Spreading Sickness

shutterstock 64608199 square Spreading SicknessPeople 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

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