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Do Wind Turbines Cause A Secret Disease That Drives You Crazy?

Some sufferers insist that Wind Turbine Syndrome—caused by the low-frequency sound of the spinning blades—is a real phenomenon. Doctors are less sure. Is there a medical case, or is it just NIMBYism taking on physical form?

People living near wind turbines say they can’t sleep, can’t think straight; that sub-audible, low-frequency sound is causing them sickness, earache, depression, and tinnitus.

But are their conditions real or imaginary?

Several recent studies have looked at "wind turbine syndrome" (WTS), giving hope to both believers and deniers—though more to the latter. Most researchers put the condition down to a "nocebo effect," where patients are warned they’ll become sick and do. They don’t doubt that people are ill, but they say turbines are unlikely to be the cause.

"The claims of the existence of wind turbine syndrome have been met with heavy skepticism from a host of experts in energy and public health," says Audrey Carlsen, writing at npr.org. "The World Health Organization, which classifies diseases, does not recognize wind turbine syndrome nor does any other medical institution."

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at Sydney University, found that more than two-thirds of complaints in Australia centered on wind farms that had been targeted by wind opponents. People living near farms where there had been little opposition tended not to complain.

He told the Guardian:

..in about 2009, things started ramping up and these people discovered if you started saying it was a health problem, a lot more people would sit up and pay attention. It’s essentially a sociological phenomenon.

At Slate, Keith Kloor writes of another study showing that it’s possible to induce WTS:

Researchers exposed 60 participants to 10 minutes of infrasound (vibrations too low in frequency to hear) and sham infrasound (that is, silence). Before the listening sessions, half the group was shown television footage of people who lived near wind farms recounting the harmful effects they said were caused by noise from the spinning blades. Within this group, the people who scored high on a test of anxiety became symptomatic whether they were exposed to low-frequency noise or sham infrasound.

Another recent paper found that people were more likely to suffer from WTS if they already had a "negative orientated personality."

And yet, one peer-reviewed U.K. study did find a link between turbines and WTS. "There is evidence that infrasound has a physiological effect on the ear," it concluded—with caveats. More research is needed, says one of the authors, before "we can’t stand up and put our hands on our hearts and say, 'Wind turbines cause wind turbine syndrome.' "

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