The internet is in an uproar again this week after President Donald Trump, while speaking at a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser on Tuesday, made claims that wind turbines cause cancer.
“If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75% in value,” Trump said. “And they say the noise causes cancer, you tell me that one, okay?”
While the absurdity of Trump’s latest assertions has left most Democrats bewildered, his ideas are neither new nor are they of his own making.
To be clear, the “windmills” President Trump referred to are not windmills at all. They are wind turbines, which convert wind power into electricity. The snafu naturally led to the #WindmillsCauseCancer thread trending on Twitter this week.
A battle over the potential health impacts of wind turbines has been raging on for many years in rural communities around the world, relegated to background noise by the mainstream media. The worst part? There may be some truth to President Trump’s cancer notion, but the evidence suggests that your health is of little concern to those opponents of wind-turbines who are sounding the loudest public safety alarms.
So, can wind turbines actually cause cancer? Buckle up, folks, because this story is about to get much more unsettling.
A quiet drive through Ontario’s rural Niagara region in 2015 turned into an eye-opening experience for me. The first thing that caught my eye was the wind turbines; the next was the abundance of front yard signage protesting the turbines. Most often the signs said, “Not a willing host” and “STOP THE WIND TURBINES”, while some were more hostile such as “‘WIND ENERGY’ Biggest, most corrupt scam ever to be forced on humans.”
Having spent most of my life in Western New York, just across the U.S. border, I am accustomed to seeing wind farms in the countryside south of Buffalo and across the farmlands of the Appalachian Valley. I’d never heard of any complaints about the turbines, much less the kind of widespread and vehement opposition I found in Southern Ontario. My interest was piqued, so I began asking the obvious question: What is all this fuss about?
Each time I asked, I received a different answer. Turbines kill birds, they’re an eyesore, they increase the cost of electricity. However, the most intriguing answer, which may be more accurately described as a category of answers, was the ever-growing list of illnesses that anti-wind groups believe to be caused by wind turbines. The alleged health problems range from headaches to bowel cancer. In fact, the symptoms and illnesses for which the turbines have been blamed is so multifarious that they are collectively referred to as “Wind Turbine Syndrome”; yet, the term has not been clinically defined in any medical dictionary.
A critical review of the studies and surrounding circumstances shows that these illnesses are either a result of the mind’s perceptions and expectations or the subject of misplaced blame, and that some opponents may even be intentionally creating public hysteria to further their own causes. Most anti-wind groups claim that the white noise made by the turbines is what causes adverse health effects. Wind turbines generate infrasound, a low-frequency hum, which may be annoying to those living nearby. Yet, there is very little scientific evidence that directly links wind turbines to disease.
It is far more beneficial to embrace all that wind energy has to offer in this time of environmental consciousness rather than to vilify it. Wind energy is clean, which means it does not produce environmental pollution the way our traditional energy sources do. Furthermore, wind energy is one of the cheapest of the renewable energies, it stimulates the economy and contributes to job creation. The greed-driven promulgation of wind turbine syndrome is potentially the greatest challenge facing wind energy efforts today.
While wind turbine syndrome is not officially recognized in the medical field, there have been proposals made for clinical case definition. The researchers Rubin, Burns, and Wessely introduced one such proposal in 2014, in which patients must meet three criteria to be diagnosed with wind turbine syndrome:
· Live within 5 kilometers of a turbine and have had some kind of change in their health status occurring after turbine exposure. These health changes must be consistent with exposure to wind turbines, becoming absent when the patient is not within range of the turbines, and recurring once the patient is again exposed.
· Have experienced three or more of the following: Sleep disturbance, a desire to relocate for the purposes of restoring sleep and well-being, stress as a result of annoyance caused by the noise emitted by the turbines, and a reduced quality of life.
· Have experienced at least three new or worsening symptoms. Also, in order to meet the second and third criteria, symptoms must have occurred or worsened since the time wind turbines began operating in the patient’s area.
By 2016, there were 247 different illnesses and adverse health reactions that claimants had attributed to wind turbines. This list may at first be worrying to some, and evoke immediate laughter in others. Although it‘s difficult not to raise an eyebrow at the notion that wind turbines cause accelerated aging, most of these claims are no laughing matter. It is when one reviews all the separate claims together in one place that it gains an air of humor, a list which seems to include every health problem imaginable. Can a large metal pinwheel actually cause such an apocalyptic threat to health? Probably not, but scientific studies have shown that the mind can.
