“Wind turbine syndrome” is more wind than syndrome

Last update: December 19, 2013

Dr. Nina Pierpont performed a small set of medical interviews of people who complained of health problems that they blamed on wind turbines.  She self-published a 294-page book on her findings she called “Wind Turbine Syndrome” (http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com/) in 2009.  This book and the syndrome are widely referenced by people campaigning against wind turbines.  She continues to promote “Wind Turbine Syndrome” and act as an expert witness via Skype for anti-wind campaigners world-wide.

Is there a real syndrome?  Are there organic medical causes?  Is it caused by wind turbines?

Image courtesy Amazon.com

Short Answer:

Dr. Pierpont’s book, Wind Turbine Syndrome, is a deeply flawed and vastly over-inflated work that is causing much more harm than any good it might be attempting to achieve. It has a tiny, self-selected sample group, phone interviews only, acceptance of hearsay on additional people as direct evidence, no control group, the approach taken to gathering information is almost designed to lead to the sample identifying symptoms as caused by wind turbines and the conclusions are unsupported by the data.

Long Answer:

What is “Wind Turbine Syndrome”

This purported syndrome originally consisted of a long list of complaints including tinnitus, dizziness, heart-palpitations, nausea, tingling, loss of sleep and a list of five or six more complaints.This list of symptoms was gathered by Dr. Nina Pierpont by advertising near wind farms for people who blamed their health issues on the wind turbines nearby.  She interviewed them by phone to gather data.  She interviewed a total of 23 people and from them gathered information on the symptoms of another 15 people.She did not perform a direct, in-person medical assessment on the complainants. She did not interview other people from the area who did not have health complaints.  She did not gather and assess prior medical histories.Dr. Pierpont hypothesized various organic causes for the “Wind Turbine Syndrome” she had identified from this study.  Chief among them was infrasound given off by the wind turbines.  She included material on medical impacts of infrasound from other studies.

She did not establish a link between infrasound levels and related impacts from the literature.  She did not measure infrasound at the homes of the complainants, or at the wind farms.[1]

Weaknesses and flaws:

  1. Selection bias error – Dr. Pierpont advertised specifically for people that attributed their health problems to wind farms.  This fundamentally skews results and leads the discussion.
  2. Sample size error - Dr. Pierpont spoke over the phone to only 23 people.  She accepted anecdotal evidence for an additional 15.  Despite this, she published roughly 60 pages of statistics, charts and graphs.  There is no statistical conclusion of any sort that can be drawn from a sample this small except the size of the sample.[10]
  3. No control group. Effective health studies are carefully designed to include control groups to ensure that the study is valid.  Dr. Pierpont did not establish a control group and assess their health and did not compare her results to incidence of symptoms in the general population. [11]
  4. Accepting self-reporting of symptoms, severity and causation without independent assessment.  This is antithetical to medical practice.  Doctors are trained to listen to patients’ complaints, then use independent means to validate a diagnosis.  Self-reporting by patients is considered to be of very low quality and only guides assessment.[12]
  5. No validation of prior health histories. Dr. Pierpont does not assess the prior medical histories of the respondents.  Accepting statements of health impacts with no histories is also deeply flawed methodology.
  6. Accepting hearsay evidence – As pointed out, Dr. Pierpont accepted evidence about other family member symptoms as valid without corroboration and included this information in her analysis.
  7. No geographical mapping. - Dr. Pierpont did not establish the specific locations of complainants to location of wind turbines as well as other sources of noise or potential sources of medical health problems.  This is an important step in establishing causation.
  8. No peer review - Dr. Pierpont’s original ‘peer reviewers’ are relatives and friends with no expertise in acoustics, epidemiology or medicine. One of these was her husband, Calvin Luther Martin, a retired associate professor of history and long-time anti-wind advocate.[8] Her work is not peer reviewed, and has never been submitted or accepted for peer review by any credible journal. Any work that does not gain solid peer review by accredited, broadly accepted and cited medical journals, especially years after initial publication, must be considered on par with snake oil salesmen. Post-publication, she has gained additional supporters whom she terms ‘peer reviewers’ in direct contradiction of the accepted meaning of that term, all of whom have a significant history of attacking wind generation.

The Evidence Against

There have been 17 major studies on wind turbine health[2] and innumerable point-specific studies on wind turbine noise, vibration, infrasound and shadow flicker. These studies have been made up of public health doctors and scientists, acousticians, epidemiologists and related specialists. They considered Dr. Pierpont’s book along with all of the rest of the published literature. In every case, they found that her work was completely lacking in credibility compared to other research. Recent major studies have been done in Ontario, Massachusetts and Oregon with the same results.

In every case they found the following: a small subset of people living near wind turbines find the noise annoying. A small subset of those people get stressed. A small subset of those people lose sleep due to stress, but there is little indication that this is connected to wind turbines. The best evidence is that they would have been stressed about other rural noise such as tractors, dogs barking, local traffic or bird cannons instead.

When assessments of prior medical histories have been performed on people asserting “Wind Turbine Syndrome”, the histories show significantly higher incidences of the same complaints that make up “Wind Turbine Syndrome” than in the general population.  Those complaining skew heavily to being much older than the general population.

