The nocebo effect and wind turbines

You’re eating fish at a restaurant. Someone at the table next to yours starts complaining of nausea and fever. The person slips into delirium. You notice they were eating fish. You feel your forehead and think it feels hot. Suddenly you’re feeling nauseated. Chances are you’re not sick at all but suffering from a phenomenon known as the nocebo effect. Like the placebo effect, it is entirely psychogenic but where the placebo effect alleviates symptoms because of favourable expectations, the nocebo effect creates symptoms because of unfavourable expectations.

During drug trials, when a control group is given warnings about possible side effects of a drug, a percentage of the group will complain of these symptoms even though they are taking a dummy pill. The number of patients affected is astonishingly high. A report, Nocebo phenomena in medicine, provides a list of examples. In one clinical trial of 600 patients, an exposure test for a drug allergy caused 27% of those receiving the sham drug to report adverse symptoms such as nausea, stomach pains and itching.

Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, says the nocebo effect is visible in cases of wind turbine syndrome (WTS). WTS is not formally recognized as a disease but people who argue that it ought to be use the name to describe a cluster of symptoms including sleep disturbance, headache, dizziness, vertigo, nausea and tachycardia which they say are caused by living near wind farms.

There is no evidence that wind farms cause illness but there is evidence that health complaints are created when people are given negative information about the possible effects of wind farms. A recent study of Chapman’s found that most of the complaints about wind farms have been made in areas heavily targetted by anti-wind farm groups. Whenever the opponents of wind farms communicate the ill-effects of wind turbines, people get sick. This is a clear case of the nocebo effect. Simon Chapman writes about it at New study: wind turbine syndrome is spread by scaremongers.

Simon Chapman has been collating a list of all the reported symptoms attributed to wind turbines and the tally is currently at 216.  The cartoonist at Crikey has illustrated 127 of these with a cartoon.