Wind turbines are widely touted as a source of clean, sustainable energy, but they also generate no small amount of controversy. Most often, the arguments are over aesthetics—for all their benefits, wind farms aren’t much to look at—and over the amount of land the generators take up. However, since 2009, a number of people living near wind farms have reported concerning symptoms. In many cases, these people attribute the symptoms to an effect of the turbines, while experts attribute the condition to a phenomenon called the nocebo effect.
Deriving its name from the Latin word meaning “I shall harm,” the nocebo effect is a counterpart to the placebo effect. In both cases, something inert, such as a pill of cornstarch, that is followed or accompanied by an effect in a patient is believed to cause the effect, or treated as though it causes the effect. In the case of a nocebo response, this effect is a negative one. Wind turbine syndrome is viewed as an example of the nocebo effect.
Indeed, one expert, a public health professor in Sydney, Australia, says wind turbine syndrome bears the hallmarks of what is called a “communicated disease,” one that is “spread” by media coverage. The reported symptoms are vague and generic ones, such as nervousness, poor sleep, and chest tightness, that are both difficult to measure objectively and often found in purely psychosomatic conditions; the reported symptoms of of the sort that people expecting to experience them will often discover that they do.
The expert, Simon Chapman, says he has found a number of cases in which people who had been living near wind farms for years experienced symptoms within days, sometimes even hours, of learning about their green neighbors. He also notes that one of the leading advocates for people who claim to be suffering the condition is married to an outspoken opponent of wind energy.
However, most people who report symptoms that they believe are related to wind turbines are not deliberately lying. The nature of psychosomatic illness is that it is experienced as a real illness. While fear-mongering and hysteria may play a part in wind turbine syndrome, and there is no reliable medical evidence of a link between wind turbines and any symptoms, the feeling is nonetheless real.