“Wind turbine syndrome” – the latest postmodern Luddite paranoia
Posted by sanityinjection on August 14, 2008
The funny thing about wind power is that everyone loves the idea of it but no one seems to like it in practice. Everyone talks about wind power as a renewable, environmentally friendly domestic energy source and how we should be devoting more resources to it. And yet, when someone actually tries to put up a wind farm, the very same people suddenly develop objections. The right wingers object to the effect of unsightly wind turbines on their property values and unspoiled vistas; the left-wingers scream that birds and fish will die in droves. For both groups, what it boils down to is, “We want wind power, we just don’t want it near us” – otherwise known as NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”.)
The latest ammunition for the NIMBYs comes from the people who always want to terrify you that all new forms of technology are quietly killing you. These people are a modern manifestation of a historical group in Britain called Luddites, who opposed the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution by trying to smash the machinery. In modern America, they are usually to be found within the environmental movement, as a significant segment of environmentalists seem to be perennially susceptible to the idea that evil corporations are plotting to kill us all in our sleep. I was first exposed to Luddite paranoia as a youth when a study came out in 1979 suggesting that living to close to power lines could cause childhood leukemia. Needless to say, parents everywhere, including mine, were frightened. I had attended a day camp where we used to play in a field adjacent to huge power lines, but not after that, although I remained healthy as a horse. Since then, many studies have been done on this, and no causal link between power lines and cancer has been demonstrated, yet a sizable percentage of Americans still believe they do.
Next it was cell phones – we are all giving ourselves cancer, or decreasing our fertility, or something, by using our cell phones. This one has had a harder time taking hold, because cell phones are so ubiquitous and so beloved by their owners that many people will still use them even if they think they’ll get cancer.
So the Luddites needed a new bogeyman, and they have found it in wind turbines. The slow-turning wind turbines, you see, emit a constant, low-frequency hum – sometimes audible, sometimes not depending on how close you are. The newly coined “wind turbine syndrome” rests on the idea that these low frequency vibrations are picked up by the inner ear and cause “headaches; difficulty sleeping; tinnitus, or ringing in the ears; learning and mood disorders; panic attacks; irritability; disruption of equilibrium, concentration and memory; and childhood behavior problems. ” Hell, I can have all those symptoms just from my morning commute.
Like power lines and cell phones, the notion that anything that emits radiation could have an effect on the human body is not inherently impossible. However, most people forget that we are subject to all kinds of radiation in our daily lives from radios, lights, televisions, computers, etc., none of which seem to be killing us. Because there has not been a great deal of research done on the effect of low-frequency vibrations, I can’t state categorically that there might not be a possibility of harmful effects. But I find it shockingly irresponsible that members of the scientific community, aided and abetted by a dimwitted and irresponsible press, are only too happy to terrify the public with half-assed conclusions based on little evidence.
Thus I present exhibit A: One Dr. Nina Pierpont, who began reseraching this issue after (surprise) a wind farm was built near her home. To give Dr. Pierpont her due, she is a board certified pediatrician and a graduate of Johns Hopkins, was a professor of clinical pediatrics at Columbia, and holds a PhD from Princeton in “population biology”, which sounds relevant but actually isn’t. She’s also an aging hippie environmentalist who once lived with Eskimos in Alaska. Anyway, Dr. Pierpont began studying the health of families who lived near wind turbines and came up with the idea of “wind turbine syndrome” based on her findings.
Now, what a good doctor or scientist would do would be to publish a paper in a respected journal, so that her findings could be reviewed and perhaps duplicated by others. If subsequent studies confirmed her work, she would be hailed as a pioneer. Instead, Pierpont decided to write a book for commercial sale, presenting her work as established scientific fact to an uncritical audience ready to be terrified by her conclusion, that it is unsafe to live within the totally arbitrary distance of two miles of a wind turbine. Her most likely reason for doing so was her knowledge that her research was sloppy and that she had assumed her conclusions before she even began.
I haven’t examined Pierpont’s research in detail, but she studied 10 families who live near wind turbines – an extremely small sample size and statistically meaningless. It does not appear that she studied a control group that did not live near turbines, or even factored in the possible psychosomatic effect (if you *think* the wind turbine is going to make you sick, you will get sick.) Pierpont actually suggests with a straight face that the wind turbines appear to cause headaches in people with “pre-existing migraines”. In other words, if you suffered from migraines to begin with, you will continue to get them if you live near a wind turbine! There’s a shock.
I don’t blame anybody for disliking the idea of living near a wind turbine. But spreading paranoia is reprehensible. The wind companies deny that “wind turbine syndrome” exists, and they have a financial motive to do so. But Pierpont has a financial motive – sales of her book – to insist that it does. Currently there are a couple of other scientists studying the issue, which she frequently mentions to prove she’s not a crackpot. But in fact it is the very plausibility of the idea that makes it so dangerous.
The result of all this is articles like this one, which even if they are trying to be objective, end up stirring up more panic among those who do not read critically – and incidentally, help Dr. Pierpont’s book sales: