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.