Wind turbine syndrome: who’s doing the research?

  • 24 Oct 2012, 17:00
  • Ros Donald

Photo: Martin Pettitt

Are people getting sick because they live near wind turbines? Opponents to windfarms have been collecting testimonies alleging that communities near wind developments have been suffering a clutch of symptoms they're calling 'wind turbine syndrome'. But although studies that appear to support these allegations have started appearing in journals, the medical community remains skeptical that the evidence base proves the claims. We've taken a closer look.

Ever since a 64-foot wind turbine was erected just 300 metres from Aileen Jackson's home, family members have experienced ill health and sleepless nights, depression, rocketing blood sugar levels and high blood pressure. So claims skeptic columnist James Delingpole in an article for the Daily Mail. Delingpole thinks the link between the Jackson family's ill-health and the turbine can't be a coincidence. He says:

"[I]n order to believe that, you would have to discount the testimony of the thousands of people just like Aileen around the world who claim their health has been damaged by wind farms."

These testimonies, often collected by anti-wind campaigners, are now being cited in journal articles - mostly opinion pieces - claiming there may indeed be a wind turbine syndrome. There's an opinion piece in the British Medical Journal by sleep medicine practitioners Alun Evans and Chris Hanning, and the August 2011 theme edition of the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society is given over to what it says are the ill-effects of wind turbines on nearby communities. According to these articles, the only suggested cure is to move away from the structures.

Delingpole focuses on one article in particular in his piece:  'Properly Interpreting the Epidemiologic Evidence About the Health Effects of Industrial Wind Turbines on Nearby Residents' by Dr Carl Phillips, an epidemiologist. The piece argues that testimonies from people around the world offer "overwhelming evidence that wind turbines cause serious health problems in nearby residents, usually stress-disorder type diseases, at a nontrivial rate".

Where wind and tobacco meet

Dr Phillips has testified before US Congress on the reported health dangers of living near wind turbines. He also testifies before government agencies on behalf of communities that hire him in wind development planning hearings as head of epiphi Consulting Group, based in Texas, according to testimony he gave in 2010.

In it, he writes:

"I admit to being new to this controversy [...] But as someone who specializes in trying to sort out competing epidemiology-related policy claims, I find it difficult to see how the evidence could fail to be adequate to suggest that there is a serious problem worthy of further study."

Phillips has been working on the health effects of wind for a few years, but he is a longer-established figure in debate over the regulation and health implications of tobacco products. Until 2010, Phillips was an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, where he focused on so-called tobacco harm reduction, promoting alternatives to cigaretts such as chewing tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

In an interview on a website selling electronic cigarettes in 2010, Phillips said:

"The health benefits of switching [to smokeless tobacco products] are almost exactly the same as the health benefits of quitting, and this applies to electronic cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and pharmaceutical nicotine."

He left the university shortly after the interview, after he claims he was driven out as a result of "efforts to censor [his] THR [tobacco harm reduction] research". According to a local report, he had received a $1.5 million grant from the US Smokeless Tobacco Company, which makes chewing tobacco. Articles and opinion pieces Phillips published while at Alberta include: 'Warning: Anti-tobacco activism may be hazardous to epidemiological science'.

Since 2010, Phillips hasn't been affiliated to any university. In addition to running epiphi, he heads up an organisation called the Populi Health Institute, which he calls an "independent academic-style lab", which has received funding from British American Tobacco. The institute doesn't have a website, and Phillips appears to be its only full-time employee. He also maintains the website, TobaccoHarmReduction, which promotes smokeless nicotine products.

Wind and the power of testimony

Phillips's wind farm paper is not based on research into the effect turbines have on health. As he says on his blog, he "knew what answer [he was] going to present from the start". Instead, he says testimonies from people who claim their health is being affected by wind turbines are "strong evidence for a causal relationship" between proximity to the turbines and the symptoms complainants describe.

Describing his methods, he says:

"It was completely intended to be analytic, not research, arguing for a particular way of looking at the evidence that wind turbines cause human health problems.  It is a research paper only in the sense that anything analytic that appears in journals gets called that: I knew what answer I was going to present from the start.  So when I wrote my COI [conflict of interest] statement, I did not hesitate to describe, matter-of-fact, that I do work as a testifying expert on behalf of communities fighting the siting of local wind turbines.  I had written a paper that was designed from the start to argue (sort of like demonstrating) how to think about the matter I worked on."

Phillips argues these testimonies shouldn't be discounted despite not being peer reviewed. He goes further, claiming that peer review is used in the medical community to "censor politically incorrect evidence".

