23 May 2012
The history of medicine contains many bizarre episodes of mass hysteria and psychogenic illness, with mass fainting by children during school vaccinations a common example.
Outbreaks of mass hysteria have common factors which contribute to their contagion. People "spreading" alarm about alleged harms are central to the proliferation of mass hysteria and today the internet is peerless as a disease vector.
While most people have heard of the placebo effect (when an inert "drug" like a sugar pill or a sham surgical procedure like inserting random acupuncture needles is followed by people feeling better) its opposite, the "nocebo" effect, is less appreciated.
A nocebo effect occurs when people feel ill or are convinced they have symptoms after being told that something is harmful. For the past few months, I have been collecting claims about adverse health effects made by opponents of wind farms. Today the total stands at 113 different diseases and symptoms in humans and animals.
Other than perhaps the aftermath of a nuclear blast on population health, there is nothing known to medicine that comes close to the morbid apocalypse that is being megaphoned by anti-wind groups.
It is not just illnesses and symptoms that occur but "deaths, yes, many deaths mainly from unusual cancers", which have strangely never come to the attention of any coroner.
Did you know that wind turbines can cause lung cancer, leukaemia, diabetes, herpes, "electromagnetic spasms in the skull", infertility and the ghastly sounding "loss of bowels"?
Any very common problem together affecting literally millions of people across Australia (sleep problems, high blood pressure, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, children doing poorly at school, nosebleeds and muscle twitches) can all be explained by wind turbine exposure.
Nothing else is relevant if you live near one. But there are some benefits too. Those who are overweight can lose kilograms through exposure to wind turbines, but the excessively slim can gain weight as well!
Is this magic?
It's not just humans that are affected. Did you know that "seagulls no longer follow the plough in areas near wind turbines ... the seagulls have learned that the worms have all been driven away ... They must go elsewhere for their food." This can happen as far as 18km from a turbine!
Whales have their sonar systems disrupted, chickens won't lay, and sheep wool is poorer in quality. Tragically, a "peahen refused to go near a peacock" and dogs "stare blankly at walls", ignoring owners. Never seen a dog like that.
It's not just the effect of turbine exposure that causes harm, but leaking "stray or tingle electricity" generated by the turbines can mysteriously travel through the soil with disastrous consequences. This has resulted in 400 goats "dropping dead" in New Zealand, dairy cows being "shocked through milking machines", and almost every known malformation in birds and farm animals.
Many of the above have been folded into a new disease entity called "wind turbine syndrome" by an American doctor, Nina Pierpont, set out in a vanity press book K-Selected Books run by herself and her partner.
"Wind Turbine Syndrome" appears not once in the US national Library of Medicine's online PubMed library of over 21 million biomedical papers. But that's not stopped this psychogenic "syndrome" bouncing around to the tune of 154,000 Google hits.
Pierpont's Australian counterpart is an unregistered South Australian doctor, Sarah Laurie, who travels about spreading the bad news. With a straight face, Laurie told a recent meeting of mostly bussed in protesters in the Victorian town of Mortlake that just one night in a house in proximity to a wind turbine had "just about everybody ...every five or ten minutes needing to go to the toilet."
Let's assume the residents went to bed at 11 and woke at 7; that would be 48 to 96 times a night for each person. Is she taking the piss?
The Victorian Government has introduced a 2km setback rule for wind turbines for any residence, and the NSW government currently has the same distance out for public discussion. The NSW Health Department has sensibly advised that any decision on setbacks cannot be made on the basis of any evidence of harm to health.
Seventeen reviews of the evidence back this up with the NHMRC soon to add an eighteenth. If that too should clear turbines, you can bet the anti-wind lobby has already rehearsed why it too should be ignored.
It is easy to find claims on the web that turbines can bring on symptoms within hours or even minutes of exposure. It's something of a problem then that of the 150,000 turbines around the world, only a small fraction have generated complaints, and that with many having been erected in the 1990s, the "epidemic" of wind farm complaints had its beginnings several years later.
And you will search in vain to find anyone deriving income from hosting turbines who is complaining: money, it seems, is a magic cure. Opponents retort that these people are gagged by confidentiality clauses, but common law claims of negligence are never voided by contracts.
Political acquiescence to the NIMBY and turbine-rent-envy driven culture of complaint about wind farms threatens to seriously hobble Australia's ability to meet carbon reduction targets. Meanwhile, the great majority of the public supports wind power and nations like China and India are surging ahead in wind-energy production.
Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney. Twitter: @simonchapman6. View his full profile here.