Issue 22 / 12 June 2012

HOW does an annoying aspect of everyday life get turned into a medical “syndrome”?

It’s a question people in the renewable energy industry might well ask as they contemplate the increasingly vocal opponents of wind farms and the raft of assertions made about alleged devastating health effects.

Around the country, nervous state governments are responding to claims about “wind turbine syndrome” coming from a growing number of inquiries.

A parliamentary inquiry into the social, economic and health effects of wind farms got under way last week in SA, which has more wind farms than any other state.

So what are the claimed health effects? Some, such as sleep disturbance and headache, are predictable, but the turbines have also been blamed for everything from cardiovascular disease to herpes, epilepsy and infertility.

In fact, Professor Simon Chapman, from the University of Sydney’s school of public health, says he has found no fewer than 113 diseases or symptoms attributed to wind farms.

This is despite 17 international reviews finding the evidence for direct adverse health effects from proximity to the turbines just isn’t there. Direct health effects are those caused by the turbines themselves, rather than those that might result from annoyance or other psychological responses to the presence of a wind farm.

An independent review commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported earlier this year that the (admittedly limited) epidemiological evidence had found no link between turbine noise and a range of disorders or symptoms including pain, diabetes, tinnitus, cardiovascular disease or migraine.

“There is no evidence for a set of health effects from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ ”, the authors wrote.

No evidence of harm is not, of course, the same as evidence of no harm, and if the evidence is limited that should be addressed.

But where did this syndrome come from, given the apparent lack of evidence to support it?

US paediatrician Dr Nina Pierpont could lay claim to being its discoverer — or perhaps creator.

After hearing reports of adverse effects from patients, she conducted interviews with 38 people selected because they had left their homes or were about to leave them as a result of wind turbine noise, and published the results in a 2009 book, Wind turbine syndrome: a report on a natural experiment.

The constellation of symptoms her interviewees described included sleep disturbance, headache, tinnitus, vertigo, nausea, tachycardia, irritability, problems with memory and concentration, and panic episodes.

Dr Pierpont’s approach to conducting scientific research appears unusual, to say the least.

“I never set out to prove wind turbines cause Wind Turbine Syndrome”, she writes on her website. “This was already obvious.”

Why was it obvious? Because her patients had told her so.

“When patients talk to me, I take seriously and believe the symptoms and observations they present … I studied Wind Turbine Syndrome with the same set of assumptions about clinical truth and reality that I apply to my patients.”

Ultimately, she’s not really talking about evidence at all. She tells visitors to the website about the book that they have to decide whether to put their “faith and belief” with their neighbours, or with the Massachusetts government’s “official” report (her quote marks).

There’s no doubt many people do believe their health has been adversely affected by wind farms and those treating them should, as Dr Pierpont does, take their concerns seriously.

But it’s quite a leap to suggest those self-diagnoses should be considered scientifically validated fact.

Professor Chapman sees the alarm over wind farms as the latest episode in a long line of outbreaks of mass hysteria, citing mass fainting of children receiving vaccines as another example. He links it to the “nocebo effect” — when people experience adverse side effects associated with a medication or event because of a belief that it is likely to harm them.

The more people complain about the harm wind farms have done them, the more likely that others will start thinking they may have the same symptoms.

Such is the power of the nocebo effect, that before you know it you have a full-blown “syndrome” on your hands — one that threatens to derail attempts to create a viable renewable energy sector in this country.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 12 June 2012

12 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Hot air of hysteria

  1. Rob the Physician says:

    Medical syndromes have been developing since “man & woman” began ‘expressing’ opinions!
    The symptoms, of course, relate to the disease “not in my backyard” ie: NIMB; and like it or not they will only get worse in our day and age !!!

  2. Sue Ieraci says:

    Indeed, there is a long history of reactions to certain social conditions becoming labelled as “syndromes”. Witness: recovered memory “syndrome”, Gulf War “syndrome”, multiple personality “syndrome” – all clusters of somatic symptoms that are assembled in opposition to some social condition or traumatic experience. The unenviable position of the medical/scientific community, in “debunking” the alleged syndromes, it that we are seen as lacking empathy with the “victims” and blaming them rather than the external “toxin”. A no-win for the medical profession.

