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Wind Farms and Health: It's Not Black or White

Anyone following the controversies surrounding wind farm siting policy over the past five years has surely been startled at the rapid escalation of concerns being voiced by residents near wind farms. After years of building wind farms in ranching communities with few if any complaints, we began to hear clusters of noise complaints about a few wind farms, especially in Wisconsin, New York, Ontario, and Maine. These complaints focused on the surprising intrusiveness of wind farm noise, and sometimes sleep disruption; nearly all of those having problems lived within a half-mile or so of turbines, with occasional issues being reported out to a mile or so.

Over the past two years, however, the focus of complaints has shifted from annoyance to claims of widespread health impacts among wind farm neighbors.

In response, a number of reports have been commissioned by states, counties, and trade associations, all of which cited decades of research that found noise only causes health effects at sound levels much higher than those around wind farms; each of these literature reviews has concluded that living near wind farms poses no health risk. Yet in communities around the country, neighbors are reporting headaches, dizziness, inability to concentrate, and other symptoms, which began after a nearby wind farm began operation, and which disappear when they go away from their homes; some have abandoned their homes in order to reclaim their health. How can we make sense of the apparently contradictory facts before us?

The gulf between the conclusions of formal health impact studies and the experiences of some neighbors has widened to the point that both "sides" consider the other to be inherently fraudulent. At a time when the wind industry is purportedly concentrating on building positive, constructive relationships with the communities where they hope to build, such mutual distrust and hostility is clearly counterproductive.

This disconnect might be bridged if both sides expanded their sights to acknowledge that not all health impacts occur through a direct cause and effect relationship. In fact, most epidemiologists would concur that it's rarely that simple. It appears increasingly likely that many of the symptoms being reported by wind farm neighbors are physiological responses to stress, anxiety, and often sleep disruption. Indeed, with few exceptions, the symptoms and their onset closely resemble those known to occur in response to chronic stress.

While clearly related to the presence of the turbines and their noise, the relationship between wind farms and health reports of neighbors may most often be an indirect one. In recent months, the dialogue around these issues has hardened, with neither side being willing to consider the implications of the likely indirect pathways by which new wind farms can affect the health of some nearby residents.

Both sides seem intent on painting the question in simple black and white—turbines “are making” people sick, or there’s “no evidence” that turbines make people sick.

Nearly all the formal health impact reports carefully qualify their findings by saying that there is no "direct, causal" relationship between wind farm noise and reports of health effects. Some of these reports, including a recent one from Massachusetts and the first one, commissioned by AWEA and CanWEA, briefly acknowledge that wind farm noise can cause annoyance, but decline to take the next step, to consider possible health-related effects of chronic annoyance. Others, including one from the state of Minnesota, and a recent one from the state of Oregon, look a bit deeper; the Oregon report, in particular, explicitly acknowledges the possible health repercussions of chronic stress triggered by exposure to wind farm noise, and even by the disruptive effects of heated controversy about a proposed wind farm in small, rural communities. Yet all of them come down in the end to the conclusion that health effects of wind turbine noise are unlikely, if not impossible.

These reports do not attempt to assess actual cases of people who feel their health has been affected by nearby wind farm; this omission, and their conclusions, infuriate those who are suffering, and foster a perception that health concerns are not being taken seriously. This sense of exclusion and predetermined conclusions by the powers that be will only increase the anxiety and stress in communities where wind farms get the go-ahead, based on such reports.

Meanwhile, community groups are increasingly using the possibility or likelihood of health impacts as a primary argument against any new wind farm proposal. These groups tend to imply that health effects are inevitable for anyone living within earshot of wind farms; they also stress that these effects are directly caused by wind turbine noise, often speculating that it is inaudible infrasound that is the culprit. This message, like the “no problem at all” message from the industry and state agencies, is likely to increase the stress and anxiety that may in fact be the actual primary trigger for health reactions.

When we look at the actual numbers, we find a situation that's not nearly as absolute as either side may like it to be. While we are sorely lacking in detailed surveys of communities around wind farms (a shocking deficiency, given the degree of controversy and distorted framing being imposed by both sides in the siting debate), we can get some sense of the scale of the problem by looking at the few studies that have been done, and the comments of some of those investigating these questions.

There have indeed been property owners who have abandoned their homes close to turbines, most of them after complaining of serious sleep disruption and other health problems. In some cases, the wind companies have bought their properties in exchange for an agreement to not discuss their experiences publicly. These are the worst-case scenarios that understandably trigger fears of the same in communities where new wind farms are proposed.  However, such drastic impacts are rare: such abandonments after turbines became operational appear to have occurred at less than a dozen wind farms worldwide.

