Wind farms don’t hurt people, but some people complain anyway

There are some complaints by a subset of people near existing wind farms that the wind farms are responsible for their health concerns. There’s a pretty big amount of fear near proposed wind farms about this. And there are a bunch of people spreading health fears. So what’s going on? There are four chunks worth reviewing: what do literature views say, what about the nocebo effect, what about other psychological factors and what could people do if the noise annoys them?

Over 20 reviews around the world have found that wind farms don’t harm health 

A big study was performed by the Public Health Officers of Ontario in 2010.  The study reviewed all available literature on wind health effects and associated disciplines including epidemiology and noise safety.  The study concluded that some people living near wind turbines experienced heightened stress levels which caused related stress issues and that these issues had no physical basis. The review concludes that while:

some people living near wind turbines report symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, and sleep disturbance, the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects. The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause hearing impairment or other direct health effects, although some people may find it annoying.

The Ontario government went further and had additional assessments and reviews done and concluded:

there is no direct health risk from wind turbine sound at Ontario’s regulated setback distance.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection performed a study by independent experts that reached identical conclusions:

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

And this:

None of the limited epidemiological evidence reviewed suggests an association between noise from wind turbines and pain and stiffness, diabetes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease, and headache/migraine

And finally this:

Whether annoyance from wind turbines leads to sleep issues or stress has not been sufficiently quantified

There have been a total of 22 reviews world-wide of the dozens of pieces of peer-reviewed research related to wind energy, noise and health, as well as the anecdotal health complaints. Each of these reviews has found the same thing: no health impacts attributable to wind power and no physiological mechanism for health impacts. For the full list of reviews including key finds and links, have a look at this referenced material from the University of Sydney. The evidence is clear. When public health and medical professionals review the evidence, they don’t find that wind farms harm health.

Wind farm health fears spread by anti-wind groups are a problem

In epidemiology and public health, there are concepts of psychogenic and sociogenic illnesses:

  • Psychogenic illness: 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
  • Sociogenic illness: a medical condition that occurs to multiple individuals within a social group, but does not seem to have a common organic cause.

Public health expert Dr. Simon Chapman and team continue to perform research that shows that wind turbine-related ailments are almost certainly psychogenic in nature.  He maintains a list of  200+ unique ailments blamed on wind farms including vibrating lips at 10 km.

Great info graphic by Ketan Joshi at http://etwasluft.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/anecdotal-evidence.html that went viral when Donald Trump Tweeted it thinking it proved something other than what it does.

In March 2013, Professor Chapman published a study of complaints related to wind farms in Australia, relating both time of complaints and geographical closeness to large and small wind farms to media and anti-wind campaigners promotion of health issues: Spatio-temporal differences in the history of health and noise complaints about Australian wind farms: evidence for the psychogenic, “communicated disease” hypothesis. The study had four hypotheses:

  1. Many wind farms of comparable power would have no history of health or noise complaints from nearby residents (suggesting that exogenous factors to the turbines may explain the presence or absence of complaints)
  2. Wind farms which had been subject to complaints would have only a small number of such complaining residents among those living near the farms (suggesting that individual or social factors may be required to explain different “susceptibility”)
  3. Few wind farms would have any history of complaints consistent with claims that turbines cause acute health problems (suggesting that explanations beyond turbines are needed to explain why acute problems are reported).
  4. Most health and noise complaints would date from after the advent of anti wind farm groups beginning to foment concerns about health (from around 2009) and that wind farms subject to organized opposition would be more likely to have histories of complaint than those not exposed to such opposition (suggesting that health concerns may reflect “communicated” anxieties).

The results showed all four hypotheses were correct.

The Nocebo Effect is Placebo’s Evil Twin

Researcher Fiona Crichton and her co-authors studied the nocebo effect on infrasound in a carefully designed trial. They separated the study group and exposed one subset to internet literature claiming health impacts from infrasound. The control group did not read the infrasound literature. They exposed both groups to both infrasound and no infrasound while telling them that they were being exposed to infrasound.  Here is their conclusion:

Conclusions: Healthy volunteers, when given information about the expected physiological effect of infrasound, reported symptoms that aligned with that information, during exposure to both infrasound and sham infrasound. Symptom expectations were created by viewing information readily available on the Internet, indicating the potential for symptom expectations to be created outside of the laboratory, in real world settings. Results suggest psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints.

A further study by Chricton et al found that if people were exposed to positive messages about wind noise and infrasound, their mood and symptoms actually improved.

Conclusions: The study demonstrates that expectations can influence symptom and mood reports in both positive and negative directions. The results suggest that if expectations about infrasound are framed in more neutral or benign ways, then it is likely reports of symptoms or negative effects could be nullified. [26]

Other psychological studies are telling too

A UK study by Claire Lawrence et al from the University of Nottingham on people with negatively oriented personalities and their perception of wind noise and reporting of negative health impacts has been published.  The study builds upon work already done around perception of noise and negatively oriented personality traits. The UK study modelled actual noise in dwellings using industry standard approaches.  The study surveyed residents within three ranges of actual noise near the wind turbines.  It found:

  1. No correlation between actual noise and reported symptoms.
  2. Perception of noise was strongly related to negative attitudes to wind turbines, much more so than actual noise from wind turbines.
  3. A strong correlation between perception of noise and reported symptoms.
  4. A strong correlation between negatively oriented personality traits and reported symptoms.
  5. No relationship between attitude to wind turbines and actual noise; those who really could hear them more weren’t disposed to dislike them more.

