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Blowing away fears that wind turbines cause disease

by Jill Margo / AFR / 29.11.17

Manufacturing a disease is not as hard as you might think and we have a strong tradition of doing this, sometimes with detrimental effect.

Our latest confected disease is “wind turbine syndrome” and its advocates have been so vocal they have effectively held back Australia progress in generating this form of energy.

So say the authors of a new book that explores the proposition that wind turbines directly cause illness and then blows away the poor science underlying it.

Leading public health expert, Professor Simon Chapman AO, says the spread of wind farms has been slowed by misinformed activism and disease mongering.

Professor Simon Chapman: "In a career in public health of some 40 years, I have rarely encountered the virulence and ...
Professor Simon Chapman: “In a career in public health of some 40 years, I have rarely encountered the virulence and sheer nastiness that I have experienced since becoming involved in this issue.”

Together with Dr Fiona Crichton, a lawyer and social psychologist in New Zealand, he has published the first serious book on the issue.

They believe it is a fictional disease distributed by people spreading anxiety, worry and alarming “facts”.

Rather than being a communicable disease like a cold or flu, it is a communicated disease spread by talking.

All talk

Steam billows from a brown-coal power station behind wind turbines in eastern Germany.
Steam billows from a brown-coal power station behind wind turbines in eastern Germany. Reuters

Chapman told The Australian Financial Review wind farm syndrome is almost exclusively confined to English-speaking countries.

“If it was real we would see it in Germany, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Italy and France, but we tend not to.”

“I’ve checked with colleagues in Europe and they have never heard of it. They agree people have aesthetic objections but none object on health grounds.”

“The most telling example is in Canada where the province of Ontario is a hotbed of wind farm syndrome in certain areas, and in the neighbouring province of Quebec, where mainly French is spoken, it is almost unknown.”

<I>Wind Turbine Syndrome </I>is freely available as an e-book.
Wind Turbine Syndrome is freely available as an e-book.

An emeritus professor at University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, Chapman has published 21 books and is best known for his work in tobacco control.

The notion that wind turbines could induce illness began attracting attention 15 years ago when unpublished “research” by a British doctor was reported by news outlets and circulated among objectors.

It wasn’t surprising as new technology is traditionally met with a degree of resistance and soon acquires a medical syndrome.

The new book looks at the history of this phenomenon and traces how people once declined to try train travel because they feared it could jolt the nerves.

Professor Chapman is keen to blow away misconceptions about wind turbines.
Professor Chapman is keen to blow away misconceptions about wind turbines. Tanberg

Later many declined to install electric light because an eminent scientist warned it could cause painful “photo-electric opthalmia”.

Anxious times

Serious physicians once reported the telephone could lead to “telephone tinnitus”, causing nervous excitability, buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness and neuralgic pains.

When television came along people were cautioned against its “rays”.  Microwave ovens were met with similar warnings and many were wary of electric poles too.

There are even fears that solar panels cause illness.
There are even fears that solar panels cause illness. AP

More recently, people shrank back from mobile phone towers and despite the lack of evidence continue to worry about cell phones causing brain cancer.

Today some people are anxious about smart metres at home and while one fringe group is fretting about solar panels and another is afraid of the adverse effects of being in a room full of Wi-Fi.

There are always people with a vested interest in resisting change just as there are always people who are worried about change.

Wind Turbine Syndrome argues that, as with previous new technologies, these factors have coalesced to create controversy about wind turbines causing disease.

The book looks at some of the main opponents of wind farms in Australia including politicians, activists, organisations, websites and acousticians.

It says a small number of anti-wind activists operating internationally have made wind turbine syndrome their cause celebre.

They see themselves as “as contemporary Galileos, fearlessly holding aloft the truth in the face of doctrinaire, conspiratorial denial from the scientific establishment”.

Sheer nastiness

Tilting at windmills: Outspoken opponent of turbines Tony Abbott  depicted as Don Quixote.  oped tues 27 1.jpg
Tilting at windmills: Outspoken opponent of turbines Tony Abbott depicted as Don Quixote. oped tues 27 1.jpg John Shakespeare

This is complicated because they point to historical denials of harm by the asbestos and tobacco industries, convinced that the “Big Wind” industry is doing the same.

“In a career in public health of some 40 years, I have rarely encountered the virulence and sheer nastiness that I have experienced since becoming involved in this issue,” Chapman says.

Political opponents of wind farms achieved three Australian Senate inquiries between 2011 and 2015 and state inquiries in South Australia and NSW in 2012.

Chapman says the latest report of the Senate inquiry of 2015 was “an utter travesty of impartial inquiry”.

It led to the establishment of a National Wind Farm Commissioner to investigate complaints. In March this year, Commissioner Andrew Dyer released his first annual report.

Given the turbine problem had been described as massive it was “frankly astonishing”, says Chapman, that only 90 complaints were received of which only half related to existing wind farms.

Chapman says with about 70 wind farms and some solo turbines, Australia has been held back. With its space, topography and weather it should rank much higher than 17th in the world.

When complaints first emerged about wind farms they were mostly about the impact of turbines on the local economy, land values, the environment and bird and bat populations.

Activists see themselves “as contemporary Galileos, fearlessly holding aloft the truth in the face of doctrinaire, ...
Activists see themselves “as contemporary Galileos, fearlessly holding aloft the truth in the face of doctrinaire, conspiratorial denial from the scientific establishment”. Bloomberg

Concerns about human health then followed.

The book examines 25 published reviews of the evidence that wind farms are a direct cause of health problems, including one by an expert committee of Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.

The reviews found the evidence of harm is very poor.

Chapman says there have been no health complains about 88 per cent of wind farms in Australia. When this is put to opponents, he says their stock answer is that wind farm illness is like sea sickness: only a few get it.

Ripe for suggestion

Crichton has expertise in the nocebo effect, which is the inverse of the well known placebo effect.

With the placebo effect, people derive a benefit from something they believe to be beneficial although it is inert.

The nocebo effect occurs when they expect an adverse health effect from something inert and go on to experience the anticipated symptoms.

Is the sun setting on wind turbine syndrome?
Is the sun setting on wind turbine syndrome? Bloomberg

As both effects are just as real, concerns about wind turbines can foment anxiety and produce real symptoms in some people who have those concerns.

They may then go on to attribute their symptoms to direct impacts of the turbines, not to their anxiety about those alleged impacts.

While people also complain about the aesthetics and noise of turbines, Chapman says sleeping is the biggest confected health complaint.

“But in any community about 30 per cent of people will report sleep problems. Because they often want to attribute it to some cause, they are ripe for suggestions about wind farms.”

He has visited several wind farms and found them very quiet. “The difference between what you may have heard about the sound of wind turbines and what you will experience is a major ‘penny drop’ experience.”

Just as health fears related to train travel and electric light faded with time, so will the fear of wind turbines.

Chapman believes the process is already under way.

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