HOW does an annoying aspect of everyday life get turned into a medical “syndrome”?
It’s a question people in the renewable energy industry might well ask as they contemplate the increasingly vocal opponents of wind farms and the raft of assertions made about alleged devastating health effects.
Around the country, nervous state governments are responding to claims about “wind turbine syndrome” coming from a growing number of inquiries.
A parliamentary inquiry into the social, economic and health effects of wind farms got under way last week in SA, which has more wind farms than any other state.
So what are the claimed health effects? Some, such as sleep disturbance and headache, are predictable, but the turbines have also been blamed for everything from cardiovascular disease to herpes, epilepsy and infertility.
In fact, Professor Simon Chapman, from the University of Sydney’s school of public health, says he has found no fewer than 113 diseases or symptoms attributed to wind farms.
This is despite 17 international reviews finding the evidence for direct adverse health effects from proximity to the turbines just isn’t there. Direct health effects are those caused by the turbines themselves, rather than those that might result from annoyance or other psychological responses to the presence of a wind farm.
An independent review commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported earlier this year that the (admittedly limited) epidemiological evidence had found no link between turbine noise and a range of disorders or symptoms including pain, diabetes, tinnitus, cardiovascular disease or migraine.
“There is no evidence for a set of health effects from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ ”, the authors wrote.
No evidence of harm is not, of course, the same as evidence of no harm, and if the evidence is limited that should be addressed.
But where did this syndrome come from, given the apparent lack of evidence to support it?
US paediatrician Dr Nina Pierpont could lay claim to being its discoverer — or perhaps creator.
After hearing reports of adverse effects from patients, she conducted interviews with 38 people selected because they had left their homes or were about to leave them as a result of wind turbine noise, and published the results in a 2009 book, Wind turbine syndrome: a report on a natural experiment.
The constellation of symptoms her interviewees described included sleep disturbance, headache, tinnitus, vertigo, nausea, tachycardia, irritability, problems with memory and concentration, and panic episodes.
Dr Pierpont’s approach to conducting scientific research appears unusual, to say the least.
“I never set out to prove wind turbines cause Wind Turbine Syndrome”, she writes on her website. “This was already obvious.”
Why was it obvious? Because her patients had told her so.
“When patients talk to me, I take seriously and believe the symptoms and observations they present … I studied Wind Turbine Syndrome with the same set of assumptions about clinical truth and reality that I apply to my patients.”
Ultimately, she’s not really talking about evidence at all. She tells visitors to the website about the book that they have to decide whether to put their “faith and belief” with their neighbours, or with the Massachusetts government’s “official” report (her quote marks).
There’s no doubt many people do believe their health has been adversely affected by wind farms and those treating them should, as Dr Pierpont does, take their concerns seriously.
But it’s quite a leap to suggest those self-diagnoses should be considered scientifically validated fact.
Professor Chapman sees the alarm over wind farms as the latest episode in a long line of outbreaks of mass hysteria, citing mass fainting of children receiving vaccines as another example. He links it to the “nocebo effect” — when people experience adverse side effects associated with a medication or event because of a belief that it is likely to harm them.
The more people complain about the harm wind farms have done them, the more likely that others will start thinking they may have the same symptoms.
Such is the power of the nocebo effect, that before you know it you have a full-blown “syndrome” on your hands — one that threatens to derail attempts to create a viable renewable energy sector in this country.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 12 June 2012