Last year, in Le Roy, New York, a group of eighteen high-school girls, one boy, and one adult came down with a case of uncontrollable tics. Many blamed a chemical spill that took place in the town in 1970, but doctors told parents it was mass psychogenic illness. All the students have since recovered, though a girl from another town who got the same tics after driving through Le Roy around the time of the outbreak now blames chronic Lyme disease.
In Windsor, Ontario, people are losing sleep over a low-frequency “hum”—a combination of audible deep bass sounds and inaudible vibrations some have compared to the crooning of Barry White. Residents of the town say the hum, which began in 2011, vibrates their beds, knocks objects off shelves, makes babies cranky, disturbs cats and dogs, upsets goldfish, and causes illness. Federally funded scientists have traced the hum to Zug Island, on the U.S. side of the Detroit River, but have yet to identify a specific source, and people in Michigan say they hear nothing. Two decades ago, residents of Taos, New Mexico, began to complain about a hum that remains unresolved to this day.
On the other hand, the suffering Falmouth residents claim they’d never heard of wind-turbine syndrome before they began feeling sick—that their symptoms only appeared after the turbines themselves did. Many also point out that they felt symptoms before hearing similar stories from their neighbors. But, according to Ted Kaptchuk, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the program in placebo studies at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, conscious awareness of an illness is not a requirement for the nocebo effect. Apparently, if we really want to, we can feel just about anything. “We’re always a little dizzy. We’re always a little bit nauseous,” he says. “But selective attention attends to those things … and the attention cascades into more of that thing.” It becomes a kind of feedback loop.
“I know people I admire and respect who are convinced that they have symptoms that they attribute to the turbine,” says Eric Davidson, adjunct senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center.* The center, a nonprofit research group with a focus on climate change and environmental science, owns one of the town’s four turbines. People often picnic beneath it at a bench set up for that purpose, but a couple of neighbors have complained about noise, vibrations, and shadows thrown by the blades as they rotate through the sun’s glare. One woman who complained of vibrations recorded feeling them at times when the turbine wasn’t even running. “It’s hard to separate all the noise, so to speak,” says Davidson, “to infer cause and effect.”
On July 9, in a well-lit basement room of the Massachusetts statehouse in Boston, a crowd gathered for a hearing on a couple of proposed bills before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Health, including one that would mandate a study on the health effects of wind turbines. Academics, doctors, and politicians sat jammed into benches next to anti-wind activists and syndrome sufferers from various towns around the Cape.
“It’s critical that we acknowledge wind-turbine syndrome,” said Roxanne Zak, head of the energy committee for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, an unlikely supporter, in her testimony that morning. “We’re derailing large wind projects, preventing wind legislation from being passed. We can’t dismiss the evidence that people are having problems.” Turbines are very effective in wide-open spaces, she said, but Massachusetts is not one of those places.
State Representative Cleon H. Turner told Zak he sympathized with her mission. “I appreciate your confidence that wind-turbine syndrome will be verified,” he said, leaning forward with urgency. “During the ten years I have been on this committee, it has looked at the issue of Lyme disease and chronic Lyme disease, and that has not been resolved, so keep the faith.”
That afternoon, residents from all over the state took to the microphone, including Mark Cool, Neil Andersen, and Sue Hobart. Symptom-sufferer after symptom-sufferer approached the podium, often shedding tears. Some resorted to shouting and table pounding. One person became so loud and agitated as he slammed his fist into the table that it sounded as though he might break it. A few of the committee members couldn’t help but express a twinge of sympathy.
But the mood shifted when David Moriarty came forward and began his testimony. The 50-year-old contractor and real-estate agent told the room that the wind industry and the Department of Environmental Protection have known about wind-turbine syndrome since 1979, when the first cases appeared in Boone, North Carolina. “This was 1979, ladies and gentlemen,” said Moriarty, who is also president of the Falmouth Committee on Human Rights. “I want you to know that nothing has changed. The agencies, they didn’t do their job!” he said, taking on a preacher’s oratory and cadence. As he spoke, some committee members began furrowing their brows in skepticism. “I’m David Moriarty. Now, please stop the suffering in Falmouth, Massachusetts. They knew. It’s no accident. It was intentional.” And in one—albeit uncharacteristically extreme—speech, the divide in the room reestablished itself. There again were the people who believed in the syndrome and the ones who simply didn’t.
*This article has been corrected to show that Eric Davidson is an adjunct senior scientist at the Woods Hold Research Center, not the president and executive director.