NPR gave undue credence to wind power opponents who claim turbines are “making them ill” with a variety of symptoms. But there is no demonstrated link between wind turbines and health impacts, and studies suggest that psychological factors are behind these symptoms.
In a post titled, “Could Wind Turbines Be Toxic To The Ear?” NPR gave pediatrician Nina Pierpont a platform to promote “wind turbine syndrome,” a term she coined. Although NPR noted that her claims “have been met with heavy skepticism from a host of experts in energy and public health,” it nonetheless suggested that a recent scientific review supported her "self-published report."
Pierpont's report consisted of telephone interviews with 23 people who responded to an ad asking for people who claimed to experience “wind turbine syndrome,” and their anecdotes about 15 family members.
The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, Canada stated in a report that “no conclusions on the health impact of wind turbines can be drawn from Pierpont's work due to methodological limitations including small sample size, lack of exposure data, lack of controls and selection bias.” Pierpont claimed that her paper was peer-reviewed, but it was actually evaluated by people she selected, including her husband, an anti-wind activist who compares his struggle to the civil rights movement:
Dr. Martin Luther King (see below) didn't use lawyers. Neither did Gandhi, who was a trained lawyer. Wrong strategy. If you think the Big Wind Onslaught is not on the scale of a Gandhi and King, but just a minor issue -- think again.
As Rosa Parks did, when she sparked the Civil Rights movement: you need to refuse to give up your seat to the wind bastard on the bus.
NPR also trumpeted the significance of a new scientific review, saying it “showed that outer hair cells of the cochlea respond to infrasound, which could affect the functioning of the ear.” But there is no evidence that the outer hair cell response actually does “affect the functioning of the ear.” Previous reviews have also noted that outer hair cells respond to infrasound, but nevertheless concluded "[a]vailable evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the vestibular system."
Infrasound is not unique to wind turbines but is ubiquitous in the environment due to natural and man-made sources, meaning that people living near wind turbines were exposed to infrasound prior to turbine operation. For example, Berglund and Hassmen  reported that infrasound (a component of low frequency sound) is emitted from road vehicles, aircraft, industrial machinery, artillery and mining explosions, air movement machinery including wind turbines, compressors, and air-conditioning units, and Leventhall  reported that infrasound comes from natural sources like meteors, volcanic eruptions and ocean waves. Indeed, many mammals communicate using infrasound . Given the low sound pressure levels of infrasound emitted from wind turbines and the ubiquitous nature of these sounds, the hypothesis that infrasound is a causative agent in health effects does not appear to be supported.
In other words, there is no evidence for a causal link between wind turbines and the reported health effects. On the other hand, there is significant evidence that these are symptoms could be a result of the "nocebo effect," a phenomenon whereby people experience negative health effects from the mere suggestion that something could be harmful:
- As NPR noted, a study published in Health Psychology found that people who were given information designed to provoke “low expectations that exposure to infrasound causes specified symptoms” experienced “no symptomatic changes.” On the other hand, people in the high expectations group reported “significant increase in symptoms” whether they were exposed to sham infrasound or real infrasound.
- Public health professor Simon Chapman found in a not yet peer-reviewed paper that “only five of the 49 wind farms in Australia have ever drawn complaints, and that all five had been targets of anti-wind activism. He also points out that, although wind turbines have been operating in Australia since 1993, over 80 percent of complaints arose after 2009, when anti-wind groups first began emphasizing the potential health hazards of wind turbines,” according to NPR.* Chapman further noted in an email to Media Matters, “turbines have been running in Denmark, Holland, Germany, Spain and parts of France for many years and all this is unheard of -- my public health colleagues from those nations look at me blankly when I ask about it.”
- As comedian Stephen Colbert mentioned in a satire of “wind turbine syndrome,” people have attributed everything from “weight gain” to “weight loss” to “herpes” to it, according to Chapman's research.
- The Environmental Health review concluded: “Given that annoyance appears to be more strongly related to visual cues and attitude than to noise itself, self reported health effects of people living near wind turbines are more likely attributed to physical manifestation from an annoyed state than from infrasound. This hypothesis is supported by the peer-reviewed literature pertaining to environmental stressors and health.”
Chapman criticized NPR's post, calling it “truly anodyne” in an email to Media Matters. Indeed, this is the kind of "irresponsible journalism" that the New Yorker noted can exacerbate the “nocebo effect.”
*UPDATE (4/4/13 5:07 p.m.): Chapman has updated his paper, finding that 18 out of 51 wind farms had complaints; six of these 18 have attracted about 72 percent of the complaints.