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Film features the stories of Fairhaven wind farm neighbors

Health, Human impacts, Wind turbines Comments Off

Fairhaven Film ScreenshotA new film from Fairhaven, MA, features the compelling real-life experiences of several local residents who live close enough to the wind turbines to hear them on a regular basis.  The film, entitled Too Close, has a calm and caring tone, and is free of side-issues that can at times clutter the wind turbine siting debate (e.g., economic or carbon-reduction arguments), and focuses nearly solely on audible noise, with only a brief mention of infrasound.  Also, refreshingly, quality of life (including sleep disruption and intrusion in backyard solitude) is given as much or more attention as more acute health effects, and the film is free of the more alarming/alarmist claims that are featured in some other concerned citizen documents.

The 44-minute film can be viewed here.

There are just a couple of things I would add for context, which may be useful as you consider these stories from a range of “regular” people dealing with this new noise in their local soundscape.  First, though it’s mentioned in passing a couple of times, some of the issues, especially shadow flicker, but also noise for some more distant residents, are more problematic at particular times of year. For the closest residents, it can be daily or near-daily, while at other places, the problems may at times recede from the intensities described here.  When interviewees speak of things that happen “sometimes” or “some days”, it’s not always clear how commonly (how many days a month, hours a day, or months of the year) these experiences occur.

Also, as in every town with noise issues, these hardest-hit residents are a minority of nearby residents.  Surprisingly, few solid surveys exist to help us get a better sense of the proportion more severely affected, but some numbers from Fairhaven offer a sense of it.  There are just over 700 homes within 3000 feet, and residents of at least 56 of these have filed formal complaints; that would represent about 8% of homes, a small proportion, but a significant breadth of impact.  In this video, all or nearly all of the residents live significantly closer (950-2100ft); it’s quite likely that most of the complaints come from this closer zone, and that somewhere between 10-20% of closer homes have complained.  Also, we need to bear in mind that not everyone is comfortable publicly complaining; doubtlessly, more than 56 homes are experiencing issues similar to those discussed here.

A valid question can be raised about how high a proportion of negative impact is acceptable around any new infrastructure or industrial development.  Some will surely argue it’s reasonable to expect to impact 5-10% (or even 20%) of nearby residents, while providing social benefits for many more.  Yet, in a small town, when over 50 families are having their lives disrupted, it can cause a serious rupture in the local social environment; this “tearing the community apart” effect has been stressed in many other locales where noise became an issue.  As reasonable as it may be to suggest that “you can’t please everyone,” it’s also entirely valid for towns to consider the effects on their sense of local community if dozens of homeowners were to become aggrieved at a proposed new development.

All in all, this film provides a credible and compassionate look at the personal side of an issue that is often swept up into polarizing hyperbole and self-serving rhetoric from both sides.  

Victoria tribunal calls for more health effects evidence during 6-month pause before reaching wind farm permit decision

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CherryridgeA environmental planning Tribunal in Victoria, Australia recently completed 28 days of hearings about a proposed new wind farm above the Trawool Valley.  In a recent statement and preliminary report, the Tribunal noted that health effects were the central issue, and that the testimony presented left them still unable to make a clear determination about whether the wind farm will pose an undue impact on human well-being: “In summary the Tribunal has been made acutely conscious of the questions but finds itself in a less than satisfactory evidentiary vacuum regarding the answers.”

UPDATE, 11/27/13: The Tribunal has ruled that the wind farm can be built.  It will be the first new wind farm constructed since Victoria adopted a 2km setback standard.

The Tribunal notes that it found the evidence of health effects to be both consistent and convincing, though both the extent of the problem and the cause were far less clear. It also notes that many (though not all) of the health effects referred to in the literature occurred at distances of less than 2km, which is the statutory setback in effect in Victoria.  Getting more clarity on how common effects are beyond that distance appears to be at the heart of the Tribunal’s decision to postpone a decision for six months:

The Tribunal considers that the issue of health and wellbeing raises two distinct questions. The first question is whether there is a causal link between sound pressure emissions from wind turbines and adverse health effects on nearby residents. The link may be physiological or psychological. However, given that the respondents expressly disavow that the impact is psychological and that the so-called “nocebo effect” lacks any empirical basis, the inquiry in this case must be as to whether there is a physiological cause. In this regard Mr Cooper hypothesised that wind turbines may emit a particular low frequency “signature” that gives rise to the problem.

One difficulty facing the satisfactory resolution of this question is that there appears to be no overlap of expertise between the acousticians and the health experts. The acousticians can measure the noise but are unable to say what effect it has on human health. The health experts can identify the health issues but are unable to connect those issues with particular levels of noise or sound pressure. It is this that creates the need for interdisciplinary studies.

If the first question produces an affirmative answer, the second and equally important question is what is the incidence of health problems amongst the nearby residential population, and how does that incidence vary or attenuate with distance from the wind turbines. Obviously the problem must be given greater weight by decision makers if 50 per cent of the population surrounding a wind farm is affected rather than 5 per cent.

The full statement linked above (which also has a long section on noise annoyance and sound limits), and an excerpt containing the section on health and well-being, paint a pretty solid and concise picture of the Tribunal’s quandary.  The South Australian EPA is conducting a study around the Waterloo wind farm in the next couple of months that may help answer at least some of the questions, and the Tribunal is eagerly awaiting these results.  It has also invited both sides in the dispute to submit further information that contribute some of that interdisciplinary insight mentioned above.  

UPDATE, 10/23/13: The next round of evidence will be presented to the Tribunal, as requested, this week.

Recent psychological papers may impact participation in Ontario wind farm survey

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A surge of widely-publicized papers purporting to show that those complaining about wind farm noise are being unduly influenced by expectations of harm, or have personalities that are easily upset, may be fostering distrust among residents of Ontario who are randomly selected to participate in an upcoming large-scale survey funded by the provincial government and an ongoing 5-year study by University of Waterloo researchers.

This post, for example, notes that “mischaracterizations are coming out from all around,” and encourages residents to beware of any new surveys that appear to be asking questions about one’s overall quality of life or any annoyances other than wind farms.  The concern seems to be that general quality of life or attitudinal/psychological questions can contribute to the sorts of extreme claims that have filled the press recently, suggesting that “nocebo” type effects are the primary cause of health symptoms and annoyance complaints.  A detailed comment in the post includes a letter sent by one resident who returned a recent University of Waterloo survey without completing it, noting that “questions appear to be constructed in a manner that can be manipulated to achieve any desired result.” Here’s another site that similarly characterizes the UW survey as a political and wind industry sham.

All of these surveys, in order to be representative, need to have responses from a representative sample of both people being bothered and those who are not bothered.  Here, as in some previous research local efforts, distrust has grown to the point that those most affected may not participate.  While for many of those being kept awake or otherwise affected by nearby turbines, the question at hand appears very simple—the turbines are the issue, and they affect me—a useful survey will need to do more than simply ask about turbine health effects.  There are a lot of contributing factors, and it can be useful to consider many of them.  

While such surveys may be subject to misleading interpretations at times, the fact is that surveys and studies are always interpreted differently by those on opposite sides of the issue—where one side sees proof of their supposition, the other sees vague results, poorly designed data collection, or exaggerated significance.  It’s clear that both the idea that turbine noise has nothing to do with the problems being reported, and the idea that turbine noise is inevitably harmful for those living nearby, are overstating what studies and surveys have found. Still, such disputed studies provide raw data that can help quantify the extent of issues and become valuable sources of clear information for those on both sides of the issue, and especially for local decision-makers. 

In particular, if those most affected decline to participate in the Ontario studies, these surveys will come to conclusions that far fewer people are bothered by noise than are, in fact, affected.  This can’t be good for anyone.  Rather than fear the possible misinterpretations, it would be better to help assure that these surveys obtain results that reflect the actual extent of the noise problem.

