Last year, I published a series critical of modern wind farms. They dealt with a number of pretty dirty land deals in southern Mexico related to new wind farms. Although they were on the cover of a major national newspaper, they didn’t get the attention I thought they deserved (as with most of my stories, oddly enough). It was a sad story in an overlooked corner of the continent.
But one sliver of that attention especially bothered me – those who used it as an argument that wind power is just as bad as coal and gas. That’s why a few weeks ago at a placebo conference (yes, it’s a real conference – not just a bunch of fake scientists and a fake audience) my head snapped around at a lecture on the health effect of wind power. Apparently, there is an idea out there that wind turbines can make you sick. The idea goes that people exposed to very low sound waves, called “infrasound” (say 40 decibels at five hertz for the nerds out there) might experience sleep disturbance, headaches, dizziness, tinnitus, ear pressure or pain, nausea, concentration problems, irritability, anger, panic episodes, fatigue, loss of motivation.
But it just starts there. Since this list was published under dubious pedigree, the list has grown, including asthma, Asperger’s, anemia, allergies, angina – to a whopping 223 symptom. For one couple, the turbines even altered the space/time continuum and aged them five years. So what is all this? Are wind turbines actually bad for your health? Well, one group in New Zealand, led by Keith Petrie thought they knew the answer. Perhaps, they reasoned, it was the media itself that was causing the “pandemic.” They turned to the rather slim but growing literature on the nocebo – placebo’s grumpy little brother.
The group then designed one of those lovely little experiments that make nocebo research so fun. They took 54 volunteers and split them up. Half would watch a six-minute video about the dangers of infrasound and the others would watch one about how safe they are. Then both would be exposed to it.
Except half of them just got silence. What happened was that the people who were warned about nasty effects experienced them, whether exposed or not. In fact, it was almost impossible to separate who had heard the infrasound and who had gotten silence. What I found most interesting was even the people who were told there was no danger and experience the fake sound reported some symptoms. If you read that list above, can you honestly say you have none of those symptoms right now? Hell, “Tinnitus, Fatigue, Concentration Problems, and Loss of Motivation” is going to be the title of my autobiography.
Of course the next step was to see if they could reverse the symptoms. So with another group, they changed the neutral description to a positive one (infrasound makes all your problems go away!). Sure enough, overwhelmingly the bad-news group felt symptoms while the good-news group felt better (though, again, a small sliver of good-news people still got worse, which just shows that people like to complain to people in lab coats).
Wind power has a long way to go before it is a major player in global energy and in the meantime, it seems to be learning how to steal land from highly marginalized communities. But it’s not making you sick.
All images created and included with permission by the very talented Damon Guthrie.