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Health effects of wind farms: summary of recent research

Health, Human impacts, Science, Wind turbines Add comments

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.

Drawing from studies done in areas where health concerns have been most widely reported, we’ll see that while some types of health problems may be more common near wind farms, most of the studies find little difference in overall health based on proximity to turbines.

And, where health effects are reported (primarily sleep disruption and stress-related symptoms), those who have been most diligent and open in assessing community responses estimate that health problems (whether direct or indirect) appear to crop up in no more than 5-15% of those living nearest; this is a surprisingly small number, considering the central role health effects has taken in the public perception and debate about new wind farms.  While we shouldn’t discount the impact on these people, it appears that fears of widespread health impacts may be misplaced.  Though impacts on even a few, whether direct or indirect, are certainly a valid consideration in making wind farm siting decisions, it’s helpful to have a clearer picture of how widespread the issue may be.

Just last week, a news report about a public presentation by Carmen Krogh of Ontario’s Society for Wind Vigilance, one of the major voices in the health-effects debate, starkly illustrated the disconnect between public fear and the message actually coming from the voices of caution.  I was struck to see that even as “the main concern” of the audience was the invisible dangers of infrasound and stray voltage, Krogh “focused on the stress affects of exposure and clinical annoyance. ‘We find that the number one complaint that people come forward with is sleep disturbance,’ she explained to the crowd.” While including the audience’s concerns in her assessment of five contributing factors, “Out of the five causes, Krogh focused on amplitude modulation (or the “swooshing” sounds) and audible low frequency…”  As you’ll read here, this is no anomaly; nearly all the sympathetic experts have a similarly grounded focus on audible noise, sleep disruption, and stress. While some researchers continue to investigate questions around infrasound levels and perception , the public focus on infrasound as a primary or central contributor to reported health issues is not reflected in the actual findings of those studying the issues most diligently.

With this in mind, I hope that this detailed look at recent papers on health effects near wind farms will help to clarify the scope of the issue, and to provide useful context for decision-makers who are struggling to make sense of the complex and contradictory information that advocates on both sides of the issue present to them. 
Investigating the health questionsIncreasing public concern about health impacts has spurred a slew of reports over the last three years from government entities and industry trade associations.

Most of the official health impact studies have actually been literature reviews of previous research on noise from many sources, and have focused on questions such as whether inaudible infrasound around wind farms is strong enough to cause a direct physical reaction in neighbors (and just in case you’ve been out of the loop: they universally find that it’s not).  I will not be summarizing these reports here; they’ve all been summarized previously by AEI , and as just mentioned, they generally steer clear of attempting to assess actual reported health effects, preferring to stay in the presumably more objective realm of published studies relating to noise and health in general. To the degree that they include studies of on-the-ground responses to wind turbines, they tend to note that the early studies are limited by relatively small sample sizes, which is true.  Still, we need to start somewhere, and as in most inquiries, the first investigations will tend to be smaller and more tentative.  In any case, the omission of detailed analyses of these literature reviews should not be viewed as an attempt to skew the evidence presented here, since AEI has covered them in depth, affirming their value while also noting their limitations.

Meanwhile, a few acousticians and epidemiologists have begun taking a look at what is occurring in communities where health impacts are being reported, and this paper will summarize the recent findings of these attempts to dig into actual community responses. It should be noted that a few governmental entities, including the nation of Japan  and the Province of Ontario , have initiated larger scale studies that will likely provide more comprehensive and statistically robust results over the next few years.  But for now, we do have several worthwhile papers that examine actual reported health effects that can begin to help us move beyond the current quagmire.

