Analysis deflates wind turbine health claims

A wind turbine near Pigeon, Michigan.

There’s no denying that wind turbines make noise. A giant rotor blade the size of an aircraft wing swooshing through the air is going to make a noticeable sound, particularly in a quiet, rural setting.

And it’s an often-repeated claim of wind farm opponents that this noise can lead to a whole host of health issues, including headaches, tinnitus, fatigue and sleep disturbances. Health fears, among other objections, have sometimes been cited by local governments as they establish large setbacks, moratoriums or other restrictions on wind farm development.

But a new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters (PDF) suggests those claims are, at best, conflated. The analysis by four Swedish scientists reviews existing literature and finds that with the exception of some self-reported cases of sleep disturbance, there is no scientific or empirical basis to conclude that wind turbine noise causes health problems.

Among the works examined was Nina Pierpont’s oft-cited book Wind Turbine Syndrome, which relies on anecdotal evidence from 38 individuals living near wind farms, several of whom reported insomnia, tinnitus, nausea, dizziness and other symptoms. Pierpont concludes that the symptoms are a direct result of low-frequency noise from nearby turbines, but the Swedish researchers found the book “has several limitiations” which “make the conclusion unjustified.”

For example, the lack of acoustic measurements, no comparison group of people with no or low wind exposure and no investigation of the subjects prior to the wind turbines were constructed (prior health status was estimated retrospectively). In addition, the results, which are based on a very small sample, are contradicted by results from cross-sectional studies … which included a total of more than 1600 people.

The review did conclude, however, that the pulsating noise from wind turbines is more annoying to people living nearby than comparable sound levels from other sources, such as traffic. And because annoyance can lead to stress and sleep deprivation, it’s possible that wind farms can be blamed for indirect health issues.

Wind turbine noise is causing noise annoyance, and possibly also sleep disturbance, which means that one cannot completely rule out effects on the cardiovascular system after prolonged exposure to wind turbine noise, despite moderate levels of exposure.

However, that can be true of any source of noise, from cars to airplanes to obnoxious neighbors, and will vary from individual to individual. Siting guidelines for wind turbines already typically have noise restrictions to minimize this impact.

Being annoyed is not the same thing as getting sick. And while this paper doesn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that wind turbines could have a health impact, it’s telling that after years of study, no one seems to have established a scientifically sound connection.

Photo by Jetta Girl via Creative Commons

13 thoughts on “Analysis deflates wind turbine health claims

  1. This is nonsense. The Minnesota Public Health Department issued statements regarding low frequency noise and it’s ability to adversely impact health of humans and livestock. Nice try, Mr. Paulman. Perhaps you should read the study and include that information in your articles.

  2. Actually, Mary, the Minnesota Department of Health’s conclusions aren’t terribly different from the study cited above. They looked at a lot of the same literature, but were careful to note “These reports do not contain measurements of noise levels, and do not represent random samples of people living near wind turbines, so they cannot assess prevalence of complaints.”
    The DOH looked closely at noise issues and made recommendations for siting guidelines. But there’s nothing in their report that identifies a scientific basis for the more alarmist health claims that are being tossed around.

  3. The study also notes that the current methods of measuring noise were never intended to be used to measure low frequency sound associated with LWECS. The system used to measure low frequency sound emanating from LWECS needs to be specific to LWECS, anything else may give you a false negative or positive report. Information on measurements done with any other system are not valid.

  4. Ken

    What about the high freqency induced voltage that each turbine must put into the ground so that the turbine bearing dont fail. In the spring when the gound is wet and this voltage travels to nearby residential ground rods what addtional problems could this cause. We don’t know becuce the local MN Wind projects wont even address it. Also the newest Mn project Nobles wind farm had all 134 GE turbines shut down becuce they were burning up 575 volt wiring between the turbine and pad mount transformer.

    The Dexter Mn GE wind Turbines were burning up their 34,500 volt under ground cable. I don’t think I would like that any where near my barn in the spring.

  5. 9/12/2011 response from the MN Department of Health on this issue:

    Your message to Commissioner Ehlinger was referred to me for a reply. Thank you for your email expressing concerns about the health impacts from wind turbines. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) White Paper on Public Health Impacts of Wind Turbines states that as one gets closer to a wind turbine the probability of annoyance and health complaints increases. For every individual the thresholds of sensitivity and annoyance will be different. Some people will not perceive turbine noise easily; others will be very sensitive to the noise; for some, the repetitive pulse may be very disturbing; for others, the noise may be easy to ignore. However, above 35 dB(A) complaints increase, and beyond ½ mile from a turbine complaints are rare (although this may vary with terrain). Determinations of noise limits and setbacks are policies that should be set considering potentially affected individuals, communities, and society as a whole. There are health impacts from all forms of energy generation. These also must be weighed when considering the siting of wind farms. MDH’s role in making these decisions is very narrow, limited to assessing possible health impacts.

    The noise from an industrial wind turbine is very complex and changes diurnally, as well as with the wind and weather. Furthermore, penetration of low frequency noise into buildings and through the atmosphere is quite different than penetration of common noises such as traffic and noises from other industrial sources. Rhythmic pulsing of all frequencies is also unique to wind turbine noise. These factors make the study of noise or the characterization of noise in a health study very difficult. From MDH’s previous study of the issue, it was arguable whether dB(A) is the best measure of wind turbine noise. Certainly, more research into noise from turbines is needed. However, it is also clear that effects such as those postulated by Dr. Salt are extinguished at some distance from a turbine. Again, consideration of the general relationship between distance or modeled (dBA) noise, and annoyance or complaints when developing setback policy seems to be reasonable – as long as site-specific wind shear and sunlight flicker are also considered.

    MDH believes that development of policies that equitably reward people in communities where energy projects are proposed is important. I encourage you to work with your legislators, the Public Utilities Commission, the Office of Energy Security and your local officials to develop policies that are acceptable to your community. MDH is available to advise Minnesota state and local government officials and citizens on the potential health impacts of specific projects. We hope that the guidance and recommendations in the White Paper continue to be useful for developing policies that are protective of health.

  6. @Bob: I frankly haven’t heard much about stray voltage, and if you have some documentation to support the incidents you cite, I’d be happy to look at it. Obviously there’s a certain degree of risk any time you’re dealing with electrical lines, but I’m not sure how a wind farm would be any more dangerous than any other type of installation.

  7. Ah – sorry for misunderstanding. Again, I’ve not heard anything about this being an issue at existing wind farms. But if you’ve got more information, feel free to send me an email.

  8. Ken

    Did you check oput the website?

    If their is no problem why wont anybody talk about it?

    If you like i can send you are reconsideration motion that shows how many different folks at the state and the PUC we have aske about this and none will answer in writing. I don’t think you could get a electrical engineer to put in wtiting that the induced voltage 1500 feet from a dairy barn wont be a issue.

    This needs to be discussed.



  9. Send me whatever you’ve got – I’m happy to take a look. My email’s in the bio box in the upper right.

  10. I visited the site, but you need to be more specific as to the page or article on the site that you are referring to. They have a lot of information on the site. Please point to the exact page you are citing.

  11. I would think that most of us understand Faraday’s Principles of Induction; but Farmer Bob, you really need to be more specific as to your allegations of the occurrence of Induction with regard to wind turbines. Do you have citations to the data you are referring to? Actual measured events at actual turbines, and the negative results attributable and proven???
    Facts, my friend; Facts.