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Wind farms face scrutiny as reported health problems rise

Many experts have called claims of wind turbine syndrome bogus — but we can't be certain until a proper study is conducted.

Many experts have called claims of wind turbine syndrome bogus — but we can't be certain until a proper study is conducted.

(Éoliennes Caen image by Olivier Tétard, CC BY-SA 3.0)

With the recent construction and opening of the southern hemisphere's largest wind farm in Macarthur, Victoria, a debate has been raging over the health risks of wind generation.

At the launch of the Macarthur facility, a group of locals turned up to protest, claiming that land vibrations and air pressure caused by the "sub-audible infra-sound", which is produced by the facility, was also producing a number of symptoms in locals — namely headaches, anxiety, insomnia and nausea.

This is not a new claim; yet every investigation into the phenomenon states that there is no reason that wind turbines should make people feel ill; and have argued that the locals are merely annoyed by the sight and sound of the farms rather than being made ill, with an expert review in 2009 pointing out that the symptoms are no different to what may be caused by the stresses of everyday life.

In fact, professor of public health at the University of Sydney Simon Chapman, who has studied the phenomenon extensively, believes that the symptoms experienced constitute a form of mass hysteria. He cites a New Zealand study that found that people exposed to online news articles about the health issues associated with wind farms tend to report more symptoms at a higher incidence afterward. This is called the "nocebo effect".

Fiona Crichton, a PhD candidate in psychological medicine at University of Auckland, tested the theory, playing 10 minutes of actual infrasound and sham infrasound to two groups, one with no expectations and one who expected to feel ill. The first group reported no symptomatic changes to either the infrasound or the sham infrasound. However, the second group reported a consistent increase in symptoms for both sounds.

Nevertheless, with reports of the ill effects of wind farms growing, it would be remiss not to conduct a proper study on an actual wind farm. South Australia's Environmental Protection Authority has mounted an investigation into the Waterloo wind farm, recording noise data in the audible, extended low frequency, infrasound and audible frequency ranges, as well as continuous meteorological data collected from several locations. It will also collect noise diaries from residents living near the farm.

A report published earlier this year found that renewable energy is now cheaper to produce than coal and gas energy (although constructing the plants and storing the energy still isn't very easy).