Studies of infrasound related to wind turbines find levels of infrasound at the wind turbines too low to be an organic cause of harm.  Even at homes nearer to wind turbines than Ontario’s Regulation 359/09 recommends — ISO method established noise attenuation to WHO recommended 40 dBA or about 550 meters for one large wind turbine — wind turbine infrasound is below the level from air conditioners, fans and refrigerators.  It is below the level of 55+ dBG experienced by all urban dwellers and many rural dwellers all the time. [7]

The level of infrasound inside buildings with the windows closed at the minimum Ontario setback of 550 meters from wind turbines is below what humans can hear, far below what humans can feel and 10-20 dBG below what people living beside beaches are exposed to.  At 360 meters distance, the above is all still true.  At 200 meters distance, the above is all still true.  [3]

Special measurement systems have to be created with below-ground, wind-screened microphones in order to separate infrasound from wind turbines from the infrasound generated by wind itself.[3]

Vibro-Acoustic Disease was originally coined to refer to aircrews of long-range military aircraft who were exposed to levels of infrasound of around 130 dBG for hundreds of hours every month. Comparing this to the infrasound that can’t be heard or felt generated by wind turbines, that is lower than that experienced by the hundreds of millions of people living near the sea, and asserting that it is a health risk is just disingenuous.[7] Note that the coinage of VAD occurred after the original aircrew studies, that 34 of 35 published papers on VAD are by the same small group of Portuguese researchers and that fully 74% of citations of those papers are by themselves. In other words, no one is citing VAD except the researchers working on it.  Strong self-referencing and low referencing by others in science is usually an indicator of the quality of the research, and not a positive one. [9]

The evidence is clear.  The study was flawed methodologically.  At best it is a collection of anecdotal evidence that might be input to community health survey design.  Several major independent studies have found no health impacts or mechanisms for health impacts such as asserted by Dr. Pierpont.  Some people find the noise annoying.[4]

Who does this harm?

A psychogenic illness is one in which a group of people become convinced that they have a disease or ailment in common and attribute it to some external source.  They often experience real symptoms and have significant negative health impacts as a result of this belief.

Dr. Pierpont has created a psychogenic illness, giving it name, form and myriad symptoms from the flimsiest of cloth. Where there were minor and isolated complaints, “Wind Turbine Syndrome” has become a public health hysteria. Where a few people were annoyed, now hundreds of thousands world-wide fear for their health.  Where people were relaxed, now they are deeply stressed.[5]

A list of assertions of negative health impacts from wind turbines maintained by Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health in Australia has reached over 200 entries including vibrating lips at 10 kilometres, underlying the degree of hysteria surrounding this.  [6]

Dr. Pierpont’s book and her continuing promotion of it arguably breach a primary rule of medical ethics: first do no harm.

And “Wind Turbine Syndrome” has been adopted as truth by the vocal minority backlash against wind energy. For context, wind energy emits no particulate matter or greenhouse gases. It doesn’t poison ground water, or kill miners. It doesn’t cause asthma. Coal kills about 13,000 people in the US alone annually according to one study. Wind energy, which is helping wean us off of coal, kills and injures virtually no one.

Wind turbine projects world-wide are delayed due to this.  Communities are torn apart.  Farmers — who typically have the large areas of land suitable for wind farms — are even more pitted against their rural neighbours, often retirees or vacationers.  Setbacks of wind turbines are being proposed that would make many areas impossible to erect wind farms in.

While wind energy is far from a magic bullet, it reduces CO2 and particulate matter emissions from fossil fuels, especially coal.  These emissions have direct and strongly evidenced negative health impacts.  Supporting continued use of fossil fuels when there is a clean alternative to reduce their use is supporting continued health and environmental impacts on very large numbers of people.

References:

[1] http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com/
[2] http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/assets/pdfs/WindHealthReviews.docx
[3] http://www.goyder.sa.gov.au/webdata/resources/files/Attachment_5.pdf
[4] Wind farms don’t make people sick, so why the complaints?
[5] http://www.scribd.com/doc/87923728/Is-there-anything-that-wind-turbines-don’t-cause-Psychogenic-aspects-of-‘wind-turbine-disease’
[6] http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/assets/pdfs/publications/WindfarmDiseases.docx
[7] Humans evolved with infrasound; is there any truth to health concerns about it?
[8] http://grist.org/climate-energy/2009-08-03-attack-on-industrial-wind-puffed-with-false-peer-review-claims/
[9] http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8362
[
10] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2493004/
[
11] http://stattrek.com/statistics/dictionary.aspx?definition=control_group
[
12] http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA496991

Additional peer-reviewed references that debunk Dr. Pierpont’s study and findings:

  1. Infrasound from Wind Turbines – Fact, Fiction or Deception? by Geoff Leventhall in Vol.34 No.2 (2006) of the peer-reviewed journal Canadian Acoustics  http://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/technologies/wind/turbinefactsheets/mainColumnParagraphs/0/text_files/file1/06-06Leventhall-Infras-WT-CanAcoustics2.pdf
  2. Electricity generation and health in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet. The paper concludes that “Forms of renewable energy generation are still in the early phases of their technological development, but most seem to be associated with few adverse effects on health” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pu

Not peer reviewed but still worth considering:

  1. Wind Turbine Facilities Noise Issues by Dr. Ramani Ramakrishnan for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment
  2. Wind Turbine Acoustic Noise, A White Paper by Dr. Anthony Rodgers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
  3. Research into Aerodynamic Modulation of Wind Turbine Noise, University of Salford, UK, July 2007
  4. Health impact of wind turbines, prepared by the Municipality of Chatham-Kent Health & Family Services Public Health Unit. comprehensive review of available literature
  5. Energy, sustainable development and health, World Health Organisation, June 2004.

One comment

  1. […] coined by Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician who also happens to be an anti-wind activist; her research, says Mike Barnard, the study’s lead researcher, is “deeply flawed.” In fact, Barnard says, that’s basically […]

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