It is very worth noting the findings of Drs. Frits van den Berg and Eja Pederson, Dutch wind energy impacts researchers.  In one analysis, they had several hundred people answer a survey on noise annoyance due to wind, and included several other questions.  They correlated the results and found that annoyance due to wind noise was very highly correlated to two factors:  whether the person could see the wind turbine and whether the person was receiving any economic benefit from the wind turbine.  In other words, people tended to find turbines that they could see noisier and more annoying than turbines that they couldn’t see, and were annoyed if their neighbours were making money from them and they weren’t.   In a related study, they assessed the impacts of annoyance due to wind on people and found that it increased stress leading in some cases to loss of sleep and that in addition to the factors above, the unique characteristics of wind turbine noise made it more annoying to some people.  This strongly supports the stress related hypothesis for health impacts and is worth understanding for wind turbine regulatory policy and wind turbine community engagement. The evidence is clear: people spreading health fears are making people sick.

The evidence for wind farms making people sick is really weak

Wind farm opponents quickly find material by authors such as Dr. Nina Pierpoint on “wind turbine syndrome” , and then spread it in their communities.  These tend to amplify stress related to changes in their physical environment and concerns over real estate values. Pierpoint’s sample size was 23 direct phone interviews from people self-identified as suffering negative health impacts due to wind and assertions by those on the health impacts on an addition 15 people.  From this tiny and biased sample of 38, Dr. Pierpoint generated 60+ pages of charts and graphs on over a dozen symptoms associated with wind turbines. Similar studies have been performed with equally suspect methodologies that specifically queried individuals with a list of purported symptoms of “wind turbine syndrome” in egregious breaches of study design. Dr. Pierpont and her husband were, unsurprisingly, long-term opponents of a proposed wind farm near their home in New England before her study was performed. A study was published in Noise and Health in late 2012 by long time wind opponents but was thoroughly critiqued in a subsequent issue of the journal.

  • Their data does not support a correlation between wind turbine placement and sleep; the correlation is far too weak
  • According to PSQI and Epworth sleep scales, both the control and study groups suffer from poor sleeping; this is the much more significant finding yet it isn’t mentioned
  • It downplays or ignores long-understood impacts of both bias and impacts of change in creating annoyance
  • There are significant unstated conflicts-of-interest, biases and allegiances to the anti-wind lobby group The Society for Wind Vigilance among the six authors and reviewers
  • One of the authors has been actively involved in creating anti-wind bias and annoyance in these sites for years

Similar weakness exists in the work of Alec Salt, who has extrapolated from guinea pig ears to human impacts at very different levels of sound intensity. The evidence for a physiological explanation for wind farm health complaints is extremely weak. Solitary researchers with prior histories of anti-wind campaigning have published a small handful of weak papers in low-impact journals or self-published them, avoiding peer-review entirely.

Wind farm noise is lower than urban noise by a large amount

All 22 reviews and all researchers into wind farms and health agree that a small subset of people very close to wind farms find the noise annoying. As this review of the major material shows, the annoyance is much more related to the individual who is annoyed than to the actual noise, but that said, environmental noise is a concern. The World Health Organization has published community guidelines on noise intended to reduce health impacts.  These guidelines call for 35 dB in bedrooms at night for best sleeping and have numerous other categories for schools etc, and set the bar for annoyance at above 40 dB.  Anti-wind advocates point out that most wind turbine guidelines and regulations such as Ontario’s Regulation 359/09 call for 40 dB in inhabited homes near wind turbines and use this as an argument against wind farm placement.  Of course, wind turbine noise annoyance impacts a very small percentage of any populace mostly determined by psychological traits as shown above, and what is more interesting about the WHO guidelines is that no one living in a town of larger than 10,000 people has living conditions that apply to them due to traffic noise, industrial noise, air traffic and the necessary machinery of cities. If those concerned with wind turbine noise were truly focussed on health impacts, they would be promoting low-cost, effective noise annoyance reduction measures.

  • Closing windows on noisy nights
  • White noise generators and smart-phone apps
  • Ear plugs for bad nights
  • Stress reduction techniques

People everywhere in the world do this; why can’t people near wind farms? Increasing setbacks of wind turbines by hundreds of meters is a really out-of-line approach.

What does this add up to?

Credible, independent and professional groups have reviewed the literature and found no health impacts or mechanism for them. The evidence for a psychogenic or nocebo effect causing health impacts is very strong. The evidence for physiological impacts is very weak. Where minor environmental noise is an issue, it is easily dealt with.

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