By contrast, annoyance reactions, and impacts on quality of life or "rural amenity" can be quite widespread within the subset of population within earshot of turbines (i.e, out to a mile in or so). It doesn't appear to be uncommon in some types of rural communities for up to half of non-participating neighbors within a half-mile to feel severely disrupted by turbine noise, with ten or fifteen percent of those at greater distances who are hear some audible turbine sounds also feeling annoyed by this new presence in their landscape. For rural residents with deep connections and appreciation for their tranquil landscape, a new noise source that crops up unpredictably, day and night, could trigger a chronic stress response, especially among the quarter of the population that is more noise sensitive.

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As for how widespread health issues are, even most of the more cautionary researchers who have investigated “hot spots” of reported wind farm health impacts estimate that somewhere between 5-15% of neighbors within a mile or so may be reporting health effects, a rate that is scientifically considered modest but “non-trivial.”  That is, enough to be worthy of our attention. These may be those who are more sensitive in some way – to sound, air pressure fluctuations, or annoyance-induced stress.  These relatively low percentages may also remind us of the need to separate the equally important, and more widespread, impacts on quality of life and sense of place from the more dramatic but apparently less widespread question of acute or chronic health impacts.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no single dB limit that will settle wind farm siting controversies; it’s crucial that regulators take the next step, by learning from recent experience in order to better assess how likely it is that annoyance will be widespread in any given community. In communities where the new sound may be easily accommodated, higher noise limits and smaller setbacks work fine (as we find in ranching communities); in places where turbine sound is more likely to trigger negative reactions, the higher annoyance rates may lead to both more complaints as well as more stress, and thus health effects for some.

It would be remiss, in even a short overview of health effects, to omit mention of three other crucial points. 

First, we need to address two sides of an elephant in the health-effects room. It’s true that many of those making hay with the health issue are fundamentally anti-wind, anti-renewables, and anti-government incentives; health impacts are but one of a litany of arguments they make against new wind farms. This can too often blind us to the fact that nearly all of the individuals who are telling us about their actual health impacts have no dog in the energy-policy fight; their personal stories are often compelling and sober accounts of struggling with unexpected and disabling sleep issues, disorientation, and mood disorders.

Secondly, we should acknowledge the likelihood that some people are indeed being directly affected by turbine noise itself. There is undoubtedly a very small proportion of individuals who are more physiologically sensitive to sound, especially low-frequency or pulsing sound; for example, some veterans and others with inner-ear damage and balance issues have reported being especially sensitive to wind farm noise. And, there have been some reliable reports from non-residents (i.e., not coping with stress or annoyance from living near turbines) who experienced physical and mental effects shortly after arriving in the vicinity of operating turbines.  Among these are two acousticians who recently experienced a dramatic loss of concentration and focus within a half hour of arriving to do measurements of a turbine in Massachusetts, something that had never before occurred in decades of field work. They report indications of rapid fluctuations in low frequency sound, suggesting that typical sampling rates underestimate their peak levels; perhaps these rapid peaks cause some people to feel disoriented, or simply draw attention to the sound, triggering annoyance or stress.

By contrast, it’s also notable that in ranching country, where most residents are leaseholders and many live within a quarter to half mile of turbines, health complaints are effectively non-existent; some have suggested that this is evidence of an antidote to “wind turbine syndrome”: earning some money from the turbines.  More to the point, though, the equanimity with which turbine sound is accommodated in ranching communities again suggests that for those who see turbines as an unwelcome addition to a beloved landscape, stress and annoyance – rather than the physical effect of the sound itself – likely underlies many of the reported problems. 

Equally important to consider, ranchers who work around heavy equipment on a daily basis are also likely to be less noise sensitive than average, whereas people who live in the country for peace and quiet and solitude are likely more noise-sensitive than average. And, there are some indications that in flat ranching country, turbine noise levels may be more steady, less prone to atmospheric conditions that make turbines unpredictably louder or more intrusive.

Here we find ourselves once again at the crux point that needs to be factored in to wind farm siting standards: not every community will respond similarly to the new noise that wind farms undeniably add to the local soundscape.  While it’s an over-reach to claim that wind farms will directly make lots of citizens sick, it’s also specious to insist that all the reported health effects are completely unrelated to the presence of turbines.

Unfortunately, the rigidity and over-simplification of both sides’ approaches to the subtle factors that affect the diverse community responses to wind farms appears to be increasing the stress and anxiety that may, ironically, be the key factor in whether people end up having physiological or mood-related responses to the turbines.  It’s not as black or white as either side may wish to believe.

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