People in Iowa, which leads the Midwest in wind energy, are the least likely to believe that wind turbines impact human health, according to a recent survey. (Photo by tumblingrun via Creative Commons)

Survey: Midwesterners not buying ‘wind turbine syndrome’

Science has frequently rejected arguments that wind turbines pose a threat to human health. And now the verdict is in both in the courts of legal and public opinion on the matter, according to a recent study and poll.

bipartisan poll on energy issues released earlier this week found that in six Midwestern states — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin — only 14 percent of respondents believe wind turbines harm human health.

The survey of 2,477 voters was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and FM3 on behalf of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Among the states surveyed, the lowest percentage of people who believe wind turbines cause health problems (7 percent) was in Iowa, a state that leads the nation in proportion of energy from wind.

Meanwhile, the highest percentage believing such claims (21 percent) was in Wisconsin, a state which has far fewer wind farms and where some political leaders have in recent years been hostile to renewable and distributed energy.

Also, a study released last month by the Energy and Policy Institute analyzed 49 legal proceedings in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, the British Isles and Australia. It found that in all but one case, courts or legal officials rejected the argument that wind energy poses a health hazard.

Legal claims of health impacts were more prevalent in countries other than the U.S., the study found.

Wind energy advocates said that the results are encouraging and not surprising, given growing prominence of — and support for — wind energy. Yet they said distorted and unsubstantiated scientific and health claims continue to be a problem for renewable energy industries in general.

Advocates also stress that while turbines don’t typically cause direct health impacts, badly-sited turbines can cause irritating noise and visual impacts. So developers and planners must be responsible in making sure poor planning decisions don’t fuel otherwise unjustified animosity toward wind.

“When you’re dealing with sound and noise, sound is the science, noise is the subjective component,” said John Rogers, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “When it comes to subjective issues they are by their nature very personal. We want to measure what we can and acknowledge there are things we can’t measure.”

Judgment day

Along with a rundown of legal proceedings, the Energy and Policy Institute study also analyzes the background of a roster of people who have presented evidence as “experts” in legal cases claiming health impacts of wind.

The analysis shows that many of these experts have questionable credentials or have scientific or medical backgrounds in fields totally unrelated to the claims they are making. The study also showcases the use of highly questionable studies to make health claims, including studies with small sample sizes, ones based on subjects who voluntarily present (or self-select) themselves or other flaws.

“Wind turbine syndrome” is often described as causing insomnia, heart murmurs, nausea and a host of other maladies, due to the supposed effect of low frequency infrasound.

Pediatrician Nina Pierpont popularized the term in 2009 with a 294-page self-published book based in large part on phone interviews with 23 people who said they were sickened by wind turbines. The frequency of lawsuits alleging health impacts from wind turbines increased dramatically after Pierpont’s publication, the Energy and Policy Institute study says.

In 2012, Simon Chapman, an Australian professor of public health, examined anecdotal claims and found that at least 155 different symptoms had at some point been attributed to wind turbines.

Various scientific studies have found that wind turbines do not cause the kinds of health problems cited by Pierpont and others, though they have found evidence of the “nocebo effect,” wherein the power of suggestion appears to spark claims of health impacts.

Energy and Policy Institute study author Mike Barnard says those who promote health claims range from people who genuinely believe their own message to those with a larger political motive or self-interest — for example, backing from fossil fuels industries who see competition in wind energy.

“Health fears are part of the continuum of attacks on the renewables industry,” said Barnard. “People are opposed to renewables because they don’t want their local views to change, because they think nuclear is the better choice, because they work in the fossil fuel industry, because they deny climate change or because they are opposed to anything that isn’t pure free-market economics.

“Whatever the reason, telling parents that their children will get sick is a proven way to get people to pay attention.”

Scope of the problem?

Kevin Borgia, public policy manager of Wind on the Wires, said he has not seen claims of health impacts stopping or significantly delaying individual wind projects. But he says such claims can still “color public opinion.”

Borgia added that while there is no valid evidence of health impacts from wind turbines, “that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are annoyed by the construction of wind turbines.”

“There are people who are going to be annoyed by lots of changes near their homes, whether that’s new air strips or big box stores or some other form of land use,” he said. “I understand that, but annoyance is not a disease.”

Meanwhile Barnard thinks health claims can still pose a serious threat to the wind industry, and he thinks the claims have spread in the past five years.

“Debunking health fears is still required,” Barnard said. “Left unchecked, false health fears will continue to be used widely in anti-wind campaigns and will continue to make suggestible people sick.”

Barnard noted that claims of health impacts are more common in New England than in the Midwest.

“I attribute this to differing cultural expectations that have evolved,” he said. “In the Midwest, people have more of belief that they control only what they own and less of a belief that their opinion should matter to neighbors. In New England, there’s a greater expectation of community involvement in any decision.”

Promoting good science

Advocates say the key is using science and information to address residents’ fears and debunk myths.

Barnard compares some erroneous beliefs about wind turbine health impacts to a phenomenon in South Korea where a significant number of people believe in “fan death,” the idea that being in a closed room with a fan is dangerous because the fan splits oxygen molecules and makes it hard to breath. Barnard noted that there are no larger political forces behind this belief, but rather it “emerged out of a brew of human anecdote and irrationality.”

Borgia said that the spread of wind energy in the Midwest has done much to alleviate fears of health impacts or other concerns, since “fear of the unknown” is replaced by actual experiences living near wind farms.

