It's still most likely that our ideas about wind turbines are making us sicker than anything their spinning blades are doing.
Image Chrishna / Flickr
Thousands of people around the world are convinced that living near wind turbines can make you physically sick. The phenomenon, colloquially called Wind Turbine Syndrome—a term coined from the eponymous self-published book on the topic—has inspired complaints, grievances from those who live near wind farms around the world. There is no scientific evidence at all that it, or anything like it, exists.
Nina Pierpont, the author of Wind Turbine Syndrome, describes the "countless people who suddenly find themselves grievously ill from the subtle yet devastating infrasonic jackhammer" of wind turbines. Purported symptoms include sleep disturbance, nausea, and migraine headaches.
The theory that wind turbines are damaging to human health has been debunked a number of times by scientific inquiry already, and one study went so far as to investigate the 'nocebo' effect that appeared to promulgate belief in the disease. Stephen Colbert even took some potshots at the hysteria.
But WTS, as the theory's adherents acronymize it, has joined 'vaccines cause autism,' gluten intolerance, and, of course, climate change denial in the pantheon of pseudoscientific ideas that have stubbornly lodged themselves in the orbit of the mainstream. It's not just e-books, either; it's got its own Gasland-style activist documentary film and some credulous reports from respectable journalistic outlets, too.
Now, Canada's national health department, partly in response to its citizen's own complaints about turbines, has published what its principal investigators calls "the most comprehensive report done, internationally, in this area." It is the biggest investigation into the health impacts of wind turbines yet carried out.
The study consisted of three components; a self-reported questionnaire among those who live near wind turbines, biologic measurements of hair cortisol, blood pressure, and sleep quality, and an analysis of more than 4,000 hours of wind turbine noise.
Their conclusion? No, wind turbines do not make anyone sick. Even the self-reported surveys revealed as much—people who lived near wind turbines were simply not more stressed, losing more sleep, or falling more ill at a greater rate than civilians living anywhere else.
"In our study, we did not find any support for direct health effects, including sleep disturbance and stress," Dr. David S. Michaud, the principal investigator of the study, told me in an interview. The commonly reported symptoms of WTS—sleep deprivation, migraines, and stress—didn't surface any more than usual. The physical samples backed that up too; cortisol levels and blood pressure matched the average population.
"Migraine levels were comparable to that of the general population," Michaud said. "We didn't find any support in this study for any of these conditions to be related to the wind turbines." However, he did note that his was a population study, and was not explicitly designed to investigate the existence of WTS, but to offer advice to Canadians integrating wind turbines into their communities.
The most egregious effect of the wind turbines was "annoyance." A small segment of the population that lives near wind turbines was found to be "annoyed" by their presence. And yes, it's a small segment: 16 percent of those who lived very close to turbines, and 6 percent of those who lived a bit further from the turning blades.
"There was an increase in annoyance," Michaud said. "The noise, the shadow flicker, the aircraft warning lights that blink... No, we didn't find any of the other things—but we found this annoyance."
And that's nothing to scoff at. The persistence of an annoying factor in a community could certainly be deleterious to its social and psychological wellbeing. Who wants to live under the shadow of nonstop irritation?
But we need to be honest. Communities that find turbines aesthetically ugly, or are bothered by the noise, or are politically predisposed to dislike clean energy, may need to reexamine where the basis for their grievance probably lies. Those aforementioned studies found that perceived WTS-like symptoms can be drummed up with the power of suggestion (and anti-wind turbine lobbying) alone, and it's more apt to happen in populations that dislike the turbines in the first place.
The new Canadian research supports that It's far more likely that anger, or hysteria, or ideology is what's making anyone sick about wind turbines than the spinning, blinking structures themselves.