A new Australian study presents evidence that wind turbine health effects are actually all in the head of the complainants, a finding with strong repercussions for Canada.

Led by Simon Chapman of the University of Sydney, the researchers examined records of complaints about all of Australia’s 49 wind farms, dating back to the country’s first turbine in 1993.

With a single exception, every health complaint has come after March 2009, showing a strong correlation with the anti-wind awareness campaigns focused on health which began a few years earlier. Until 2004, neither local opponents to wind farms nor anti-wind groups had reported or warned about adverse health effects.

The authors built on the work of a New Zealand research team, which recently exposed volunteers to both real and fake infrasound after presenting them with information about the health symptoms caused by infrasound. In the double-blind study, participants with the expectation of adverse effects were significantly more likely to report the suggested symptoms.

The phenomenon – that the power of suggestion can cause genuine symptoms – is well documented. In a seminal 1981 study by Schweiger and Parducci, two thirds of college students reported mild headaches when told that an electric current was passing through their head. The current was imaginary.

It’s called the nocebo effect. It’s exacerbated by media hyperbole, and there’s good reason to worry that at least some portion of health-related, anti-wind sentiment in Canada is being driven by psychosomatic expectations.

A recent Ontario study scoured newspapers across the province for frightening terms in wind articles, including “dread,” “poorly understood by science” and, most ominously, “inescapable exposure.” These cropped up in significant quantities in small community newspapers near wind farms. The authors conclude that the terms used “in articles about wind turbines and health [...] may produce fear, concern and anxiety for readers.”

It’s hard to imagine that what has been true of human nature in Australia has not been true of human nature in Canada.

Certainly there have been plenty of health complaints from residents with windmills for neighbours.

Just in Ontario, the Ministry of the Environment has received over two hundred health complaints related to wind turbines. At least one private wind company has been hit by a $1.5 million lawsuit over alleged health impacts.

The family who launched the lawsuit have blamed nearby wind turbines for the following: “debilitating vertigo, sleep disturbance, headaches and ringing in the ears, as well as stress, depression and even suicidal thoughts.”

Are they imagining things? It would be nearly impossible to say.

Without scans to see inside the brain,an electric current passing through one’s head look exactly the same from the outside as does a fake electric current passing through one’s head. Moreover, it’s difficult to quantify to what extent psycho-somatic pain is or isn’t real pain.

Nevertheless, it’s likely that some percentage of those hundreds of complaints have been brought on by fear-raising rhetoric. Rather than attempt to evaluate the validity of individual claims, we might begin by taking aim at the kind of sweeping hyperbole that leads to these health problems.

More from Stu Campana about wind turbine concerns: "Not In My Backyard" and "Killer Turbines?"

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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