UPDATE, 4/15/13: Some area residents are telling the University of Waterloo researchers that it’s already too late to measure pre-construction stress and other health markers.  This study is meant to provide a “before and after” picture of local sleep and overall well-being.  But, according to  an article in Niagara This Week, residents question whether it will do so:

“You’re not starting in the right place,” resident Debbie Hughes told Bigelow, during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. “We are already affected by the turbines. Our stress is already high.”

A dozen residents, all opposing wind turbines, shared similar messages. “It’s too late, two years too late,” said Helen Kzan, wearing an NRWC receptor 2418 bib. “I’ve been to the doctor. They told me to move.  My stress level has skyrocketed. My physician told me my stress will kill me before the wind turbines.”

While what the locals are calling “the pre-stress level” is likely already be elevated, it would still seem likely that the study could identify any trends in sleep disruption and more widespread stress that may be caused by the noise of the turbines once they’re built (at least, if those affected choose to respond to surveys). The whole situation highlights the ambiguities that exist in trying to determine the cause of any health effects that do occur.

Do negative expectations cause wind turbine health effects? (AEI analysis and commentary)

Health, Human impacts, Science, Wind turbines 5 Comments »

AEI lay summary of:

  • Simon Chapman, Alexis St. George, Karen Waller.  2013. Spatio-temporal differences in the history of health and noise complaints about Australian wind farms: evidence for the psychogenic, “communicated disease” hypothesis. Download this paper (pdf)
  • Crichton, F., Dodd, G., Schmid, G., Gamble, G., & Petrie, K. J. (2013, March 11). Can Expectations Produce Symptoms From Infrasound Associated With Wind Turbines? Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031760 Read/download this paper (Scribd)

Click here to download a 12p PDF version of this extended post 

If the detail in this post is more than you can tackle, I encourage you to take a look at the first several paragraphs through the brief assessments, then click through and scroll all the way down to the final few paragraphs, which look beyond these two particular studies and reflect on the health effects issue and its role in the larger debate over wind farm siting 

In Australia, the debate about wind farm siting standards has ramped up beyond what we’ve seen in the US and Canada.  Several states have adopted more precautionary setbacks (2km, with some options for closer siting), and this has spurred some pushback from wind energy advocates.  Meanwhile, the Waubra Foundation has become a central repository for information on negative impacts, and has released a series of reports and statements highlighting health effects and home abandonments, while calling for an even more precautionary 10km setback standard.

Recently, two reports were released in Australia that have garnered worldwide attention for their claim that health effects around wind farms are caused primarily by negative expectations promulgated via the web and local chapters of groups such as Waubra.  One of these is a formal study published in the journal Health Psychology by a team from the University of Aukland, and the other is the latest (and most comprehensive) paper from Simon Chapman, a University of Sydney Professor of Public Health and outspoken skeptic about wind farm health claims.  

I’ve long been concerned that the adamantly contradictory statements of both wind advocates and concerned citizens groups are likely to be inadvertently contributing to anxiety and stress among wind farm neighbors, which could well be a major contributor to many of the most widespread health effects (especially headaches and sleep troubles).  These new papers are investigating plausible psychological factors, and both studies add some useful new insights; however, similar to my assessment of a recent peer-reviewed article touted as proof of health effects, digging into these two papers reveals data that is far less clear-cut and absolute than the conclusions drawn by the researchers, and especially as reflected in the simplified popular press accounts of the studies. 

The short version of my assessment of these papers:
The Chapman paper gathers a wealth of information about complaint rates around all the wind farms in Australia, and taken at face value, makes an apparently convincing case for Chapman’s preferred hypothesis about the differences he finds: that the presence of local and national groups harping on possible health effects is the proximate cause of health complaints, and indeed, for the actual appearance of the symptoms themselves among wind farm neighbors.  But Chapman’s insistence that the negative influence of “anti wind farm groups” can totally explain away all the noise problems is ludicrous. His paper frames all his data through this one lens, and makes no effort to consider other possible contributors to the differences he finds in complaint levels. At the same time, his inclusion of existing public health research on the nocebo effect and studies of psychologically-mediated responses to perceived environmental threats is a welcome addition to our consideration of wind farm noise issues; still, as I begin to dig into the actual academic studies that he cites, they seem to be at best suggestive of modest contributing factors, rather than offering data that’s strong enough to be posited as the sole or primary explanations for most noise complaints.

For example, the Crichton paper finds that expectations of negative health effects can create a statistically significant increase in the number and severity of symptoms reported by study subjects exposed to infrasound (and to sham infrasound).  However, the actual data shows only moderate changes in reported health responses, especially in symptom severity, rather than a dramatic difference between the subjects primed with negative expectations and those who were given reassuring information prior to exposure to the sounds.  The average severity of symptoms, rated on a scale of 0-6, averaged 1.67 for the group primed to expect no health effects, and an only slightly higher 1.94-2.13 among those primed to expect negative impacts—a far cry from the intolerable responses being reported by some wind farm neighbors.

Despite the fact that these papers don’t contain a “smoking gun” that explains away negative health effects, as wind advocates may be claiming, their findings can be seen as a likely part of the story.  The small differences found in the Crichton study may be due to averaging over all participants; perhaps some individuals responded more dramatically than her data shows; a stronger effect on some individuals could be embedded in the similarly subtle yet statistically significant trends in the Nissenbaum study that found worse sleep and psychological health among those closer to wind farms.  And the Chapman paper reminds us that those reporting health effects remain a small minority, even in areas with substantial community outcry.  As AEI has often mentioned, even empathetic researchers tend to suggest that significant health effects occur in only 5-10% of the nearby population; as discussed below, a divide is emerging between those who feel that such small numbers reflect insignificant impacts, and those who feel that we can and should avoid or better minimize such effects by increasing setbacks.

A local example of health effects: While statistical or laboratory studies can provide valuable insights, they can also distance us from the actual experiences under consideration. In Falmouth, MA, dozens of turbine neighbors have had enough sleep and health issues that the town is considering removing two turbines.  A bit over 10% of those living within a half mile have filed formal complaints; in some directions, 25% or more have had problems.  This recent article features quotes from a couple of these neighbors (including one, Neil Anderson, who is a longtime renewable energy supporter), and from state and local wind advocates.

Click on through for a more complete summary of these papers, and AEI’s current reflections on the health effects controversies

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Cooperative Wisconsin turbine noise study breaks new ground

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In December, four acoustic consulting firms collaborated to study wind turbine noise at three Brown County, Wisconsin homes that had been abandoned by their owners after the nearby Shirley Wind Project began operations.  The study, organized by regional environmental group Clean Wisconsin and paid for by the state Public Regulatory Commission, will help inform the PRC’s consideration of a proposed new wind farm in the area.  

Two things stand out about this new study.  The first is the choice to bring together several acousticians who have previously been widely cited by opposite sides of the turbine siting debate. The study team included one firm  (Hessler and Associates) commonly hired to do sound assessments for wind developers, another (Rand Acoustics) that has become widely championed by concerned citizens groups because of its much more cautionary assessment of turbine noise, and a third (Schomer and Associates) whose work has often been in the middle ground, with particular papers being seized on by each side in the siting debate; the fourth firm (Channel Islands Acoustics) has worked much less on wind farm issues than the other three.  This diverse group of acousticians produced a 13-page consensus report (edited to 12 pages in the final version submitted to the PSC), along with an appendix report from each team, all of which focus on different aspects of the study that they found most compelling. 

