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Wind farms make you sick … with worry and envy

No one feels anything until the lobbyists show up, says public health boffin

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Professor Simon Chapman, the public health advocate behind the global push for ugly cigarette packets, has turned his attention to “wind turbine sickness”, the condition caused by infrasound vibrations from the turbines' colossal blades.

Chapman believes the condition is bunk and has co-authored a paper, titled Spatio-temporal differences in the history of health and noise complaints about Australian wind farms: evidence for the psychogenic, “communicated disease” hypothesis.

The paper's central thesis is that wind turbine sickness is not real, but that once people hear about it they start to experience its symptoms.

The paper supports that idea in four ways, the first of which is by noting that 63 per cent of the 49 Australian wind farms studied have never produced health complaints. A second point notes that only 120 people in Australia have ever complained about wind farm-related illnesses, with over half residing near five wind farms. With more than 30,000 people living near the sample wind farm population and just 120 complainants, more than 80 of whom live near just five farms, evidence for wind turbines as causing sickness is hard to find.

A third argument states that first complaints of sickness often come years after wind farms open. In one case reports of sickness arrived before the wind farm started operating! In other cases sufferers report symptoms develop quickly when they are near a turbine, then abate when they leave. Chapman and his co-authors assert that if real health problems existed, peer-reviewed studies would exist detailing the issues.

The fourth argument is that very few complaints were received before 2009, the year lobby groups started to raise concerns about the health effects of wind turbines.

The paper therefore labels wind turbine sickness a “communicated disease” that is largely imagined, as a result of a “nocebo response,” an analog to the placebo effect.

In this late 2012 podcast Chapman offers another possible source of the sydnrome. In Europe, he says, many wind turbines are community-owned. Pride in the installation and appreciation of its benefits mean locals see it as a good thing.

Australian wind farms, by contrast, are generally privately-owned. Electricity generators look for nicely windy spots and lease space from land owners. In the podcast Chapman says that windfall (pardon the pun) is resented by neighbours who, once they hear about wind turbine sickness, sub-consciously translate their jealousy into imagined symptoms.

Chapman has spent much of his career getting up tobacco companies noses, relentlessly pointing out their mendacity and proving links between tobacco and poor health. He has advocated controls on smoking to reduce the costs it imposes on national health care systems, last year proposing a smoking licence.

His efforts saw him appointed to an advisory position in Australia, where he recommended cigarette packets be stripped of all distinct branding and use only a drab olive colour said to be maximally unattractive to shoppers.

Australia implemented that recommendation in 2012. New Zealand and Great Britain seem set to follow suit.

In Australia, smokers have since reported cigarettes in the plain packages are less pleasant to consume than those from branded packs and a market for pretty cigarette boxes has re-emerged. ®

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