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

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