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Another Round of “Wind Turbine Syndrome” Fever Hit the Press, Blogosphere

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A recent article in the UK newspaper The Independent has triggered an avalanche of commentary in the press and blogosphere about the possible health effects of living near wind farms; more is sure to come when Nina Pierpont’s Wind Turbine Syndrome book is finally published this fall. In the book, Pierpont posits a set of symptoms that can crop up in people exposed to wind turbine noise; she suspects that low frequency noise is the key factor, and that people with vestibular system imbalances may be especially prone to problems. UPDATE: The wind industry in the UK responded vehemently to the article, which was reprinted in several cities.

At its root, most of the hubbub centers around whether Dr. Pierpont’s research qualifies as science.  The fact that she’s publishing a book instead of journal articles is the first complaint, and relatively easy to understand from a scientific perspective.  But less valid are critiques that claim she used too small a number of people, or did not use “controls”; these complaints are based on a misunderstanding (or conscious misrepresentation) of her work. Much of the criticism is spurred by the perception that she is claiming that the health effects she cites are common, or are likely to occur near any and all wind farms.  As widely noted, wind farms are up and running around the world with little evidence of dire health effects.  However, just as anti-wind activists are clearly putting too much weight on her very preliminary research, so too are wind advocates being too quick to discount Pierpont’s study as hogwash.  More broadly, there is a risk that doubts about the validity of  a formal new “Wind Turbine Syndrome” or other low-frequency effects will distract both the public and policy-makers from the more concrete question of whether current wind farm setbacks adequately protect neighbors from sleeplessness, stress, and simpler, well-known effects of disturbances caused by audible noise.  I’ve been bouncing around the web in recent days, adding what I hope are thoughtful comments to newspaper and blog stories on the issue, and wanted to share some of my commentary here with you all as well:

It is important to remember that Pierpont is doing ONLY a “case series,” which is designed to see if there are common symptoms that can later be assessed more thoroughly (later studies, should the case series convince scientists to investigate further, would include looking at possible causes, how prevalent the problems are near wind farms, assessing whether the symptoms can be correlated with other factors besides wind farms, etc.).  Her report does take the first step of identifying—via post-hoc self-reporting, admittedly a weakness—a set of symptoms that apparently began with the commencement of nearby turbine noise, and ended when these people moved away.  She DID pick people highly affected (nearly all abandoned their homes), but this is how you zero in on the patterns that may indicate a particular response to a health stressor (in this case, moderate audible noise or inaudible low frequency noise).  She is quick to affirm that these symptoms are not common, even near wind farms.  However, as widely noted, her study was not designed to determine how common they are, or the degree of dose-response (ie how much more common symptoms are as noise increases).  Her work is just a very preliminary first step.  In that sense, it is indeed being run with more aggressively than may be warranted by some anti-wind activists.  But it is not, on its face, hogwash.

The key is not placing turbines too close to homes.  From my ongoing coverage of this issue (see AEI Special Report: Wind Turbine Noise Impacts and AEInews.org posts on wind), it seems clear that there are increasing numbers of folks between a half mile and mile from turbines who are having problems with audible noise disrupting their sleep, and in some cases, keeping them out of their yards during the day; in several extreme cases, people have abandoned their homes.  A recently released study by UK sleep expert Christopher Hanning highlights the sleep disturbance caused by noise that does not wake us, but causes “arousal” that disrupts normal restful sleep patterns.  I suspect this is a key to many of the issues, and it won’t be solved until the industry accepts the need to not push so close to homes (1000-1500 feet is a common setback).  I’ve seen lots of complaints at ranges of somewhat over a half mile, and virtually none from folks over a mile away….so there’s the sweet spot to aim for.  Far enough to minimize noise, close enough to not have economic issues with getting to transmission lines.  In some geological situations, low frequency noise may travel further and necessitate slightly larger setbacks.
Of course, wind direction affects how far the sound travels, so in some situations, it is likely easy enough to build closer.  Another key factor is that folks in rural areas have come to expect a more absolute level of quiet than those living near highways or airports, to which turbine noise is sometimes compared; this different expectation is not unreasonable, as these people have chosen to not live in the hubbub of urban life.  Early in my reading up on this issue, I came across a new acronym, a counterbalance to the well-known NIMBY, that can apply to many in the wind industry: WARYDU (We Are Right, You Don’t Understand).  They rely on their noise models to make the case that wind farms will not bother anyone closer than a quarter mile, or less.  What is needed is the recognition that audible sound from many wind farms is, at many different wind farms, disturbing people out to a half mile or mile (equivalent to 1 to 2km).  As Dr. Hanning notes at the end of his well-documented report, While it may be possible to produce a reasonable acoustically based theoretical approach to calculating set back distances (Kamperman and James 2008b), it makes more sense to rely on recommendations from observations of the effects on real people at established wind farms.”

3 Responses to “Another Round of “Wind Turbine Syndrome” Fever Hit the Press, Blogosphere”

  1. Wind Concerns Ontario, and the sun doesn’t? | Terahertz Says:

    […] Some sceptics admit it’s likely if the low frequency noise disrupts your sleep there’s some cause for concern, but agree that it shouldn’t be that hard to just limit turbines to a radius of a few kilometres from residences. […]

  2. wind turbines Says:

    The noisy problem of wind turbine could be solved by the vertical wind turbine or far away the wind farm in people’s living area.

  3. aeinews Says:

    Yes, Tony, for sure set backs are key. And, I have little doubt that new designs will get quieter. Vertical designs do have great promise, though so far are only used in smaller turbines, not big enough for commercial wind farms. Noise cancelation is also on the drawing boards. And some new design tweaks to quiet big blades, as well (the nubby humpback-whale inspired blades are interesting, though likely more expensive to construct).

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