It has been known since the early 1980s that noise from large wind turbines can adversely affect human health. In 1981, physicist Neil Kelley and colleagues reported their investigation of complaints from residents living within 3 kilometers of an experimental 2-megawatt downwind two-blade wind turbine in Boone, North Carolina, which had begun operation in the fall of 1979 (Kelley et al., 1981; Kelley et al., 1982). Considering that people reported “feeling” the sounds more than hearing them, that the noise was more annoying indoors, that small objects near walls and the glass in picture frames often rattled, and that apparent noise levels were only moderately increased, it seemed to the researchers that infrasound (below the threshold of hearing, or <20 Hz) and low-frequency (<100 Hz) noise (ILFN) was resonating with the building structures as well as with the subjects’ bodies to create the feelings of pressure, uneasiness, and vibration. And indeed, their measurements showed that ILFN pulses dominated the sound energy from the turbine.
Unfortunately for neighbors of large wind turbines, Kelley’s research was shelved as commercial wind turbine makers adopted the upwind three-blade design that is usually seen today, asserting that the problem of pulsing (throbbing) low-frequency noise was thereby overcome. But commercial models did not approach the size of the one Kelley studied until around 2000, which was, not surprisingly, when many physicians and others, for example, Amanda Harry in England, David Iser in Australia, Robyn Phipps in New Zealand, and Michael Nissenbaum in Maine, started noticing an increase of health complaints after nearby wind turbines began operating. Complaints included headache, dizziness, feeling of pressure, stress, and depression. People experienced relief when they left the area or the turbines weren’t operating. A desperation to move away was common, and many families did so if they could. In Ripley, Ontario, the wind energy companies bought several homes of families experiencing health effects (Elma-Mornington Concerned Citizens, 2013).
Nissenbaum compared people who lived within 3,500 feet (about 2/3 of a mile, or just over 1 kilometer) versus people who lived 3 miles away from the 28 wind turbines in Mars Hill, Maine, showing a clear correlation between the wind turbines and health complaints (Nissenbaum et al., 2012). By this time, French and German health experts, British noise experts, and even a German project developer recognized the need for greater distances between large wind turbines and dwellings than were commonly allowed (Chouard, 2006; Noise Association, 2006; Quambusch and Lauffer, 2008; Retexo-RISP-Marketing, 2004; Villey-Migraine, 2004).
In Portugal, researchers of the effect of ILFN in the body were asked to investigate a home near wind turbines. They found the ILFN levels to be similar to those found at homes near industrial sites whose residents showed changes to the heart, lungs, and muscles that the researchers called “vibroacoustic disease.” Follow-up research of the residence near the wind turbines documented a variety of health effects. Initially, the closest turbine was ordered to be removed and three others to be shut down at night. Eventually those were ordered removed as well to protect the health and well-being of the residents (Alves-Pereira and Castelo Branco, 2007; Supremo Tribunal de Justiça, 2013).
In many places, turbines have been ordered to be shut down at night so that people can sleep. Sleep disturbance itself is considered to be a health effect by the World Health Organization, because sleep is required for both physical and mental health. Combined with the stress from excessive noise, lack of good sleep can lead to long-term problems such as learning disabilities in children, work impairment, and cardiovascular disease (Berglund et al., 1995; Goines and Hagler, 2007).
Meanwhile, physician Nina Pierpont of New York interviewed people from around the world who complained of health effects from wind turbines. She gave the name “wind turbine syndrome” to the common set of symptoms associated with nearby wind turbines: sleep disturbance and deprivation, headache, tinnitus (ringing in ears), ear pressure, dizziness, vertigo (spinning dizziness), nausea, visual blurring, tachycardia (fast heart rate), irritability, problems with concentration and memory, and panic episodes associated with sensations of movement or quivering inside the body (Pierpont, 2009).
Pierpont realized that these symptoms, as well as the fact that people were affected differently – some severely, others not at all – were consistent with inner ear disturbances, akin to motion sickness, that can be caused by noise, especially ILFN (Salt and Hullar, 2010). Long-term exposure to high levels of ILFN has long been known to have effects on health, such as those studied in Portugal under the term vibroacoustic disease. Now the likely mechanism for the effects of short-term exposure to wind turbine noise had been found. With the possibility of pulsing ILFN acting on the inner ear to cause the unexpectedly high rate of complaints around wind turbines compared with other sources of noise (Janssen et al., 2011; Pedersen and Waye, 2004), acoustic engineers started measuring wind turbine noise in the lower frequencies and rediscovered what Neil Kelley had found almost 30 years before: Noise from large wind turbines is characterized by pulsing ILFN that is associated with complaints and health problems (Channel Islands Acoustics et al., 2012; Møller and Pedersen, 2011).
And the solution (at least for human neighbors) is the same: large setback distances to avoid subjecting people to not just increased audible noise as recommended by the World Health Organization (Berglund et al., 1995), but also pulsing ILFN (Kelley, 1987; Noise Bulletin, 2011).
Alves-Pereira M, Castelo Branco NAA. 2007. In-home wind turbine noise is conducive to vibroacoustic disease [abstract]. Presented at Wind Turbine Noise Conference 2007, September 20-21, 2007, Lyon, France.
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Channel Islands Acoustics, Hessler Associates, Rand Acoustics, Schomer and Associates. 2012. A cooperative measurement survey and analysis of low frequency and infrasound at the Shirley Wind Farm in Brown County, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
Chouard CH. 2006. Le retentissement du fonctionnement des éoliennes sur la santé de l'homme. [Repercussions of wind turbine operations on human health.] l’Académie nationale de médecine [France].
Elma-Mornington Concerned Citizens. 2013. Case study: impact of a wind turbine project on a rural community. http://docs.wind-watch.org/ripley-case-study.pdf
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Salt A, Hullar T. 2010. Responses of the ear to low frequency sounds, infrasound and wind turbines. Hearing Research 268(1-2):12-21.
Supremo Tribunal de Justiça. 2013. 2209/08.0TBTVD.L1.S1, 7ª Secção, Granja da Fonseca. May 30, 2013. www.dgsi.pt/jstj.nsf/954f0ce6ad9dd8b980256b5f003fa814/4559d6d733d1589780257b7b004d464b
Villey-Migraine M. 2004. Eoliennes, sons et infrasons: effets de l’éolien industriel sur la sante des hommes [thesis]. [Wind turbines, noise, and infrasound: effects of industrial wind turbines on human health.] Université Paris II–Panthéon-Assas.
Eric Rosenbloom is a medical sciences editor and writer. He has been President of National Wind Watch, a clearinghouse for news and research concerning industrial-scale wind power, since 2006.