The second virtue of this study is that it clearly documented, for the first time, specific sources of infrasound (sound at frequencies below 20Hz) and low-frequency noise (audible sound above about 20Hz) from turbines that are consistently measurable inside homes. The data they collected clearly showed peaks in the sound spectrum that correspond to the “blade passing frequency” (BPF) of just under 1Hz, or one pulse per second, and several harmonics of the BPF up to about 5Hz.  These pulses showed up both inside and outside the closest home, 1280 ft from the nearest turbine.  In addition, they measured a more modest infrasound and low-frequency peak at 15-30Hz, which reflects the natural resonance and flexibility of typical home construction; this peak may have been triggered by turbine sound or by wind or other outdoor sound sources. One of the acousticians, Rand, notes in his appendix a possibly corresponding pulse of outdoor sound in the 9-14Hz range that can be associated with inflow turbulence hitting turbines.  Still, the infrasound that was measured in this study, as in most other similar measurements of wind turbine noise, is at lower dB levels than what is typically considered perceptible by humans. (Ed. note: two emerging yet still limited bodies of work suggest that turbine infrasound may have rapid peaks that approach standard perceptual thresholds, and that our ears may respond physiologically to sounds at lower levels than are perceived; nothing in this Wisconsin study address these questions, though later analysis of the data may contribute to the study of short-term peaks.)

Since the study took place in homes that were abandoned by homeowners who all complained of debilitating health effects, including sleeplessness, nausea, and depression, part of the goal of the study was to see whether they could identify any possible acoustic triggers for these negative responses.  The authors collectively noted that “the issue is complex and relatively new” and concluded that this work “was extremely helpful and a good start to uncover the cause of such severe adverse impact reported at this site.”  

The consensus report, signed by all members of the team, introduces a new hypothesis, based on a US Navy study that found that vibrations can trigger nausea in pilots when in the frequency range of up to 0.5-0.9 Hz, with the peak “nauseogenicity” occurring at 0.2 Hz.  Of particular concern is that as turbine blades get longer, the BPF is being reduced; only the recent generation of turbines has dropped below 1Hz (thus perhaps helping to explain the recent surge of health complaints among a subset of turbine neighbors), and planned larger blades will drop close to that 0.2Hz range of maximum inducement of nausea.  While stressing that this is, as yet, a very preliminary supposition, especially since it involves a study based on physically vibrating the body, while turbine infrasound is a vibration of the air around a body, the authors still agreed that:

The four investigating firms are of the opinion that enough evidence and hypotheses have been given herein to classify LFN and infrasound as a serious issue, possibly affecting the future of the industry. It should be addressed beyond the present practice of showing that wind turbine levels are magnitudes below the threshold of hearing at low frequencies.

In particular, the research team agreed that a further literature search for studies related to vibration-induced nausea should take place (Paul Schomer is working on this), and that a “threshold of perception” test should be conducted, to see what proportion of residents are able to perceive the faint signals in either audible or infrasonic ranges.  Only one of the five acousticians, Rand, could detect sound at all residences; he also reported headache and/or nausea (it is also noted that he is the only one among the five researchers who suffers from motion sickness).

As often happens, the reaction to this study ranged from “this changes everything” to “this is nothing new,” with some saying it proves negative effects and others that it proves wind energy is safe.  For a run-down of the reactions, a brief look at each of the four appendices, and links to download the study, click on through… 

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New paper quantifies sleep, mental health effects near wind farms

Health, Human impacts, Wind turbines 5 Comments »

AEI lay summary:
Nissenbaum, Aramini, Hanning. Effects of industrial wind turbine noise on sleep and health.  Noise & Health, September-October 2012, Volume 14:60, 237-43  Online access

A paper recently published in the journal Noise & Health is getting a fair amount of notice in the media; this article from The Telegraph is perhaps the most detailed coverage, noting that “the findings provide the clearest evidence yet to support long-standing complaints from people living near turbines that the sound from their rotating blades disrupts sleep patterns and causes stress-related conditions.”  This article from Ontario includes comments from co-author Jeffery Aramini and Canadian government and wind industry spokespeople.

SEE UPDATE AT BOTTOM OF POST re: Critique of this study contracted by AWEA/CanWEA and released on November 14. 

The recent paper is the formal published version of research previously presented at a 2011 conference, and summarized by AEI earlier this year.  The study employed three widely-used health questionnaires – Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) to assess sleep quality, Epworth Sleepiness Score (ESS) to assess daytime alertness, and the SF36 for general mental and physical health – to compare sleep and health among 38 people living within 4600 feet of two wind farms in Maine to that of 41 people living in the same areas, but 2-4 miles from turbines. The authors conclude that “the levels of sleep disruption and the daytime consequences of increased sleepiness, together with the impairment of mental health, strongly suggest that the noise from industrial wind turbines results in similar health impacts as other causes of excessive environmental noise….Industrial wind turbine noise is more annoying than road, rail and aircraft noise, for the same sound pressure, presumably due to its impulsive character. This has led to an underestimation of the potential for adverse health effects of industrial wind turbines.”

The paper is being hailed as solid peer-reviewed proof of sleep and health effects of living near wind farms, though its findings appear less dramatic than the reporting.  It certainly does add some important, solid data that will be helpful in quantifying what have been largely anecdotal complaints and case reports.  A similarly rigorous survey in New Zealand, using a related WHO health-related quality of life questionnaire, was published in Noise & Health last year by Daniel Shepherd (also included in the AEI summary noted above).

While the new study found average sleep impairment and daytime sleepiness to be higher among those living closer to turbines, and the average “Mental Component Score” of the health assessment being lower among turbine neighbors, the data shows moderate trend lines, rather than dramatic differences.  Below is the data for the PSQI (lower scores reflect better sleep):

Nissenbaum PSQI WEB500

As you can see, there is a wide scatter of sleep quality – from the top to bottom of the scale – both among turbine neighbors and those living far from turbines.  This dramatic individual variability is, I’m sure, typical of the population in general, and so any trend line at all is a finding of note.  Still, there appears to be little indication that sleep quality is strikingly worse among neighbors, with the difference being apparent as a modest shift in the average.

The impact on sleep was most significant on those living closest (within 750 meters/2460 feet), where the average PSQI was 8.7, as compared to a PSQI of 5.6 among those living the farthest (over 5300m/3.3miles); there was a much smaller difference between the two middle groups (average PSQI of 7.0 at a 2500-4600 feet versus 6.6 at 2-3 miles). More striking perhaps is that 78% of the nearest neighbors, and 66% of the entire neighbor group, had a PSQI above 5, considered a threshold of concern, as compared to just 44% of those living over 2 miles from turbines (because of the wide scatter, the overall 66/44 difference was not statistically significant).  Even more notable may be that 12 (32%) of those within a mile had scores of 10 or more, as compared to only 6 (15%) of those over 2 miles.

Sleep disruption is widely considered a primary precursor for stress and other health effects, including headaches, emotional instability, difficulty concentrating, and possibly higher blood pressure. While this study did not find that those living closer to turbines have any notable difference in the Physical Component Scores (which includes pain, vitality, and physical function), they did find a reduction in the Mental Component Score, which assesses social functioning and emotional problems. As you can see below, while again the trend line shows a modest shift in the average scores, here the distribution of scores is quite dramatically shifted among those living closer:

Nissenbaum MCS WEB500

The overall average MCS was 42 among turbine neighbors, and 53 among those living at a distance; both lie well within the 35-60 range that is considered typical of most people.  Those with scores below 30 are at significantly increased risk of clinical depression and need of mental health care; as you can see, the likelihood of this is much higher among those living closer to turbines.  We might note as well, though, that there is a solid cluster of turbine neighbors with high MCS scores, which reminds us that negative effects are far from universal. Still, just half as many people closer to turbines score over 60, the point considered a threshold of extremely solid mental health; similarly, only 7 (18%) of neighbors score over 55, as compared to 20 (49%) of more distant residents.

This study is an important step forward in our assessment of sleep and health effects around wind turbines.  It’s a stretch to tout the results as “proof of health effects,” as some of the press coverage implies, as the results don’t show dramatic or inevitable effects on sleep, and in fact no difference in overall physical health. However, the study provides quantitative confirmation that living near turbines can have measurable effects, and lays the groundwork for follow up studies.   As the authors note in their conclusion, this kind of study needs to be replicated more widely to prove causation, and “further research is needed to determine at what distances risks become negligible, as well as to better estimate the proportion of the population suffering from adverse effects at a given distance.”  Here’s hoping that studies like this and Shepherd’s will indeed spur continued research that moves our body of knowledge forward.

