Canada: Strong Evidence From Australia: Wind Health Complaints Contagious Nocebo Effects

Last Updated: April 18 2013
Article by Dianne Saxe

A large, historical Australian public health study from the Sydney Medical School concludes that health complaints about wind turbines are heavily influenced by contagious nocebo effects. Many people have lived for many years next to wind farms with very few health effects, except where and until anti-wind groups actively made the issue a concern. Now, however, it is very hard to distinguish real health effects from nocebo effects. The study, Spatio-temporal differences in the history of health and noise complaints about Australian wind farms: evidence for the psychogenic, "communicated disease" hypothesis, concludes:

...the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are "communicated diseases" with nocebo effects likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints.

Here is the entire abstract:

Background and objectives

With often florid allegations about health problems arising from wind turbine exposure now widespread in parts of rural Australia and on the internet, nocebo effects potentially confound any future investigation of turbine health impact. Historical audits of health complaints across periods when such claims were rare are therefore important. We test 4 hypotheses relevant to psychogenic explanations of the variable timing and distribution of health and noise complaints about wind farms in Australia. Setting All (n=51) Australian wind farms (with 1634 turbines) operating from 1993–2012 .

Methods

Records of complaints about noise or health obtained from wind farm companies regarding residents living near 51 Australian wind farms, expressed as proportions of estimated populations residing within 5km of wind farms, and corroborated with complaints in submissions to 3 government public enquiries and news media records and court affidavits .

Results

There are large spatio-temporal variations in wind farm noise and health complaints.33/51(64.7%) of Australian wind farms including 17/34(50%) with turbine size >1MW have never been subject to noise or health complaints. These 33 farms have some 21,592 residents within 5km of their turbines and have operated complaint-free for a cumulative total of 267 years. Western Australia and Tasmania Have seen no complaints. Only 131 individuals across Australia representing approximately 1 in 250 residents living within 5km of wind farms appear to have ever complained, with 94(72%) of these being residents near 6 wind farms which have been targeted by anti wind farm groups . About 1 in 87 (126/10901) of those living near turbines >1MW have ever complained.

The large majority 104/131(79%) of health and noise complaints commenced after 2009 when anti wind farm groups began to add health concerns to their wider opposition. In the preceding years, health or noise complaints were rare despite large and small turbined wind farms having operated for many years.

Conclusions

In view of scientific consensus that the evidence for wind turbine noise and infrasound causing health problems is poor, the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are "communicated diseases" with nocebo effects likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints....

The report notes that study after study, around the world, has come to the same conclusion:

Despite a profusion of claims mostly by wind farm opponents about harms to exposed humans and animals(currently numbering 216 different diseases and symptoms)(2), 18 reviews of the research literature on wind turbines and health published since 2003 (3-20) have all reached the broad conclusion that the evidence for wind turbines being directly harmful to health is very poor. Among their conclusions have been:

  • Small minorities of exposed people – typically less than 10% – claim to be annoyed by wind turbines(15)
  • The relationship between wind turbines and human responses is "influenced by numerous variables, the majority of which are non-physical" (15)
  • As with the characteristics of "New Environmental Illnesses" (21) and "Modern Health Worries" (22), pre-existing negative attitudes to wind turbines and subjective sensitivity to noise are more predictive of annoyance and adverse health effects than are objective measures of actual exposure (15)
  • Being able to see wind turbines(5, 23), and negative personal attitudes toward their impact on landscape aesthetics is similarly predictive of annoyance and intention to complain (24)
  • Deriving income from turbines(25) or enjoying reduced power bills can have an apparent "protective effect" against annoyance and health symptoms ("Effective public participation in and direct benefits from wind energy projects(such as receiving electricity from the neighboring wind turbines) have been shown to result in less annoyance in general and better public acceptance overall.")(19)

Previous research has identified psychological factors such as having a "negative personality" (26), holding negative beliefs about wind turbines (27) or that they are ugly (23) as associated with being bothered by noise, complaining, or being opposed to wind farms in one's residential area.

Environmental Defence sums it up this way: Don't believe the hype about windmills and health. As it turns out, listening to it just might make you sick.

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Dianne Saxe
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