Phillips acknowledges that researchers measuring noise from turbines haven't found any physiological evidence that it harms people. But he argues:                              

"Claims have been made that people cannot usually detect the sounds or vibrations from wind turbines at certain distances (e.g., Colby et al. 2009 address this point multiple times and seem to imply it is of great importance), though there are ample counterclaims about people being able to detect the noise. The claims, whether or not they are accurate, have no bearing on whether these exposures affect people's health and well being. Many things we cannot detect can harm us."

Phillips claims that scientists' failure to detect noise at harmful levels near wind turbines does not account for the fact that people experience "complete relief" when they relocate.
What does the medical community say about exposure to wind turbines?

All this might seem quite confusing. Phillips and others generally blame audible and inaudible noise from wind turbines as the cause of health problems. Yet, Phillips appears to accept that researchers haven't found evidence that the sound from turbines is harmful. According to a recent literature review for the government of Massachusetts on the health impacts of wind turbines, on an audible level, modern turbines produce less than 40 decibels at distances greater than 400 metres away, which complies with World Health Organisation guidelines. Turbines also produce infrasound, but below the level at which it can be heard and felt, according to the studies reviewed.

"Noise is the operative issue in [health] claims made about wind turbines", says Dr Robert McCunney from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an epidemiologist who sat on a panel for a literature review of health claims made about wind turbines on behalf of the wind industry. Epidemiologists study disease in populations, and it's not a simple process to make a link between environmental factors and ill-health. As McCunney tells Carbon Brief:  "We're trained to consider a range of explanations for findings noted in research studies."

According to this standard, do the testimonies of sufferers count as "overwhelming evidence", as Phillips suggests, for wind turbine syndrome? Plenty of people say they are are experiencing discomfort. But several panels hired to assess the literature on this subject agree that symptoms such as sleeplessness and anxiety appear to correlate much more strongly with whether or not people actually like wind turbines than with any other factor, which might suggest something more complicated is happening.

The Massachusetts review says four studies have produced peer-reviewed papers on the health effects of wind turbines - three of which find that the most significant outcome associated with poor health was that people surveyed don't like being around turbines. Although turbine noise isn't judged to be harmful, some people may still dislike the sound. And as environmental health research shows, if people are around something such as a noise they don't like for consistent periods - a state scientists rather prosaically call annoyance - their health might suffer. In itself, annoyance could be seen as an important impact on communities. Dr McCunney says:

"There's no question that a small percentage of people who live near turbines report annoyance. When people are annoyed, they may experience stress."

Some papers have suggested that people are more likely to feel annoyed by the noise of wind turbines if they are already poorly-disposed to the technology - for example, if they don't like how turbines look. Conversely, some studies suggest that people who benefit financially from hosting wind turbines nearby - either through community schemes or from having turbines on their land - are much less likely to report poor health as a result of living near turbines. Another study says it could be even simpler than that - " community engagement" such as education and consultation during the planning process may be enough to alleviate health concerns.

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, focuses on the sociology of public health. He has compiled a list of peer-reviewed papers and literature reviews on wind turbines and health, and is currently researching the incidence of health complaints in the areas surrounding all of the windfarms in Australia.

He told Carbon Brief the frequency and groupings of health complaints to do with wind farms indicate a the claims may be related to people's state of mind or social influences. He suggests so-called wind turbine syndrome may actually be a "communicated disease". He explains:

"Complaints about the health effects of wind turbines appear only to have occurred in large numbers within the past five years, even though the technology has been deployed for over 20 years. And complaints only occur in certain areas, while not at all in others. For example, you can see that in Western Australia where there is a significant number of turbines, there haven't been any complaints. Instead, the complaints occur in New South Wales and Victoria, where anti-windfarm campaigners have been more active."

If his study shows that's the case, anti-windfarm campaigning may, perversely, be contributing to people's annoyance about wind farms, and any ill-health this annoyance might cause.

But what of Phillips's claim that the volume of testimony suggests there is something researchers are missing? Several reviews have looked at collections of testimonies available on the internet as well as studies published by researchers like Phillips - but they doesn't share Phillips's view that self-reported data is enough to suggest a link. For example, the Massachusetts study says:                         

"Such descriptions can be informative in describing phenomena and raising suggestions for possible follow-up with more rigorous study designs, but generally are not considered evidence for causality."

Chapman agrees:

"Hypotheses [about what's causing health problems] start from patient observations. But then you have to set up studies and ask questions, for example about whether these self-reported testimonies about turbines should be taken at face value."

While current studies appear to show sound from wind turbines doesn't harm humans, peer-reviewed literature on wind turbines' effect on community health is still thin on the ground. But does that mean testimonies are able to provide "overwhelming evidence" of a problem where scientists' measurements so far have failed? With researchers suggesting a social element to 'wind turbine syndrome', maybe that question is more complicated to answer than it seems.

Carbon Brief contacted Carl Phillips and Christopher Hanning for comment, but they did not respond.

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