The “nocebo effect” is a phenomenon which can be thought of as the evil twin of the widely-known placebo effect. Both are characterized by the physical manifestation of the mind’s expectations. It has been recognized for decades that people can experience the expected benefits of a drug even when they haven’t physically been given the drug, so long as they believe they were given it. Simply believing they have taken something that will have a desired effect can be enough to produce those effects.
Science has now discovered that the opposite is also true. If people are presented with a stimulus and made to believe that it will cause them harm, then that belief can manifest as physical symptoms.
The nocebo effect often occurs in double-blind clinical drug trials. Patients given the placebo, an inert drug which has no positive or negative effects, will frequently report that they experienced the beneficial effects of the drug, and approximately 25% of those patients also report experiencing the side-effects of the drug, which they are made aware of when given the drug’s information sheet at the beginning of the trial.
Several scientific experiments have demonstrated the existence of the nocebo effect. In one such experiment, test subjects were split into two groups and given media footage to watch prior to exposure to infrasound. Three quarters of the study participants who watched footage explaining all the adverse health effects that wind turbines can cause reported worsening of symptoms after the infrasound exposure phase of the experiment. More interesting is that 90% of the test subjects who were shown media footage claiming that infrasound is beneficial reported that they had personally experienced the benefits of infrasound after exposure.
Realistically, we must consider the possibility that these health problems have nothing to do with wind turbines at all, and that they exist simply because health problems are an unavoidable fact of life. What differentiates a person with a physical or psychological illness living near wind turbines from the thousands of those with the same condition who live nowhere near turbines?
It’s human nature to place blame when things go wrong. It gives us a sense of order, and even a sense of relief, especially when the faulted party is not ourselves. Our minds ravenously search for a tangible enemy to fight, and achieving victory over our enemy restores a sense of order to our lives, serves the justice we crave, and stops the bad things from continuing to happen. The most distressing problems in life are the ones that we feel powerless to solve, thus why identifying the cause of a problem can feel so empowering.
Even more disconcerting is that not everyone who vilifies wind turbines is without ulterior motives. Wind energy threatens to reduce or even eliminate profits for the traditional energy providers. One such scenario was described by Dr. Simon Chapman, an Emeritus Professor and public health expert. The Waubra Foundation, named after the town of Waubra, home to one of Australia’s largest wind farms, is one of the most prominent anti-wind groups in Australia. Its founder is Peter Mitchell, a wealthy mining investor who neither lives in or has ties to the town of Waubra. The other major player in Australia’s anti-wind movement is a group called Landscape Guardians.
“Despite their name, the Guardians have never attempted to guard our landscape from overzealous residential developers, open cut coal or coal seam gas mining. They only target wind farm developments. All three — Waubra, the Guardians and Mitchell’s mining investment company share a South Melbourne post office box.”
Thankfully, the evidence, or lack thereof, speaks for itself; and the scientific community remains committed to maintaining integrity. In early 2011, the court heard the testimony of Sarah Laurie, an unregistered doctor and CEO of The Waubra Foundation, on behalf of those who claim to be victims of disease caused by wind turbines. The Environment, Resources and Development Court threw out Laurie’s evidence entirely, having determined that her data demonstrated a higher incidence of the symptoms alleged by wind turbine syndrome in people who didn’t live near wind turbines than people who did, completely contradicting Laurie’s testimony.
Laurie and the court were also in agreement that she was not qualified to give expert testimony on the subject. One year later, the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission sent notice to Laurie that it would be stripping The Waubra Foundation of its status as a health promotion charity. The notice explained that eligibility for this tax-exempt status requires that the principal purpose of the charity be aimed toward the prevention of disease, and that there was insufficient evidence to support wind turbine syndrome as a real disease.
Given Waubra’s strong ties to the fossil fuel industry, it is difficult to ignore these facts and not posit that greed and self-interest could likely be a prime motivator in the anti-wind efforts.
There are many plausible explanations for wind turbine syndrome. Stress, perception, expectations, and personal gain are all strong motivators for people to fight for a cause. However, when we review the various forms of opposition to wind energy, the bigger picture they form is more of a junk drawer of disjointed, illogical reasoning. While it is impossible to completely dismiss those who suffer from wind turbine syndrome, the combination of profit motive, anti-environmental ferment, and political fearmongering leaves one wondering if it really is mind over matter or just naked self-interest blowing in the wind.
Every year, it is becoming more evident that we as humans cannot sustain this planet by continuing to do things as we have since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We’re running out of time, and running out of room for excuses, especially those without merit.