Spreading Sickness

People living near wind farms have complained of headaches, dizziness, and other health problems. Now researchers have found that simply watching videos about these complaints is enough to make others report the same symptoms. (Hat tip: Slate.)

Many residents have fought wind farm development because they worry that sound from the turbines will make them sick. Turbines produce low-frequency sound that isn’t audible to humans, called infrasound. But scientists haven’t found a plausible way that infrasound could cause the symptoms people describe.

The authors tested whether people might be influenced by the widespread reports of wind farm-related health complaints on the Internet. The team told 54 college students that they were being exposed to infrasound for two 10-minute sessions. During one session, the researchers were indeed transmitting infrasound. But the other session was a sham treatment; no sound was actually transmitted.

One group of students watched a video of people describing symptoms that were blamed on wind farms. The other group watched a video of scientists saying that wind turbine infrasound didn’t cause illness. During the infrasound and sham infrasound sessions, the students reported whether they experienced symptoms such as headaches, itchiness, and nausea.

Students who watched the video of health complaints reported more symptoms and more intense symptoms during the exposure sessions than the other group did, the team found. Their symptom scores increased regardless of whether they were being exposed to infrasound or the sham treatment, “confirming that infrasound exposure itself did not contribute to the symptomatic experience,” the authors note in Health Psychology.

The results suggest that Internet reports of wind farm-related health problems could make other people more likely to report the same symptoms. Some people have suggested keeping wind turbines farther away from residents, the team writes, but such efforts “may do little to alleviate health complaints and related opposition to wind farm development.” Roberta Kwok | 26 March 2013

Source: Crichton, F. et al. 2013. Can expectations produce symptoms from infrasound associated with wind turbines? Health Psychology doi: 10.1037/a0031760.

Image © Yuri Arcurs | Shutterstock.com



  • oakely March 26, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    This was a very short article and a waste of time for my brain…. people are dumb and should get over there problems and stop using other people for there symptoms… so have a nice thanks bye


    • michael March 27, 2013 at 7:09 am

      People are dumb? Like those who don’t know how to properly use the word “there” when they mean “their” dumbness?


  • arkoptrix March 27, 2013 at 7:01 am

    The article is “protected” behind a paywall so could not be read. It’s not specified where the funding for this study came from. The use of the term “wind farm” is an industry tool to imply a benign character to a large scale industrial facility. It would be helpful to know because the “conclusions” seem to go beyond the info in the short description.
    No description of the frequencies or amplitudes of the infrasounds was provided. Were they intermittent, constant, varying in intensity? Were the test groups randomly selected or volunteers? Were there replicates? What level of response was necessary to constitute a “positive” response? Were there other possible sources of infrasound? Was that issue even addressed?
    There is just so much lacking here that it smacks of propaganda.


    • roberta March 28, 2013 at 8:43 am

      Thanks for your questions. The paper doesn’t mention the funding source, but one of the authors (Fiona Crichton of the University of Auckland) wrote an article about the study for the website The Conversation, which states: “Fiona Crichton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.” (See http://theconversation.com/how-the-power-of-suggestion-generates-wind-farm-symptoms-12833.)

      The infrasound exposure experiment is described as follows in the paper: “Exposure sessions, which were counterbalanced, were conducted at the Acoustic Research Centre University of Auckland, in a listening room designed for subjective listening experiments and constructed to International Electrotechnical Commission standards (IEC 268–13). Infrasound transmitted during exposure sessions (40dB at 5Hz) was created using a combination of the Adobe® Audition software package with a Presonus® Firepod audio interface, and a Mackie® HR 150 active studio woofer.” My understanding from reading the study is that the experiment was performed only once.

      As for evaluating the level of response, the participants were asked to rate their symptoms on a scale of 0 to 6 (0 meaning “not at all” and 6 meaning “extreme”). They gave ratings for 12 symptoms that people have previously attributed to wind farm infrasound (“headache, ear pressure, ringing in the ears, itchy skin, sinus pressure or irritation, dizziness, pressure in the chest, vibrations within the body, racing heart, nausea, tiredness, feeling faint”). The researchers calculated a “symptom score” by counting the number of symptoms that elicited a rating of 1 or more and calculated a “symptom intensity score” by adding up all the ratings for each participant. These ratings were done both before and during the exposure sessions.

      Here are some relevant numbers from the results: For the group that watched the video of health complaints, their average symptom scores increased from 6.6 before the exposure session to 8.9 during the real infrasound exposure session, and their average symptom intensity scores increased from 11.2 to 17.4. Similarly, their symptom scores increased from 6.4 to 8.2 during the sham exposure session, and their symptom intensity scores increased from 10.0 to 17.0.


      • Hope March 31, 2013 at 5:53 pm

        Were the subjects tested for preexisting conditions? Perhaps the infrasounds don’t create but accelerate preexisting dispositions to illness.

        I have to agree that the findings sound prematurely published.

      • roberta April 1, 2013 at 3:44 pm

        The paper says that the participants were “[h]ealthy volunteers”. They were assigned randomly to either the group that watched the video about health complaints or the group that watched the video of scientists saying that wind farm infrasound would not cause illness.

  • Who March 27, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Not sure why people are objecting to this article. It’s just an interesting nugget of information from one study. It doesn’t pretend to be the end-all, be-all story. And these sorts of articles never present the full details of methodology and results. Saying it “smacks of propaganda” on such flimsy grounds is really biased. The commenter obviously has some strong opinions and doesn’t enjoy the implications of this story. As they seem to recognize, you need to read the full article, and many others, before you can begin to reach a conclusion. This story, and the study it summarizes, are just a step in the scientific process.


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