A New Challenge for Social Impact Assessment – Australian Windfarms: A Case Study of Psychogenic Illness

Wind-Turbines - AustraliaSource: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/8975571/Australian-state-launches-worlds-toughest-wind-turbine-laws.html

Wind-Turbines – Australia
Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Social impact assessments (SIA) have been considered, for the most part, a component or add-on of environmental impact assessments (EIA), although some argue that in its own right is more than a process but rather a “philosophy about development and democracy” (Vanclay 2004). However, for practical purposes it has been broadly defined as a process for analysing, monitoring and managing unintended and intended social outcomes of development or planned interventions (Vanclay and Esteves 2011).

Despite its importance to project development, SIA is fraught with a unique set of limitations: inadequate involvement of stakeholders, post-impact studies demonstrating the inability of SIA to predict all impacts, failure to capture residual impacts and consequent harm to communities as well as the downtime and extra costs to proponents (Vanclay and Esteves 2011). Unfortunately, a new limitation has surfaced for practitioners of SIA in regard to health impacts: an Australian study on health impacts of wind turbines has reached the conclusion that the sickness, coined “wind-turbine syndrome”,  is more likely attributable to psychological effects and results have made mainstream news (Rourke 2013; Taylor 2013). This reverse placebo effect places a serious strain on SIA consultants: how will real and psychological health effects of project developments be separated? How can they be predicted? And, should psychological health impacts be considered equal to real health impacts on a population?

Windfarm effects on health have been recognized worldwide due to a growth in complaints by nearby residents. The video below, Wind Turbine and Health Problems, showcases this global phenomenon by discussing some of the common symptoms of wind turbines felt by Canadian residents. The study in question by Chapman et al. (2013) looked at complaints of these symptoms for 49 windfarms in Australia, including residential areas near 1616 wind turbines in total. It was found that large spatio-temporal variations exist in health complaints and farm noise. Only 1 in 272 residents living within 5 km of windfarms or a wind turbine complained; the majority of which coming from neighborhoods targeted by anti-windfarm groups. Furthermore, 82% of health and noise complaints were received after 2009 when wind farm opponents began using health effects as a lobbying strategy. These results lead the authors to conclude that, at the very least, there is evidence for psychogenic illness. Psychogenic illness has been identified as somatic symptoms, believed to be cause by an environmental trigger, varying between individuals and not related to extent of exposure which is spread by fear, anxiety and general excitement (Chapman et al. 2013).

Assuming that psychogenic illnesses can be considered social impacts in their own right, we need immediate frameworks to address this issue when conducting social impact assessments. This is especially necessary before a negative light is shone down on this form of health impact: project developers might begin to discredit the SIA process as a waste of time and costs to a process that accommodates “imagined” impacts.

Video: Wind Turbines and Health Problems
Source – “CTV News” accessed from Youtube


Chapman, S., A. St. George, K. Waller, and V. Cakic. 2013. Spatio-temporal differences in the history of health and noise complaints about Australian wind farms: evidence for the psychogenic, “communicated disease” hypothesis. Pre-Print: Submitted for publication. Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia.

Rourke, A. 2013, March 15.Windfarm sickness spreads by word of mouth, Australian study finds. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk

Taylor, L. 2013, March 15. Wind turbine sickness ‘all in the mind’: study. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au

Vanclay, F. and A.M. Esteves. 2011. New directions in social impact assessment: conceptual and methodological advances. In F. Vanclay and A.M Esteves (Eds.), Current issues and trends in social impact assessment. pp. 3-20. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Vanclay, F. 2004. The triple bottom line and impact assessment: how do TBL, EIA, SIA, SEA and EMS relate to eachother? Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 6(3): 265-288.


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