Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

“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:


11 Responses to ““Wind turbine syndrome” – the latest postmodern Luddite paranoia”

  1. I work for and we sell and install small wind systems for homes, farms, schools. So, I regularly hear all kinds of questions time after time that people ask about wind turbines, their concerns hyped by nay sayer propaganda.

    My favorite propaganda myth about wind turbines is about agile and alert birds actually flying into the props. It’s comical really. Birds can avoid a speeding car, can identify, swoop and catch an insect in midair. Birds can spot a worm from 1/4 mile. To think of a bird that can’t avoid a wind turbine as an dentifiable hazard…? Maybe a DoDo Bird? I don’t know, it’s laughable.

  2. Gavia said

    It would appear that the proponents of utility scale wind energy are a little closer to the Luddite viewpoint than those questioning the sanity of wide spread installtions and massive expenditure on an update on what is essentially a medieval technology.

  3. Kyle said

    Gavia, are you suggesting that 2.5 MW, 80 meter, steel, fiber glass, computer filled machines are the same technology they used during the British industrial Revolution? Using that logic, I suppose everyone driving a car with wheels could be categorized Ludddites as well.

  4. George said

    Gavia seems to be under the incorrect assumption that old technology cannot be sophisticated technology.

  5. R Michael said

    I usually don’t write to sites such as this: Sites where fact, opinion, and assumption are presented as if they deserve equal consideration; and ad homenim statements apparently are acceptable. Vibroacoustic disease, a disease associated with prolonged exposure to ultra-low and very low frequency vibration (ULFV/VLFV) has been researched since the late 1920’s. Most of that research was conducted in Europe among groups of workers subject to such conditions at their work sites. There is an informative article by Castelo Branco and Alves-Pereira in Noise and Health (2004)regarding this disease. Whether, in fact, wind turbine syndrome is actually vibroacoustic disease, classified by a specific source of ULFV/VLFV, has not yet been demonstrated. What I would ask others to consider is this: During the late 1950s and early 1960s — a period that corresponds with the “baby boom” in the United States — thalidomide was sold in Europe as a sleeping pill and an antidote to morning sickness. It’s teratogenic effects were not recognized until hundreds of children were born with severe defects. Similar scenarios exist for a number of other products (the Ford Pinto with it’s exploding gas tanks comes to mind) and substances (tobacco is probably the most familiar). That being said, the ULFV/VLFV coming from wind generation facilities (often called “farms” or “parks” by the companies that erect them) may not cause vibroacoustic disease; if Dr. Pierpoint is correct, it does. Until that question is settled, however, I would not want anyone subjected to potential harm.

    In the mean time, companies can continue to erect wind generation facilities, but erection of those facilities should afford people sufficient protection against potentially harmful levels of ULFV/VLFV. There have been a number of recommendations regarding apparently safe distances for siting wind turbines from homes and communities. Following those recommendations will likely cost the companies more in the short-run, but may prevent harm to individuals.

    • sanityinjection said

      I don’t usually respond to comments such as this, made by individuals who begin by suggesting that only scientific opinions are valid and then proceed to give a rash of opinions not supported by any solid science. (That having been said, I did make the edit you requested.)

      First of all, the fact that “vibroacoustic disease” has been researched since the 1920s does not mean that it is a compelling threat to public health. I could give you a litany of “syndromes” and so-called diseases which have been studied extensively but which are frequently blown way out of proportion – attention deficit disorder being the most obvious.

      However, in my post I am not ruling out the possibility that there could be some kind of deleterious effects from long-term exposure to low frequency vibration. What I am against is those who, like Dr. Pierpont, seek to create a hysteria in order to profit from it.

      What we have here is a difference in regualtory philosophy. You seem to believe that nothing should be allowed to happen unless we are completely sure that it’s safe. I believe that things should be allowed to happen until and unless we have a plausible reason to belive that they are unsafe.

      As for the examples you give – My mother drove a Ford Pinto for ten years and it never blew up. And from a *scientific* perspective, tobacco in *moderate* amounts does not cause any serious health problems – if you inhaled virtually any substance at the rate that some people inhale tobacco, you’re likely to suffer health problems. Thalidomide was a mistake, to be sure, but if you look at the history of drug regulation you’ll find that it represents the exception rather than the rule.

      The problem is that regulation too often becomes a convenient tool for enviro-Luddites to block something they oppose for reasons that have little to do with science.

  6. nofreewind said

    >My favorite propaganda myth about wind turbines is about agile and alert birds actually flying into the props.


    this is only the tip of the iceburg…

  7. Turtle said

    “My favorite propaganda myth about wind turbines is about agile and alert birds actually flying into the props. It’s comical really. Birds can avoid a speeding car, can identify, swoop and catch an insect in midair. Birds can spot a worm from 1/4 mile. To think of a bird that can’t avoid a wind turbine as an dentifiable hazard…? Maybe a DoDo Bird? I don’t know, it’s laughable.”

    What you have to remember is that while those arms look like they are turning slowly to us, the tips in fact are moving at frightening speed, what with each arm being, I believe, more or less 80 metres long. Having said this, I do think that we need to increase the number of wind turbines, tidal stations and even hydro-electirc dams. The damage each of these do the enviroment is actually much smaller than burning coal, oil or even “clean” gas.

    New findings about wind turbines show that illnesses experienced from wind turbines are a fact.
    Regards Peter Staheli

  9. panic disorder…

    […]“Wind turbine syndrome” – the latest postmodern Luddite paranoia « Sanity Injection[…]…

  10. Owen said

    luddites back in the 1800s were wind turbine people !

    wind turbines need gas to run, save very little fuel, are completely useless value for money. they will send us back into the pre-industrial age, very ironic that you call us luddites !

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