And one more finding of note: Among people living 2400-4600 feet (.45-.87 miles)from turbines, 35% said their sleep is worse at home than it is when they go away from the turbines.  But twice as many, 70%, said they wish they could move away from the area (78% of those living closer than 2400 feet would also like to leave their homes).  This is yet another reminder (as confirmed by the Shepherd study) that severe impacts on quality of life and sense of place are often much more common than are health effects.  (In addition to the intrusion on rural sense of home and place for many, impairment of rural quality of life could well trigger to the stress that may underlie some of the health effects.)  While it’s important to keep digging to clarify the extent and mechanisms of sleep and health effects, we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger, and in some ways more fundamental, questions about rural quality of life.

UPDATE, 11/16/12: Well, that didn’t take long. AWEA and CanWEA (the US and Canadian wind industry trade associations) commissioned an Ontario environmental sciences firm to  review the Nissenbaum et al study; the authors critique the methods and findings as reported.  You can see the critique here, or download a version with my comments (some of which agree with the critique, and some of which question whether technical issues really reflect shortcomings in practice). After years of stressing that there’s no data to suggest a relationship between wind farms and sleep or health effects, it seems important to the industry to shoot down the under-funded research that’s taking place where community response has been notable.  While it’s certainly valid to point out shortcomings in any research that’s out there, the same degree of diligence is rarely applied toward pointing out the limitations in the studies being cited as indications that health effects are no great concern.  This rapid critique is an example of the current internet-driven trend toward waging science by press release (again, not without some justification, since this study is being widely touted as “proof” by anti-wind activists). More useful would be the funding of solid epidemiological studies of health and sleep around operating wind farms, including some where complaints are common and some where complaints are rare.

Health Canada launches 2-yr, 2000-person study of wind farm health effects

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Health Canada, the country’s health department, is preparing to launch a study of health effects among residents near wind farms.  The study as currently planned will be based on interviews and physiological measurements of 2000 people living near wind farms of 8-12 turbines.  Each participant will fill out a self-reported health survey, and will be tested for stress hormones, blood pressure, and sleep patterns.  Study subjects will live from under 500 meters from turbines to over 5km.

The research design and methodology has just been made public, and is open for public comment until August 8.  Among the key methods outlined, with my initial thoughts in brackets:

  • Sleep patterns will be monitored using wrist-worn devices for seven consecutive nights. [Will this be long enough to capture sleep-disruption trends, if they exist?  It would be good to ask study participants who self-report sleep disruption whether the week chosen for testing was representative of their worst weeks, average weeks, or below-average weeks, in terms of sleep quality.  A pilot study will examine the usefulness of adding a sleep diary to the full study protocol; this should be encouraged as a way to assess sleep patterns over a longer period of time, ideally including seasonal differences.]
  • Sound levels will largely be modeled based on measured sound levels near the turbines, including sound into the infrasonic range; these models will be validated in the field at distances of up to 5km. [It would be good to know the full range of frequencies that will be modeled and measured.  In addition, medium- to long-term validation measurements in the field would be useful, in order to capture a better sense how often worst-case noise periods may occur; such events may be relatively rare or seasonal but be important elements in community response, especially stress responses.  Models to be utilized should be based on recent studies that have found lower frequency elements of wind turbine noise often attenuate at a lower rate than higher frequencies; this is especially important in considering any possible effects of audible low frequency sound at distances of a kilometer/half mile or more.)
  • Sampling out to 5km (3.1 miles) will allow researchers to generate a dose-response curve based on the sound levels of the turbines.  [5km is probably a decent distance to use for an effective control, in that turbines are nearly always inaudible at such a distance.  I would hope that the study design can assure that there are enough subjects at close range, especially within 1km (.6 miles) and 2km (1.25 mi). to be sure that any reported and measured health effects will be statistically significant.  While I appreciate the need to have statistical significance at all distances, "wasting" too many subjects at greater distances could make it more difficult to be sure of any effects found at the distances where they appear to be more common, and at which there is apt to be a greater range and complexity of responses.]
  • [While a dose-response relationship is a foundation of many health effects, there are many other factors that tend to make individuals more or less susceptible to whatever health stressor is being studied.  It would be helpful to include assessment of some of the factors that could be contributors to a health effect from wind farm noise, including noise sensitivity, pre-existing vestibular issues, and susceptibility to motion sickness, among others.]

Massachusetts towns address turbine noise issues

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A trio of towns in southeastern Massachusetts continue to address turbine noise issues in response to neighbor complaints about sleep disruption and health effects near small wind farms of three to four turbines each.  

In Falmouth, which was the first of the towns to have turbines begin operating close to homes, the affected neighbors have joined a committee charged with coming up with a set of options to present to the Selectmen, hopefully in time for the November town meeting.  

Across the bay in Fairhaven, where even more people live within a half mile or so of turbines that began operating this spring, the Board of Health has received over a hundred complaints, and asked the developer to submit a plan for how he might be able to reduce noise and flicker issues; the first response, received this week, was more focused on doubting the veracity of the complaints.  Sumul Shah, the developer, stressed that nearly two-thirds of the 132 complaints had come from either plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the town seeking to dismantle the turbines or others who had publicly voiced their opposition to the turbines before they were operational, suggesting that since some others seem to tolerate the noise, those complaining should be able to also.  Ed. note: Indeed, many nearby neighbors objected to the turbines as they were being permitted, based on the problems that had cropped up in nearby Falmouth.  The fact that some of these same people are now experiencing noise issues should not come as much of a surprise to anyone; about fifty of the complaints have come from people not involved in either effort to stop the turbines.

Board of Health member Barbara Acksen said she was appalled by Shah’s letter, saying “We were not at all pleased with the report. He should just be responding to the data and not casting aspersions on people who complain,” she said. “You can’t just say ‘Well, these people didn’t like the turbines before so their complaints don’t matter.'”  Shah says that he can’t consider mitigation options until it’s determined whether the turbines are out of compliance with state or local noise statutes; the state DEP will begin noise tests sometime in the coming month. it appears that this may become another in a series of projects in which a wind farm may operate largely or totally within its permitted noise criteria, while still causing widespread noise issues for neighbors.  This situations suggest that many noise standards may not be sufficient in communities used to peace and quiet, yet home to a moderate density of homes.

Meanwhile, in Kingston, residents continue to express dismay at turbines that began operating earlier this year.  Chris Dewitt said his heart aches at the impact these turbines have had on his family and his neighbors. He said he personally has been woken up early in the morning, around 3:30 a.m. one day and 4 a.m. the next, because of the noise of the turbines. “This is not sustainable,” he said. “Think about this decision in respect to the people.”

One of the more revealing comments I’ve seen lately about living near turbines was in a comment submitted to the paper that ran the Fairhaven story:

I live 2/3rds of a mile away from them. Not a day doesn’t go by I don’t hear them. Not 1. I say again 2/3rds of a mile away! How loud do they need to be for them to be heard at that distance – constantly? Most nights the noise isn’t loud enough to keep me awake. Sometimes it is. So it is my experience that the people who live much closer have a very very legitimate complaint. I can’t imagine living closer to them.

(Update alert): Queensland Health joins other Australian govts in recommending 2km (1.2 mi) wind farm setbacks

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UPDATE, 5/31/12: The article in The Australian that spurred this post has triggered a quick back-and-forth in the couple days since it was published.  First,  this article implied it was nothing more than a renegade staffer speaking without understanding the issue, quoting a Queensland Health spokesman as saying the Department has not issued any new guidance on wind farms, and insisting that a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) short “rapid review” statement remains the relevant document.  But this was quickly followed by a very clear statement from the Chairman of the NHMRC team currently doing a more in-depth study of the issue of health issues near wind farms; the Chair, Bruce Armstrong, affirmed that it’s “entirely appropriate to adopt the precautionary principle where it is neither possible to say with any certainty there is a problem nor is it possible to exclude with any certainty the existence of a problem.” And, a further statement from Queensland Health also endorsed the letter, saying “Our letter to the Tablelands Council was to advise council of the NHMRC guidelines and the fact that these guidelines are being reviewed by NHMRC.”

The author of the original letter, David Sellars, is a Director in the Environmental Health Branch, which deals with “health risk assessments of environmental hazards,”  and currently directs the Tropical Regional Services office, which focuses on health of populations, rather than individuals.  So, it appears the Mr. Sellars was not operating outside his area of responsibility.  It remains unclear whether, as stated in the “Climate Spectator” column that ran the initial “retraction” of the statement, Mr. Sellars well-versed in the state of research on the issue.  The second Departmental statement certainly confirms it’s more than his personal opinion. 

So, with all that in mind, here’s the bit that triggered such a quick and chaotic response:

Queensland Health has become the first government health agency to recommend a “cautionary” approach to wind farm siting, urging the Tablelands Regional Council to maintain a 2km (1.25 mi) buffer between new wind turbines and residences.  Tablelands is considering an application for an 80-turbine wind farm, nine of which are within 2km of homes.

Despite the fact that the proposed Mount Emerald wind farm would meet existing noise criteria, Queensland Health noted that “Research into the potential health effects of wind turbines is ongoing and is being undertaken on an international scale.”  A 2km setback would likely nearly eliminate health effects triggered by sleep disruption and greatly reduce stress-related health effects that have been increasingly reported by some residents living near wind farms.  Many wind farm neighbors also note physical sensations that they attribute to infrasound and low frequency noise, which would be also be reduced at 2km.

Queensland Health’s director of environmental health, David Sellars, said the National Health and Medical Research Council was reviewing its position on the possible health effects of wind turbines and was aiming to release a public statement by the end of the year. “Queensland Health would be likely to be guided by the NHMRC statement, resulting from this research,” he said. “Until such time, Tablelands Regional Council is encouraged to take a precautionary approach to development applications of this type.”

Mr Sellars noted that the Victorian governments recently adopted planning guidelines, which ban wind turbines within 2km of homes, could be considered current best practice from a cautionary perspective. New South Wales is currently considering similar draft guidelines, and in South Australia, noise levels are limited to 35dB in areas “primarily intended for rural living,” which in effect creates nearly as much setback from homes.

Further update, 5/31/12: The Mayor of Tablelands has said that it’s likely the local council will await the publication of the new, more comprehensive report from the NHMRC before making a decision on local wind farm siting standards. “I think councillors would be very interested to see the outcomes of that before they vote on anything,” said Mayor Rosa Lee Long.

Meanwhile, Ratch Australia, the developers behind the Mt Emerald wind farm proposal, insist there is no rationale for the 2km set-backs enforced elsewhere in the country.  “Every site is unique and there is no scientific consideration that justifies the set-back,” the company said in a written statement.

(Ed. note: There is no scientific justification for any common setback standards that govern exactly how far from homes wind turbines can be placed; if it was only about pure science, noise limits would be based on levels that cause physical injury, such as those used in workplace safety laws.  Rather, wind farm siting standards are based on local tolerance for noise nuisances, which can never be scientifically determined (though of course we can, over time, get a sense from experience elsewhere to help inform new decisions).  2km standards are generally based on the idea that turbines will only rarely be heard beyond that distance at levels that cause strong annoyance or sleep disruption; the same could be said for other possible distances, since of course topography and atmospheric conditions lead to differences in sound propagation.  A reasonable case could be made for any distance from 500m to 3km, depending on how far an ordinance is trying to go toward minimizing the sound level of turbines at homes.  2km is aiming to avoid sound levels loud enough to be intrusive to the more sensitive among local residents, while in most locations, it will not mean turbines are always inaudible.)

Health effects of wind farms: summary of recent research

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Here we go again!  As in AEI’s similarly long recap of 2011 research on low frequency noise and infrasound published in December, I’ve tackled a similar task with close to a dozen papers published in 2011 on health effects of living near wind farms.  Rather than publish the entire thing as a blog post, I’ve created a 26-page PDF that can be downloaded or viewed online.  Here, I’ll reprint the 4-page introduction (note that even the intro has many important footnotes viewable only in the PDF version).
See pdf of Wind Farm Noise and Health: Lay summary of new research released in 2011

In February of this year, I wrote a column for the Renewable Energy World website that addressed the recent increase in claims that wind farms are causing negative health effects among nearby neighbors.  The column suggested that while many of the symptoms being reported are clearly related to the presence of the turbines and their noise, the relationship between wind farms and health effects may most often (though not always) be an indirect one, as many of the symptoms cropping up are ones that are widely triggered by chronic stress. In recent months, the dialogue around these issues has hardened, with both sides seemingly intent on painting the question in simple black and white—community groups assert that turbines “are making” people sick, while government and industry reports insist that there’s “no evidence” that turbines can or do make people sick. 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.  I suggested that the rigidity of both sides’ approach to this subtle and complex issue is likely increasing the stress and anxiety within wind farms communities that may in fact be the actual primary trigger for health reactions.

Here, I’ll expand on that shorter column by taking a closer look at the few surveys and studies that have attempted to directly assess the prevalence of health effects around wind farms, including a detailed look at recent papers from Carl Phillips, Daniel Shepherd, Bob Thorne, Michael Nissenbaum, Nina Pierpont, and Stephen Ambrose and Robert Rand, along with consideration of publications from Eja Pedersen, Frits van den Berg, Geoff Leventhall, Roel Bakker, and the Waubra Foundation.

Even as the public becomes increasingly concerned about health effects, with a lot of focus on the role of inaudible infrasound, it’s been striking to me to that the researchers investigating health effects – even clearly sympathetic researchers – are not talking about infrasound much at all, and are instead focusing on stress-related symptoms.

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Wind farm health, historian featured in my recent Renewable Energy World pieces

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This winter, I had a couple pieces published by Renewable Energy World that I neglected to link to here.  They’re both typical AEI looks at wind energy: seeking the sweet spot in which wind power generation can continue to become a bigger part of our energy mix, while avoiding negative impacts on nearby neighbors.

The first was a piece highlighting the recently published history of wind power, written by Robert Righter, which I also covered in this earlier post.  Righter, who wrote an earlier history of wind in the 90s, is a big booster of the industry, which makes his strong and repeated calls to avoid siting close to unwilling neighbors all the more striking, and powerful.  He doesn’t come out with a setback distance he’d recommend, but at one point seems to suggest it would likely be in the range of a mile or more, at least in some situations.  Read that piece on Renewable Energy World here.

And, a couple weeks later, they ran a longer-than-usual piece on health effects being reported near wind farms.  I’ll have a long post here in the next couple weeks that takes a close look at recent research in communities being especially affected by wind farms, most by clearly cautionary researchers.  Perhaps surprisingly to some wind activists, even most of these highlight the stress-related symptoms being reported, with very little emphasis on direct exposure impacts; they also tend to estimate that health effects are likely to be occurring in a relatively small minority of folks within a mile or so (the estimates range from 5-20%), often a subset of the much larger proportion reporting significant annoyance.

As always, these REW pieces generate a lot of engaged commenters; check out the comment streams for more from many perspectives.  This link shows all the articles I’ve published on REW.

 

5-yr wind farm health study begins in Ontario

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Researchers from the University of Waterloo are planning to begin canvassing several Ontario counties this spring, marking the beginning of a multi-year effort to assess health-related changes in the vicinity of wind farms.  The research program in Renewable Energy Technologies and Health will include a wide array of scientific, technological, and health-related topics surrounding wind, solar, hydro, and bio-energy. The health-related surveys will be overseen by epidemiologist Philip Bigelow, who has spearheaded similar projects assessing appropriate noise thresholds for other common community noise sources.

Bigelow“This one is actually a little different,” says Bigelow, “because you have this continuous noise and you have the wind changing, of course, but you have this continuous thumping and swishing, and that’s really irritating to people.”  Bigelow notes that, “when you average it all out, wind turbines are going to be worse than traffic noise for annoyance, and that’s already been well established because of the character of it.”

To balance the study, a group of people who don’t live anywhere near turbines will be included. Bigelow said the team ideally hopes to study people in areas where turbines are planned, then follow up with them after the turbines are up and running. “Those people we really want to follow up with.”

The study will assess low frequency and audible noises as well as vibration; field measurements of turbine noise will take place, with an extensive GPS mapping component, as well. After an initial round of surveys, Phase Two of the research will involve bringing in a registered nurse and physician to head a field study.  “They will actually go talk to residents and administer a symptom and physical impact checklist,” said Bigelow.  “They will then do an assessment and collect some biological materials like saliva to look for biological stress,” including sleep studies that will measure both awakening and non-waking arousals.  Phase Two will involve a smaller sampling of residents identified during the Phase One surveys.

The eventual value of this study will depend on how successful researchers are at achieving a representative sample of local residents.  This will require both researchers and citizens to come at it with as open a mind as possible.  Bigelow’s introductory comments to local newspapers, as quoted above (see the two links in the first sentence for much more), indicate an good understanding of the situation, including the roles of annoyance, stress, and sleep disruption; one comment mentioned in passing needs clarification, though.  The Owen Sun-Times noted that he said he wanted to find participants who don’t have an agenda; while I can understand this concern, due to the extreme polarization triggered by the issue across rural Ontario, I would hope and expect that the study would involve a truly random sample, and not exclude people who are upset because of symptoms that may have cropped up for them.  Equally troubling, at least one other health survey in Ontario was met with widespread distrust among those with health concerns, leading some to urge residents to not participate.  If either the researchers or anti-wind activists limit participation by the significant proportion of the population that has previously been engaged in this issue, the integrity of the survey’s results would likely be affected.

 

Oregon “Health Impact Assessment” addresses key indirect wind farm noise impacts

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The Oregon Health Authority has released a draft of its first “Strategic Health Impact Assessment on Wind Energy Development in Oregon.”  The approach taken by Oregon health officials marks a subtle but significant departure from previous government reports on the topic.  Most fundamentally, rather than being simply a literature review of past studies, this paper is a first attempt to sketch out the parameters by which health impacts of specific projects might later be assessed.  The hope is that a final HIA would provide a basic understanding and framework that could allow future specific developments to look at local details, rather than repeating this big-picture overview.  While it’s not all that clear how this framework for understanding the possible direct and indirect health effects will be used to actually assess on-the-ground responses in communities, the paper is notable for inclusion of several indirect pathways by which annoyance and sleep disruption can lead to physiological impacts, and also for its consideration of the impact of community discord on stress and well-being.

To begin with, the authors emphasize that “HIAs are guided by the World Health Organization’s definition of health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.'”  At the same time, the report makes clear that completely avoiding all health effects is not necessarily the goal, recognizing that economic development and public health are not in opposition to each other, but mutually inter-related, so that “the long-term public interest is best served when the interdependence of these goals is recognized and balanced through a process that empowers people to shape their lives and communities.”  This investigation has particular timeliness in many Oregon communities, given that Oregon’s current 2500MW of wind capacity will double when projects under construction or approved are completed, and would more than triple if those in the permitting process now are built out.

The report follows many others in finding that direct impact on the body from the sound levels commonly received around wind farms is not likely, and that infrasound is generally below levels that are likely to be perceived.  But unlike other reports, which often simply mention that annoyance is possible in response to audible wind farm sound, this one looks more closely at the health effects of stress and annoyance.  In particular, it concludes: “Sound from wind energy facilities in Oregon could potentially impact people’s health and well-being if it increases sound levels by more than 10dBA, or results in long-term outdoor community sound levels above 35-40dBA.”   And further: “The potential impacts from wind turbine sound could range from moderate disturbance to serious annoyance, sleep disturbance and decreased quality of life.  Chronic stress and sleep disturbance could increase risks for cardiovascular disease, decreased immune function, endocrine disorders, mental illness, and other effects.  Many of the possible long-term health effects may result from or be exacerbated by sleep disturbance from night-time wind turbine sound.”

Especially notable in this report is an entire section on “community conflict,” and the conclusion that “Community conflict over controversial siting or environmental decisions may contribute to or exacerbate this stress, and thus increase the risks of these negative health effects,” and that “rural communities may be disproportionately impacted by community-level conflicts because these conflicts may erode traditional sources of social and interactional support that community members rely on.”

Also strikingly, the report acknowledges that sound levels “at or near” regulatory limits can trigger these effects.  Therefore, it recommends that “planners should evaluate and implement strategies to minimize sound generation from wind turbines when outdoor sound levels are at or near Oregon’s standard for wind turbine noise,” and suggest close consideration of site-specific factors that can affect sound propagation and perceived loudness, especially at night.  The idea appears to be that this site-specific analysis can help to minimize the error factors in more generalized sound modeling (which can routinely lead to brief periods of sound well above that suggested by the models), thus reducing the likelihood of excess or “just at the limit” sound events.

These and other considerations of subtle, indirect effects, as well as differences in noise sensitivity and responses to wind farms among both individuals and communities, make this report far more comprehensive than most that have come before.  It does not, however, make a case that all these impacts or health effects are necessarily likely to occur at levels that would preclude wind development.  I recommend you read it in full to get a better sense of the overall context within which these innovative perspectives are included.

In particular, the report stresses that long-term average sound remains the best predictor of annoyance and thus possible health effects; it notes an EPA recommendation that if a sound source is new to an area, 5dB should be added to its sound output in assessing likely negative community responses, though again notes that problems are related to 5-10dBA increases in 24-hour sound averages caused by turbines, more so than short-term increases in sound.

And, while noting that “a small number of epidemiological studies have linked wind turbine noise to increased annoyance, feelings of stress and irritation, sleep disturbance, and decreased quality of life,” with “annoyance from wind turbine noise…more likely when levels exceed 35-40dBA,” the report also stresses that except for some sleep disruption and reports of lower energy, people closer to turbines may report a lower sense of how healthy they perceive their environment to be, or lower satisfaction with living conditions, but that there is generally “no difference between the two groups for social, psychological, and general health-related quality of life.”  Still the report acknowledges the role (and limitations) of case series reports, which are more often simply dismissed by other similar reports.  Finally, the report stresses the contributing role played by general attitudes toward the wind energy development, and encourages an open process that provides opportunities for widespread public engagement and a clear process for reporting noise or health issues if they arise, as well as urging developers to outline and communicate proposed mitigation techniques that can be employed should problems arise.

Oregon’s draft HIA can be downloaded here as a pdf; comments are being accepted through March 30 at this website.

Illinois forum addresses wind farm health issues, gag orders

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A brief article from a local paper in Illinois shed some new light on two key issues that have come up in many communities considering new wind farm proposals.  The meeting of the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals featured an hour-long presentation from Carl Phillips, an epidemiologist who has published a peer-reviewed study saying there is “overwhelming evidence” of health effects near turbines. He said that people up to two miles away have reported health issues such as sleep and stress issues and mood disorders.  When asked what percentage of residents report health problems, he said that there have not been solid studies of that, but that his best guess, based on what research has been done, is about 5 percent of those within a mile or so. This relatively low estimate may surprise some, but such reports from many wind farms lead Phillips to conclude that anyone denying health effects exist is ignoring the evidence or “trying to mislead.” And, even this low estimate was challenged by representatives from Mainstream Renewable Power, who characterized Phillips’ presentation as “personal hypotheses.” (Ed. note: the continuing effort of industry representatives to discredit suggestion of any problems at all, including Phillips’ modest 5% estimate, or recordings that reflect higher levels of sound or amplitude modulation than expected, has become a major impediment to constructive engagement on wind farm siting decisions; ongoing diligent study by more cautionary experts deserves to be given more credence.)

In addition, the mayor of the village of Lee asked representatives of Mainstream whether confidentiality agreements signed by landowners leasing land for turbines will prevent them from discussing any health problems that they may notice once the turbines are operating–reflecting a widespread concern that health problems may be under-reported due to such agreements.  One Mainstream rep spurred laughter from the audience when he said he couldn’t talk about what the confidentiality agreements address, since they’re “inherently confidential.” But another Mainstream rep stressed that the agreements do not preclude talking about health. (Ed. note: Many confidentiality agreements with landowners are primarily designed to keep financial details private; this is especially true when a house is bought by developers.)

Ontario tribunal denies health effect appeal, urges further study

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An Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal has ruled that the Kent Breeze Wind Farm can be built, denying an appeal by the a local resident and a community group that challenged the wind farm’s permits, largely on the basis of health effects that it may cause among nearby residents. Since Kent Breeze is the first wind farm to be approved under Ontario’s new green energy development rules, this was seen as a key to near-term wind development in the province.

The Tribunal’s 223-page ruling provides a fascinating, in-depth look at the state of current wind farm science and policy; many pages are devoted to the testimony of each of the witnesses, which included well-known researchers with a wide range of viewpoints, including Rick James, Geoff Levanthall, Christopher Hanning, Robert Colby, and many others.  I highly recommend that anyone interested in these issues download the full report and give it a look.

An article in the Windsor Star includes predictable responses from all concerned. “We are pleased with the decision of the tribunal,” said Jennifer Lomas, spokesperson for Suncor, the developer. “In terms of the alleged health concerns, we are committed to understanding the interaction of our operations and the environment. We meet all operating standards for these projects, this includes strict compliance to regulatory (rules).” Meanwhile, John Laforet, head of Wind Concerns Ontario, stressed that “(The tribunal) said there were risks and uncertainties. We aren’t debating whether there is a problem or not, but whether there is responsible development. We want believable studies and setbacks based on the outcomes of those studies…We are hopeful this ruling, while it’s a battle lost, it’s a step toward winning the war provincewide.”

Indeed, the Tribunal stressed in its ruling that “It is hoped that the legitimate debates surrounding the effects of turbines will spawn further independent research to the point that some of the challenges posed in this Hearing will be reduced over time.”   Futher, “The Tribunal accepts that indirect (health) effects are a complex matter and that there is no reason to ignore serious effects that have a psychological component.” This is a stark contrast to the CanWEA/AWEA health effects study, which focused nearly solely on direct health impacts, dismissed indirect effects triggered by annoyance, stress, or sleep disruption as insignificant or subjective, and concluded that there was scant reason to look deeper at the issue.

Click on through below the fold for AEI’s in-depth summation of the key points made in the full ruling.

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AEI is not a “wind objector”

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Thanks to Google News’ nifty customized news sections, I hear about articles worldwide that contain terms interesting to AEI, such as “ocean noise,” “wind turbine noise,” and, yup, “Acoustic Ecology.”  Yesterday I saw that David Colby, one of the authors of the widely-read report on wind turbine health effects, had responded to an article that questioned his integrity on that project.  It sounded like his self-defense was justified, but for some reasons in his defense he noted that while AEI had critiqued the report, our comments should be disregarded because we are “wind objectors.”

Well, having invested considerable time and effort in establishing a reputation as an honest broker of the science and policy debates surrounding various noise-related environmental issues (with DOE’s NEWEEP, NOAA, US Navy, Canadian DFO, and others affirming that by inviting my participation in public and private workshops and working groups), I was rather offended by his characterization.  I quickly submitted a letter to the editor noting that AEI believes wind energy is an important part of our energy future, and that our focus on noise issues has from the start been focused on the idea that if impacts on nearby neighbors are not taken seriously, the future growth of the industry will be jeopardized.  In several road trips over the past year, I’ve come across large wind farms in Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, all of which were truly impressive and made a lot of sense on the landscape where they were.  Nearly without exception, they were also miles from any homes.  It’s only as we move wind farms into rural areas that are not primarily working landscapes that we’re finding a significant proportion of folks within a half mile or mile saying that their quality of life is being affected by the noise (which is, in my experience, nearly always clearly audible at a half mile, and barely audible at greater distances).

Here’s my brief letter in defense of AEI’s balance, and here’s AEI’s initial critique that Colby refers to, which seems to me to be quite measured, and in fact supportive of much of what they found.

Ontario wind farm buys 4 homes from residents unable to live with the noise

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Suncor and Acciona Energy recently purchased four homes near the 38-turbine Ripley Wind Power Project, buying out several neighbors who had been pushing the companies to deal with noise issues at their homes.

According to The Kincardine News:

The Ripley-area residents had approached municipal council in 2009 about a rash of health problems, “including high blood pressure, headaches, sleep disturbances, the sensation of bugs crawling on the skin, humming in the head, non-stop ringing in the ears and heart palpitations,” they believed were caused by their proximity to the project.

“We take the concerns of all our stakeholders seriously,” said Acciona’s Paul Austin, adding they’ve been working with local stakeholders to answer questions and understand their concerns since the project began. “After a prolonged period of consultation that involved a number of third-party studies and tests, it was agreed upon that the only solution that could meet the needs of this small group of local landowners was to purchase their homes.”  Austin also stressed that the buyout was not linked to health issues, or, more precisely, he said that  “no link between the operation of our Ripley Wind Power Project and the health concerns of our neighbours could be discovered, and so no damages were awarded or necessary.” (ie, no damages were paid; yet the houses were purchased)

Interestingly, the sales prices were significant, yet appear to be something that the developers feel they can take on as part of the cost of doing business in this area: the homes were purchased at agreed-upon market rates of $230K, $250K, $165K, and $400K. (see this post for link to real estate sales records obtained by a local anti-wind group)

 

Americans hear better now than 40 years ago

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Researchers have determined that Americans between 25 and 64 years old hear better than their grandparents did at the same age.  Comparing research done in 1959-1962 with similar studies in 1999-2004, it appears that upper-frequency hearing is notably better than it used to be; middle-frequency hearing is roughly the same.

Researchers suspect that a combination of better treatment of childhood ear infections, fewer smokers and better health care in general, and a reduction in manufacturing jobs (as well as better hearing protection in today’s workplaces) have led to the improvement.

The reduction in upper-frequency hearing loss is especially important in speech recognition.

Women from three generations converse (NIDCD)

Women from three generations converse (NIDCD)

For more, see this NIDCD press release and this post on About.com that includes several related links.

Vermont listens to two approaches to wind farm noise

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An article from Vermont offers an unusually detailed and complete report on a Public Service Board hearing about noise at a proposed wind farm in Lowell.  I highly recommend it.

The article summarizes the testimony of two noise experts, each of whom was proposing what they felt was a proper conservative noise limit; the article presents each approach quite well, and gives a good sense of the judgment calls that regulators are being asked to make about wind farm noise.

Les Blomberg urged a 35dB standard at property lines, which would help keep noise levels low enough for folks to put a chair in the yard and relax.  He used an EPA technique to suggest that turbine noise should be regulated to a lower sound level than other noise sources.

Ken Kalinsky proposed a 45dB standard outside the home, which would protect against sleep disruption, and not limit outdoor conversation, though may interfere with quieter outdoor activities such as listening to songbirds.  He said that 45dB is more conservative a limit than those used in many other places, notably the World Health Organization standard for protecting health.

Now go read the whole article!

NIH-funded study finds possible mechanism behind some people’s sensitivity to infrasound

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Alec Salt, a Washington University scientist who studies the inner ear, has discovered that outer ear cells may respond to very low frequency infrasound, well below the frequencies that are audible or otherwise consciously perceptible.  Salt suggests that his discovery may help explain why some individuals seem to be more dramatically affected by low frequency wind turbine noise than would be expected.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and other Communicative Disorders, is a literature survey that looks especially at the physiological responses of guinea pigs exposed to infrasound down to 5Hz.  Humans can generally hear sounds as low as 20Hz; sounds below this frequency are called infrasound.  Guinea pigs are often used in lab studies, since their hearing mechanisms are similar to those in humans; in fact, human ears are more sensitive to low frequencies than are guinea pigs.  The crux of his findings center on the ways that hair-like cells in our ears, the Outer Hair Cells (OHCs) and Inner Hair Cells (IHCs), work together to translate sound pressure at various frequencies into the perception of sound in our brain.  For audible frequencies, the OHCs amplify the vibrations they receive from sound waves, triggering hair-like structures on the IECs to ripple and bend; it is this movement of IHCs that create the electrical (neural) impulses that our brain perceives as sound.

The surprise in Salt’s study was that OHCs also react to infrasound.  Rather than, as might be expected, simply not being affected by infrasound, OHCs are “highly sensitive” to it, Read the rest of this entry »

Ontario wind tech and health research chair named–background is solid in tech, weak on health

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Electrical engineer Siva Sivoththaman has been named to the newly-created Ontario provincial Research Chair in Renewable Energy Technologies and Health.  Local activist groups that have raised concerns about the effects of wind farm noise on neighbors had hoped that this position, created as part of Ontario’s new Green Energy Act, would take the lead in formally investigating the negative health effects some neighbors of wind farms have reported.  However, the choice appears to be more oriented toward the technology aspect of the Chair’s responsibilities.  As noted in the request for proposals: “The Chair in Renewable Energy Technologies and Health will focus first on emerging science and technology related to wind turbines, and then will explore the potential health effects from renewable energy.”

According to a news release, “Dr. Sivoththaman will bring focus to multi-disciplinary activities in renewable energy technologies and health, ensuring that health and safety are top priorities in the induction of new technologies. His research program will develop new technical approaches and will provide guidelines in setting standards to ensure health and safety in the manufacturing, use, and end-of-life phases of renewable energy technologies.” Sivoththaman’s research centres on silicon-based crystalline and thin-film photovoltaic devices, and he serves as director of the Centre for Photovoltaic Systems and Devices, which occupies much of the photovoltaic research building beside Matthews Hall. His interest extends to nanocrystalline semiconductors, and he was the first director of the University of Waterloo’s nanotechnology engineering program when it was launched in 2004.

Two leading Ontario wind activist groups expressed their disappointment with the choice; Wind Concerns Ontario said “We have no faith in any meaningful body of evidence being produced on health effects from wind turbines by this government-funded non expert and Ontarians will suffer for it,” while the Society for Wind Vigilance chair Dr. Robert McMurtry said the choice missed the mark in that “the lead and expertise of this Research Chair would more appropriately have been a clinician scientist. We strongly encourage the new Chair to seek the appropriate collaborators as the research program is established.”

It is as yet unclear what the Chair’s timeline will be in addressing the dual (and quite distinct) topics he is charged with overseeing.  Given the widespread concern about health effects, and the role this concern is playing in the wind development process in Ontario and elsewhere, we hope that the two topics will be pursued simultaneously.  And indeed, as McMurtry suggests, it is clear that the Chair will need to bring in some experts in health and acoustics to effectively address the health aspects; in the spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness, we can also hope that his research/investigative team draws from qualified experts who have expressed concerns about wind noise, as well as those who have previously worked on reports that found few health effects.

Japanese Environment Ministry to begin nationwide survey of health effects near wind farms

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The Japanese Environment Ministry is gearing up for the April launch of a nationwide field survey around all 1500 wind turbines in operation in the country.  Prompted by health complaints by some neighbors, the survey will the first such comprehensive study of the question; low frequency and audible noise will be recorded, to see whether there is any correlation between these sounds and the reported effects.  According to the ministry plan, the survey will first ascertain whether there have been problems reported in the vicinity of wind turbines. If residents complain of health problems, their symptoms will be examined. Measuring equipment will be placed in their homes to find out the relationship between the turbines and health problems. The distance between the turbines and homes as well as geographical features of the area will also be examined. About 30 of the nation’s 376 wind farms (1-20 turbines each) have prompted formal complaints to date.  For more, see this Japanese news report.

Wind industry study says no health effects – but omits any mention of sleep disruption

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A report issued by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) purports to assess all currently available research on the health effects associated with exposure to wind farm noise, and concludes that there are no such problems.  The report, funded by North America’s two key wind industry trade organizations, centers on the symptoms of the reported “wind turbine syndrome,” and while it offers a robust critique of the idea that low frequency noise from wind farms can cause direct health impacts, it’s hard to take its message of wind’s “clean bill of health” at face value, thanks to many topics that are ignored or underplayed.  The report minimizes the levels of annoyance and impacts on quality of life reported in other studies, and completely omits any assessment of the most widely reported health-related impact of living near wind farms, sleep disruption. (For more complete assessments of health-related issues related to wind farms and noise, see recent reports from the Minnesota Department of Health report and World Health Organization.)

The authors of the new AWEA/CanWEA report acknowledge that some people may be annoyed by the sounds of wind turbines, but stress that annoyance is not an “adverse health effect.”  They also seem intent on assuring that any mention of annoyance rates is kept to 10% or below, which necessitates some creative re-interpretation of one of their key sources, a recent paper by Eja Pederson that compiled results from three surveys near wind farms in Scandinavia, summarized in October by AEI. In particular, they combine results from two studies in rural areas and one in a suburban area, which Pederson explicitly presented separately, because they illustrate that annoyance rates are far higher in rural areas (since the suburban study had more participants, the overall average is dominated by the suburban results).  In AEI’s view (as regular readers will know), the bottom line in all annoyance studies is that while many (or even most) people who are within earshot of wind turbines are not strongly affected by the noise, a substantial minority (ranging from 5-40% depending on how close they live) are negatively impacted, sometimes to the point of abandoning their homes; our challenge is to decide how many people we feel OK disrupting, and regulating wind farm siting to match that choice.

The report also repeatedly states that “the sound emitted by wind turbines is not unique,” while it elsewhere briefly acknowledges the often fluctuating nature of turbine noise (amplitude modulation) and its role

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Excellent 3-part series on wind turbine noise in Ontario

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In Dufferin County, Ontario, the Orangeville Banner recently ran a very well-written and balanced three-part series on that region’s ongoing controversies over noise from wind farms.  The piece makes very clear both the extent of noise-related disruption felt by some residents (including the first official acknowledgement I’ve seen that the wind farm developer did indeed buy out at least two nearby neighbors who could not adapt to the turbines’ presence), and the larger context that is also a consistent feature of the issue: that the majority of neighbors are not having any particular troubles with the turbines and their noise. The 133-turbine Melancthon EcoPower Centre has spurred recurring noise problems for 17 households, out of 300 that the company calls “neighbors.”  It is not clear whether those bothered are concentrated closer to turbines, or how far from the wind farm households are being included in the 300 number.

Helen Fraser and her husband, Bruce, sold their long time home to Canadian Hydro Developers in 2007, after the couple started experiencing symptoms they attribute to nearby wind turbines. (click for full story)

Helen Fraser and her husband, Bruce, sold their long time home to Canadian Hydro Developers in 2007 (click for full story)

The first of the three articles focuses on several people who have experienced noise problems, including sleep disruption and resultant stress.  While the scientific literature does not show clear cause-and-effect, in which increasing noise or proximity of wind turbines leads predictably to health issues, the utility and the local mayor both say that the complaints received are convincing. “I think when you look at people and the chronologies they’ve put together Read the rest of this entry »

AEI Updates Special Report on Wind Energy Noise Impacts

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Just a quick note to say that I did the first major update to AEI’s Special Report on wind farm noise today.  I added several key new pieces that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog.  The report aims for AEI’s typical sweet spot of providing a comprehensive yet concise overview of all the key issues, presented in a balanced way, with links to source material and advocates on all sides of the issue. The report can be viewed online here, or downloaded as a 33-page pdf here.