Wind turbine noise and human health: Review of wind industry claims and positions

Jerry Punch & Richard James

Download original paper, published September 30, 2016, by Hearing Health & Technology Matters

Our review is organized by summarizing the past and present literature that addresses each of 12 selected statements, listed below, that encapsulate specific claims, or positions, commonly taken by advocates for the wind industry:

  1. Infrasound is not an issue, as infrasound generated by wind turbines is not perceptible to humans.
  2. There is nothing unique about wind turbine noise, as infrasound and low-frequency noise are commonly produced by the body and by many environmental sources.
  3. There is no evidence that wind turbine noise, audible or inaudible, leads to adverse health effects in people, and there are no physiological mechanisms to explain how inaudible acoustic energy can be harmful.
  4. Setback distances of 1,000-1,500 feet (approximately 0.3-0.5 km) are sufficiently safe to protect humans from harm, regardless of height or other physical characteristics of the IWTs.
  5. Annoyance is a nuisance, but it is not a health issue.
  6. Noise cannot account for all of the complaints of people living in the vicinity of wind turbines; there must be another, unknown reason for the complaints.
  7. Infrasound from wind turbines is sufficiently correlated to the A-weighted sound emissions to allow an A-weighted model to be used to predict how much infrasound is present in homes.
  8. Wind Turbine Syndrome has not been accepted as a diagnostic entity by the medical profession, so medical professionals cannot diagnose or treat it.
  9. Peer-reviewed epidemiological literature is the only acceptable basis for proving a causative relationship between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.
  10. The nocebo effect, a manifestation of psychological expectations, explains why people complain of adverse health effects when living near wind turbines.
  11. Only relatively few people, if any, are adversely impacted by wind turbine noise, and the majority have no complaints.
  12. There is no evidence in the literature to support a causative link between wind turbine noise and adverse effects.

Conclusion

We have discussed in this paper various elements of acoustics, sound perception, sound measurement, and psychological reactions, and the role these factors play in support of the view that a general-causative link exists between human health and ILFN emitted by IWTs. The available evidence warrants the following conclusions:

(1) Large wind turbines generate infrasound, which is not normally experienced as sound by most human listeners. Some people, however, experience it in the form of pathological symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, or motion sickness, which appear to be caused by the excitation of resonances inside closed structures and the human body itself.

(2) WTN has unique acoustic characteristics when compared to other environmental noises. These characteristics include low-amplitude, amplitude-modulated, intermittent occurrences of tones that mirror the peak energy of the blade-pass frequency and the first several harmonics. The coupling mechanisms in the inner ear prevent internally generated sound, but not externally generated sound, from being perceived, which means that perception of wind turbine infrasound is far more disturbing than infrasound generated within the human body.

(3) There is voluminous evidence, ranging from anecdotal accounts from around the world to peer-reviewed scientific research, that audible and inaudible low-frequency noise and infrasound from IWTs leads to complaints ranging from annoyance to AHEs in a substantial percentage of the population. Although sleep disturbance is the most common problem cited, a variety of other health problems has been reported by numerous reputable sources. Recent research is largely consistent with Pierpont’s original description of Wind Turbine Syndrome. Research on humans and lower animals has shown that it is biologically plausible that inner ear mechanisms, in conjunction with the brain, can process acoustic energy in ways that result in pathological perceptions that are not interpreted as sound. Both balance and hearing mechanisms appear to be involved in evoking these perceptions. The findings that infrasonic stimuli can amplitude modulate higher frequencies in the audible region, and that infrasound may be more perceptible when higher frequencies are absent, are especially compelling in suggesting that what we can’t hear can hurt us.

(4) To prevent AHEs, scientists have recommended that distances separating turbines and residences be 0.5-2.5 miles, and 1.25 miles (2 km) or more has been commonly recommended. Clearly, the short siting distances used by the industry for physical safety do not protect against AHEs. Alternatively, researchers have recommended sound levels typically ranging from 30-40 dBA for safeguarding health, which is consistent with the recommendation of nighttime noise levels by the WHO.

(5) Annoyance is a health issue for many people living near IWTs, which is consistent with both the WHO’s definition of health and contemporary models of the relationships among annoyance, stress, and health.

(6) The scientific evidence regarding factors other than amplitude-modulated ILFN as an explanation for most of the health complaints near IWTs, including electromagnetic fields

(dirty electricity), is weak; the preponderance of research suggests that ILFN is the most viable explanation for such complaints.

(7) The A-weighted decibel scale, which effectively excludes infrasound and substantial amounts of low-frequency noise, is inadequate to predict the level of outdoor or indoor infrasound, to reveal correlations to infrasound, or to show a definitive relationship with AHEs, and achievement of these goals requires the development of new measurement methods.

(8) Even though Wind Turbine Syndrome is not currently included in the ICD coding system, that system includes most of the acknowledged symptoms of the syndrome. Medical professionals, therefore, have the necessary tools to evaluate and treat it, and that process has already begun on a limited scale.

(9) While some epidemiologically solid research has been done in the area of IWTs and AHEs, evidence from other sources cannot be ignored. Hill noted the nature of such sources in 1965, and Phillips, in 2011, described the importance of other kinds of evidence, including adverse event reports, in establishing a causative relationship. One of the strongest types of evidence is the case-crossover experimental design, which the wind industry has unwittingly imposed for years on multiple families, many of whom have abandoned their homes to escape IWT noise exposure.

(10) While psychological expectations and the power of suggestion conceivably can influence perceptions of the effects of WTN on health status, no scientifically valid studies have yet convincingly shown that psychological forces are the major driver of such perceptions.

(11) Accurate estimates of the percentage of people who are affected by IWTs exist only for annoyance, not AHEs. Multiple reports, however, emphasize the relationships that exist between annoyance, stress, health, and quality of life, and indicate that a non-trivial percentage of people who live near IWTs experience AHEs. Those reports are consistent with thousands of reports worldwide. Although it seems reasonable to conclude that noise from IWTs does not cause AHEs in the majority of exposed populations, and that accurate estimates of AHEs are yet to be established, it is also clear that considerable numbers of people are affected and that they deserve to be heard and protected from adverse health impacts.

(12) The available literature, which includes research reported by scientists and other reputable professionals in peer-reviewed journals, government documents, print and web-based media, and in scientific and professional papers presented at society meetings, is sufficient to establish a general causal link between a variety of commonly observed AHEs and noise emitted by IWTs.

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