The amount of wind power generated in America has nearly doubled in recent years. Today, the United States ranks first in the world for electricity generated from wind, according to the Department of Energy. But for some, the shifting winds of the renewable energy revolution isn’t a pleasant one.
In places like Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont where industrial wind turbine projects have recently been introduced, residents have reported symptoms such as nausea, sleep disorders, fatigue, and increased stress that they account to a low-frequency hum—a combination of audible bass sounds and inaudible vibrations—generated by the turbines. In one instance, an air traffic controller attributed a near-fatal mistake on the insomnia and stress he experienced after a wind turbine was installed near his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
As public support for renewable energy technologies like wind gains traction, some local communities are putting their foot down, arguing that these efforts shouldn’t come at the expense of their health. But whether the sound, audible or inaudible, actually impacts human health remains a deeply contested issue.
Scientific consensus suggests it does not. Twenty-five peer-reviewed studies have found that living near wind turbines does not pose a risk on human health. The studies looked at a range of health effects from hearing loss, nausea, and sleep disorders to dizziness, blood pressure, tinnitus, and more. Recently, a new study using retrospective data reported that stress, as measured by hair cortisol levels, was not associated with proximity to wind turbines.
The study, published in the June issue of The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, found no direct link between residents’ distance from wind turbines in Ontario and Prince Edward Island and sleep disturbances, blood pressure, or stress. The stress levels were both self-reported and measured via hair cortisol levels, a hormone secreted under stress that prepares the body for its fight-or-flight response.
“It’s not that we don’t believe that people aren’t feeling well or aren’t sleeping well,” said Sandra Sulsky, one of the study’s co-authors and an epidemiologist at Ramboll, an international engineering consultancy company. “What we don’t know is how that is related to presence or absence of a wind turbine.”
The study used publically available data from a 2013 public health survey commissioned by the Canadian government, called the Community Noise and Health Survey, which is the only large-scale study on both subjective (self-reported symptoms) and objective (cortisol levels, blood pressure, heart rate, sleep monitoring) health outcomes in relation to living near wind turbines. Both the original 2013 study and new retrospective analysis found that wind turbine noise and proximity, respectively, were not associated with any adverse outcomes except for annoyance.
However, the results of the two studies deviated in one interesting way. The recent analysis found that the closer the respondents lived to wind turbines the lower they ranked the quality of life of their environment. The original study found no link between sound levels and these quality of life ratings. Though because there is no baseline data for the sample, Sulsky said, it’s difficult to distinguish whether respondents were dissatisfied before the wind turbines were installed.
“But it does suggest that there’s something other than sound itself that influences those perceptions,” Sulsky said.
With no proven biological basis for the reported symptoms, some have pointed to the “nocebo effect” as the cause of the complaints. The nocebo effect is akin to the placebo effect, where an individual’s positive perception towards a drug or treatment produces positive results, except in the nocebo effect, it’s negative attitudes and negative results.
The idea that a nocebo effect may be driving people’s reported problems is backed up by a 2014 study that pointed out that health complaints are more common in areas with the most negative publicity about the alleged harmful effects of turbines. A large-scale population survey in the Netherlands found that reports of stress and sleep disturbance were more common in areas where the turbines were visible.
For those living in the shadows of the wind turbines, there is little debate that the turbines have damaged their previously bucolic way of life. Annette Smith, the head of the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment and a long-time critic of industrial wind projects, said the projects have “destroyed the community.”
“If you just talk to people who live around these things, there’s no question that people are getting sick,” Smith said.
Through the grassroots organization she heads, Smith has helped organize public hearings for residents who report serious illnesses as well as lost hobbies such as gardening due to infrasound vibrations. In one case, a resident named Luann Therrien, who lives less than a mile from a 400-foot turbine, said she initially supported the wind projects.
“We were not against the turbines before they went in [but after] we were dizzy, had vertigo like you wouldn’t believe,” she said at one hearing.
One theory from residents as to why these effects don’t show up in the studies is that the Vermont mountains funnel the sound in a way that the flatlands of the Midwest do not. Others say some people may just be more susceptible than others to the inaudible noise, like sea sickness.
In response to these lobbying efforts, Smith said the utility companies have shown no willingness to talk about tangible solutions, such as real-time monitoring of noise, like what happens at airports. “They just deny it happens,” she said.
Apart from noise, Smith has what she calls “a menu” of other issues with industrial wind projects in residential areas. She cites the environmental effects of building roads and blasting ridge lines, changes to the topography of the land, and changes in wildlife populations. Smith, who lives “off the grid” with solar panels and the occasional diesel generator supplying her electricity, questions whether a commitment to this carbon-free source of electricity comes at too large of an expense to the rural communities that house them.
“We’re all expected to solve the energy issues of the world if we don’t want wind,” Smith said. “And I think that there are many other ways of developing and getting energy that people aren’t sacrificed or getting sick or leaving their homes… or being ridiculed.”
As to whether complaints from nearby residents will put a halt to wind power’s expanse in the U.S., recent data suggest they will not. From 2011 to 2016 electricity generated from wind turbines rose from 120 million to 226 million megawatt hours in the United States—a rise that also has not produced an increase in evidence of adverse health outcomes.
“It’s natural to look for causes, and something that seems to be new in the environment is a natural conclusion to draw,” Sulsky said. “But so far the evidence doesn’t support a causal association.”