Rogers noted that a Union of Concerned Scientists guide which helps residents evaluate conflicting claims about hydraulic fracturing is also useful for people trying to evaluate the credibility of claims about wind turbines or other energy sources.

And he said that proponents of wind energy or any clean energy source should be honest about what they don’t know, while trying to help the public better understand the very nature of science and its role in policy.

“Science is always an evolving thing – we’re always exploring, trying to expand our base of knowledge for decision-making,” Rogers said. “We want to make sure that science is as robust as possible, so that we’re making the best possible decisions.

“We’re never going to have 100 percent certainty about everything – in all aspects of life, we are making decisions on less than 100 percent certainty. So we shouldn’t demand a higher standard for something as clearly beneficial as renewable energy.”


7 thoughts on “Survey: Midwesterners not buying ‘wind turbine syndrome’

  1. Wow! The toxicity of coal dust, coal ash, coal tar, coal emissions have been studied, documented, an accepted by government officials as a necessary burden to provide “cheap energy.” What a destructive myth. Corrupt politics decides the energy winner, not logic, health, or economics. Coal is not cheap energy, but is an on going health and environmental burden. We need wind!

  2. Your right, “corrupt politics” is the problem. That and individuals greed hidden under the guise of a, “free market”. If not for corrupt politics allowing greed to rule the day we would have had a comprehensive solution to our energy needs in the 70’s. “Wind turbines made me sick”,,, such nonsense…. Wanna see sick? live downwind of a coal plant for a few years, or live anywhere near a nuc plant the next time one experiences a, “nuclear excursion” and some of its, “sunshine units” escape.

  3. While not harmful to humans, the same cannot be said about wind turbines and Bald Eagles, and many other species of birds that wind turbines are decimating their populations.

  4. I am a Midwestern who is “buying” wind turbine syndrome . and I want to know have any of these people actually sat down and spoke eyeball to eyeball with people who have suffered health problems because of these wind turbines? Dr Pierpont has. oh and not to mention she has a PhD from Princeton and a medical degree from Johns Hopkins Medical School. however Simon Chapman has not he has a PhD in nothing try to find out what it is you won’t be able to, oh and he works for the wind industry.

    I have lived in the Midwest my entire life please Midwesterners educate yourself all you need to do is Google infrasound. these wind turbine emit infrasound and it is harmful to human health!

    Look sleep deprivation is a form of human torture that is not allowed by the UN Council even in times of war!

    of course the wind industry does not want you to know this information and they deny that their turbines cause sleep deprivation well I have talked personally with a family who had to to abandon their home because they could not sleep in their own home and now no one will buy their home either.

    thousands of people around the world have suffered because of industrial wind turbines the main issue is that they should not be sited close to peoples homes or places where people regularly gather.

    anything toxic produces a multitude of problems in the human body take for example smoking we now know and the Surgeon General warns that it causes birth defects and many many other problems but it took 50 years to prove this.

    again Midwesterners please step up to the plate and educate yourselves.

  5. Joe I think you mean many Golden Eagles have been killed by turbines, not Bald Eagles. Both have a lot more trouble around transmission lines, lead shots and possibly emissions from thermal plants than effects of a turbine. Jim – a developer

  6. Todd, if you try to find any reputable research in appropriately accredited and peer reviewed scientific journals (particularly ones specializing in audiology and public health) in relation to Wind Turbine Syndrome, you just won’t find anything, accept rebuttals that reference the ‘nocebo effect’ (the opposite of placebo).

    Pierpont may be a ‘doctor’ specializing in pediatrics, but that does not mean that she is a health researcher who could pass scratch on a lottery ticket. Her work is self published, anecdotal, based on a very narrow data base and doesn’t follow even the most elementary rules of research, like control groups,double blinds, large and diverse sample groups, and taking account of the pattern of political interventions in ‘wind turbine syndrome’ complaint patterns.

    We have a similar pseudo research expert by the name of ‘Dr’ Sarah Laurie in Australia who works for a lobby group called the Waubra foundation. Her work is as bogus as Pierpont’s.

    You will not find either of their names on any research tract authorship in any reputable peer reviewed science journal in appropriate areas of expertise.

    Either you have to assert the favorite ideological crank response, that there is some conspiracy, hoax, scam conducted by ‘post normal’ science practitioners, who are more interested in protecting their research grants and providing ‘peer pal’ assessments for their friends’ research work, or, you have to accept the present scientific consensus.

    From what I can see, there is a substantial minority consensus in the US that no longer believes in science, if it contradicts its ideological beliefs.

    It must be something to do with a post-normal education system….

  7. To the people that believe living in close proximity to large wind generators does not cause health issues. Apparently cows and llamas and mink are subject to the nocebo effect. How do you explain the problems that have been reported in this country and in Europe. Alzheimers and dementia are diseases that do affect people. The medical community STILL does not have proven reason why some are affected and others are not. The people that are suffering and their families that are attempting to deal with the devastation do not need their friends and others telling them that the problem is in their head and there is nothing wrong with them. Most people are only asking for the world around them to understand that a safe distance needs to be established so the issues that cause problems will be diminished.
    It took fifty years to accept that tobacco was and is a danger to our health. Many of our old movies show the rich and famous puffing away on their cigarettes. God help us if we need another fifty years to accept the testimony of those that have been harmed.