Wind energy sickness prevented by money drug

Last week an American paediatrician, Nina Pierpont, gave video evidence to a Senate Inquiry into the social and economic impacts of rural wind power farms.

Pierpont is the global medical guru for a small movement virulently opposed to wind farms because of “Wind Turbine Syndrome”, Pierpont’s very own entry into the long line of doomsday claims about diseases of modernity that are said to threaten us. She calls it “an industrial plague”. Plagues throughout history have killed millions, while wind turbines have so far killed no-one and seem likely instead to contribute to saving hundreds of millions of lives over future decades through reducing greenhouse gases. So Pierpont’s language gives us an immediate sense of her objectivity.

Her reputation as an authority on “wind turbine syndrome” is a 2009 self-published book containing descriptions of the health problems of just 10 families (38 people, 21 adults) in five different countries who once lived near wind turbines and who are convinced the wind turbines made them ill. With approximately 100,000 wind turbines worldwide and uncounted 1,000s living around them, her sample borders on homeopathic strength representativeness.

Her book says that her research has been peer reviewed. What this means is that she showed it to people she selected and then published some of their responses, including that by Oxford University’s Lord Robert May, whose subsequent public silence on the issue may suggest a re-think. Predictably, they all said her study was important. But this is a peer-review process that is frankly laughable. If only independent peer review was a matter of authors selecting their own reviewers and publishing the complementary ones.

So what are some of the problems with her research that any independent reviewer would raise? First, she says nothing about how the 10 families she interviewed were selected. She says “I chose a cluster of the most severely affected and most articulate subjects I could find”. Why choose “articulate” subjects and not randomly selected residents living near wind farms? More fundamentally, why did she not make any attempt to investigate controls (people living near turbines who do not report any illness or symptoms they attribute to wind turbines)?

Amazingly, she interviewed them all over the phone, did not medically examine any of her subjects nor access their medical records. So her entire “study” is based on her aggravated informants’ accounts. Even here, she does not describe who among the 10 families she interviewed, nor consider for a moment questions of accuracy about others giving “proxy” reports about others in their family. This is beyond sloppy.

Pierpont provides pages of information on her informants’ claims about their health while living near wind turbines. She also provides summaries of the prevalence of various health problems in these families prior to the arrival of the wind turbines. These are revealing. A third of the adults had current or past mental illness and a quarter had pre-existing migraine and/or permanent hearing impairment. These rates are much higher than those in the general population. In other words, her subjects were a group who are unrepresentative of the general population.

Pierpont’s Australian counterpart is Sarah Laurie, an unregistered doctor who describes herself as the “medical director” of the Waubra Foundation. Laurie claims that in addition to a long list of health problems, poor school performance, juvenile mental health disturbance and acute suicidal tendencies are associated with exposure to wind farm. Like Pierpont, she has not had her claims considered by independent peer review in any publications in research journals.

Money is a highly effective antidote. Those most exposed to wind turbines include those who have them on their land. Yet miraculously, there are no known cases of such people making claims about being adversely affected by turbines. Strangely, it is always those who see the turbines on the land of their neighbours. Money, it seems, is an astonishingly effective preventive agent in warding off Wind Turbine Syndrome.

Land-owners with topography favourable to the installation of wind turbines and who are approached by power companies can receive substantial annual payments, apparently around $10,000 per wind turbine each year. A landowner with the good fortune to have 15 wind turbines on topographically favourable land will thus be on a nice little earner for life. But close neighbours living on unsuitable land miss out.

This may cause resentment and anxiety about the impact of not having wind turbines on relative land values within rural neighbourhoods. The wind turbines thus become a symbol of perceived “unfairness” and features of the turbines such as the “swoosh” sound that might otherwise be unremarkable when compared to natural wind sounds, become anxiety generating preoccupations.

One recent Dutch study found that “people who benefit economically from wind farm have a significantly decreased risk of annoyance, despite exposure to similar sound levels,” and that

“High turbine visibility enhances negative response, and having wind turbines visible from the dwelling significantly increased the risk of annoyance. Annoyance was strongly correlated with a negative attitude toward the visual impact of wind turbines on the landscape”.

Pierpont’s book repeatedly asserts that wind energy companies require those whose land they have bought to sign gag clauses, which include not talking about any illnesses. Energy companies have bought properties from neighbouring residents who have complained about the turbines. These people therefore have form in complaining and have succeeded in selling land that might otherwise have attracted little buyer attention in depressed rural markets. Complaining can turn a property with poor sales prospects into cash-in-hand. Energy companies weigh the costs and benefits of buying out such complainants and understandably want to shut down any further attempts by such people to cash in, particularly when the symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome are highly subjective, inviting protracted and expensive disputation.

But the companies can’t require those with turbines on their land to waive their common law rights to claims of negligence should there be any health damage arising from exposure. So the apparent immunity to Wind Turbine Syndrome caused by payment to those with turbines in their own backyard is a salient consideration.

Wind farm opponents also complain that wind turbine blades kill bats and birds. But these newly aroused advocates for bird and bat protection have been strangely silent on decades of bird and bat strikes from aircraft, cars, plate glass and cats. A US National Academy of Sciences report calculated that it takes 30 wind turbines to reach a kill-rate of one bird a year, while national bird deaths from domestic cats are put at "hundreds of millions".

In the September 21, 1899 issue of the British Medical Journal, Britain’s doctors were warned of the dangers of a new technological scourge: the telephone. The report noted that “not in women only, but in strong-minded and able-bodied men, symptoms of what we may call "aural overpressure" caused by the condition of almost constant strain of the auditory apparatus, in which persons who use the telephone much have to spend a considerable portion of each working day… The patients suffered from nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness, and neuralgic pains… The victims of ‘telephone tinnitus’, if we may so baptise this latest addition to the ills that flesh is heir to, seem all to be of markedly nervous organisation, and the moral may be drawn that such persons should not use the telephone.”

Ever since, there has been a long history of sometimes protracted episodes of community concern about health risks said to be caused by new technologies. Some examples include television sets, computer screens, microwave ovens, electric blankets and other household electrical appliances, mobile telephones and base stations. Wind turbines seem likely to enter the annals of technophobic history.

By Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney.