symptoms of vertigo, tinnitus, insomnia, migraines etc.

“A number of people have looked at it, both academics and state entities. They’ve all found there’s no evidence for what is known as wind turbine syndrome,” said Dave Anderson, communication manager for the Energy and Policy Institute.

The institute watches out for misinformation on clean energy sources and doesn’t receive funding from corporations, trade associations or governments. 

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health, at the University of Sydney co-authored the book “Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Communicated Disease.”

He argues the symptoms described by people are part of the nocebo effect — when a person causes a reaction by expecting a negative side-effect.

His study argues that wind turbine syndrome is spread by people hearing about and then expecting the adverse effects when they’re near a wind turbine. In an opinion piece he wrote in The Conversation, Chapman said reviews showed turbines didn’t risk people’s health.

“The reviews conclude that pre-existing negative attitudes to wind farms are generally stronger predictors of annoyance than residential distance to the turbines,” Chapman wrote. “In other words, people who don’t like wind farms can often be annoyed and worried by them: some might even worry themselves sick.”

A recent review by researchers from the University of Iowa, the Iowa Policy Project and the Iowa Environmental Council came to the same conclusions as Chapman.


Where did it begin?

Wind turbine syndrome gained traction in 2009 when Dr. Nina Pierpont, a New York pediatrician, published “Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment.”

Pierpont’s study contained many of the symptoms now associated with wind turbines, but her research was criticized for its methods.

“It wasn’t peer-reviewed on the same standards as an academic study,” Anderson said. “It was a self-published book based on phone calls she made to people lined up by anti-wind groups.”

The institute claims she interviewed 23 people by phone who were chosen through “advertising by anti-wind groups that blamed wind farms for their health issues.” Pierpont didn’t return phone calls or emails asking for a comment.

Jerry Punch, a professor at Michigan State University and a retired audiologist, wrote a letter on behalf of a Scipio Township resident saying the Seneca Wind Project could exacerbate feelings of vertigo. 

“While audible noise from wind turbines is known to disturb sleep, be extremely annoying and substantially reduce quality of life, health symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea and motion sickness seem to be explained best by exposure to infrasound,” Punch wrote.

Dr. Simon Carlile, a professor of physiology at the University of Sydney School of Medical Science, told The Australian in 2015 that after reviewing others’ research it appeared it was possible infrasound could cause motion sickness in a small portion of exposed people.

Carlile’s never published any peer-reviewed research on wind turbines or infrasound and testified before the Australian Senate Select Committee that there is “no good neuroscientific evidence” that turbines are harmful to humans. But he believes more research is needed.

“The problem is there is not enough known about the level and propagation of infrasound in and around wind turbines and the physiological sensitivity of people,” Carlile told the Register. “More high-quality research needs to be funded to get these answers.”

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