  3. Dr. ARC says:

    This is another example of mass hysteria promulgated by greenie sympathisers.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It’s also interesting that several months ago the ABC News carried a story about the joyous community festival held in Daylesford (Vic) to celebrate the opening of the wind turbine that the community had installed and paid for, so as to improve their energy sustainability. Daylesford is well known for alternative lifestyles and there were lots of pictures of happy face-painted kids and their hippy parents, dancing under the slowly turning blades.

    Seem to me to suggest that Wind Turbine Syndrome arises when people resent the turbines. The usual prophylactic is ownership of the site and its rental income, the usual risk factor is your neighbour owning the site and getting the rent.

    It’s interesting to see that when a whole community can feel ownership of the turbine and feel that they are all getting a benefit, there is no resentment, even from a community that might be stereotyped as one prone to atypical diagnoses.

  5. Rational man says:

    Environmental extremists have been using alleged health effects in their anti-industry scare campaigns for decades, so it is amusing to see the same tactics used against their ugly and intrusive wind turbines.

  6. Dr John Fone says:

    To misquote Voltaire, “If wind turbine syndrome did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it”
    I read the Prof Chapman piece in The Drum.
    The responses from the fringe were predictable, ludicrous but still slightly disturbing.
    I’m sure experienced GPs have seen multiple examples of this form of lunacy.
    It’s usually harmless and can even be entertaining.
    Perhaps next will be Solar Panel Psychosis.

  7. Ray T says:

    While I have no personal involvement with wind farms, and no investment in them, I wouldn’t be in a big rush to reject the concerns.

    Authorities and the interested industry fought the idea that cigarette smoking was dangerous for decades, and the WHO has just come out and listed diesel fumes as a definite cause of cancer after years of denial by the world diesel and heavy vehicle industry and governments worried about costs and fear.

    The debate about the risk from field effects from mobile phones held close to the head goes on. There I am with Neurosurgeon, Vini Khurana, and adopting a better safe than sorry approach.

  8. Ray T says:

    PS: Other ridiculed conditions have turned out to be real. “Kangaroo Paw” eventually found legitimacy one we began to understand repetition strain injury, and there have been publications demonstrating the relationship of “Sick Building Syndrome” to inhaled carbon fines from all those laser printers sitting around on stand by. (Newer models shut down automatically.)

  9. john porritt says:

    Too young to remember ?
    No different from a century ago when the internal combustion engine put vehicles on the roads in competition with horses.
    There was also then anxiety about the economy. Why not encourage the hysterics to stand below turbines with red flags and placards?

  10. Richard says:

    Unfortunately this sort of lunacy is encouraged by those who would benefit from no renewable fuels at all, the filthy fuel industry. Seems they do not make enough off polluting our world already, they want more and more.
    Why else would they have up to 300 lobbyists in Canberra at any one time?
    All for their own selfish interests, interests which cost the taxpayer (not them of course) up to $50 billion per year. See the Harvard Study February 2011 “Full Cost of Coal”.
    Is this the only answer? No, Check out the website at ‘beyondzeroemissions.org” for some fascinating work on a ZERO carbon energy future that we could start building tomorrow, If our politicians were not so dependent on the lovely lolly of the filthy fuel lobby.

  11. David Chapman says:

    What makes me angry is the politicisation of the AGW debate. Scientific discourse has been thrown out the window. No rational critism is allowed.It seems to me that the alarmists are either : 1 Empire building academics competing for government funding playing into the hands of 2: bureaucrats with supranational ambitions (read UNO). 3: next we have banks Deutch, for instance, and our own Malcolm Tuurnbull who can see a dollar or two being made out of shorting carbon credits;4 Pedlears of windmills and solar panells, neither of which can provide the energy requirements for a modern economy;5 Hardwired anticaptalists;6 Misguided idealists.I rest my case.

  12. kevin says:

    Ray T drawing a long bow. Kangaroo paw certainly didn’t find legitamacy and was debunked long ago similarly with sick building syndrome in the main.
    Wind turbines are certainly not diesel fumes or smoking.

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