Not too surprisingly, we’ll discover that what these researchers are finding contradicts both the “all is well” literature survey findings, as well as the fear that worst-case scenarios – being driven from homes by lack of sleep, headaches, kids struggling in school – are likely to occur.   Rather, these studies take us beyond the cartoons of sunshine and disaster, and drop us right down into an uncomfortably murky zone in which the answers are no longer presented in easily-understood black and white, but rather in harder-to-decipher shades of grey.  The bottom line appears to be that this first wave of research, undertaken by relatively cautionary and empathetic researchers, is finding that just a small proportion of nearby residents are reporting actual health impacts, though far more report degradation of the overall quality of life and sense of place.

These studies use a diverse range of approaches and criteria, so can’t all be directly compared, or compiled to suggest global patterns, but each of them offers a clear window into particular communities’ responses to wind farms in their vicinity.  As noted earlier, while all of the papers reviewed here come from researchers with much interest in and empathy for reports from affected neighbors, none of them propose inaudible infrasound as a central factor in health effects; the first four papers all focus on stress and sleep factors, and the last two, while including infrasound in their discussions, focus mostly on other factors (one on pre-existing risk factors, and the other on pulses in the dBG level, which includes substantial audible low-frequency sound as well as infrasound).

Seeking a clear path through murky groundIn the face of the growing clamor about health impacts, taking a direct, clear look at these studies may help to local and state regulators to step out of the confusing cross-fire of opinions, and to focus on the task at hand: designing siting standards that reflect the local best sense of how to balance the potential local economic and national climate change benefits with the likelihood of a diminished rural quality of life for some local citizens, and possible or likely health effects for a few.  There is no one “right answer” to these questions, though wind promoters will suggest we must accept that we can’t expect everyone to be happy, and wind opponents will say that any new illness is one too many. Both have a point, and some towns will set standards that allow relatively close siting in the name of money for local schools or other priorities, while others will establish large setbacks that effectively keep wind development away.  Meanwhile, many towns or counties will aim to find a middle ground that tries to minimize impacts while leaving some avenues for development to occur, either at a moderately greater distance or by encouraging or requiring developers to make agreements with neighbors before building.

I think it’s important to preface our consideration of these studies by acknowledging a key factor that has hampered the ability of some within both the public and the industry to clearly address the possibility that neighbors have experienced legitimate changes in their health, whether by direct or indirect means. Many of those most vehemently stressing the potential for health impacts in areas where wind farms are proposed are fundamentally anti-wind, anti-renewables, and anti-government incentives; health impacts are but one of a litany of arguments they make against new wind farms, and many simply dismiss all their claims as distorted rhetoric. This can too often blind us to the fact that nearly all of the individuals who are telling us about their actual health impacts have no dog in the energy-policy fight; their personal stories are often compelling and sober accounts of struggling with unexpected and disabling sleep issues, disorientation, and mood disorders.  In my work with the Acoustic Ecology Institute, and in the papers that follow, the focus is on better understanding what’s going on with those reporting health effects around existing wind farms, rather than on the fears and opposition being raised in places where wind farms have yet to be built.

Alright then, let’s dive in.  The approach here will be similar to the one I took in my late 2011 summary of ten papers on low frequency noise ; I’ll address one paper at a time, while pointing out connections and contradictions between them.  We’ll be looking closely at the following seven publications, in addition to referring to several others in the final sections of this post :

Carl V. Phillips.  Properly Interpreting the Epidemiologic Evidence About the Health Effects of Industrial Wind Turbines on Nearby Residents. Bulletin of Science Technology & Society 2011 31: 303 DOI: 10.1177/0270467611412554

Daniel Shepherd et al. Evaluating the impact of wind turbine noise on health-related quality of life.  Noise & Health, September-October 2011, 13:54,333-9.

Daniel Shepherd, Witness Statement, Ontario MOE Environmental Review Tribunal, January 19, 2011.

Michael Nissenbaum, Jeff Aramini, Chris Hanning.  Adverse health effects of industrial wind turbines: a preliminary report.  10th International Congress on Noise as a Public Health Problem (ICBEN) 2011, London, UK.

Bob Thorne (Noise Measurement Services).  Wind Farm Noise Guidelines, 2011.

Nina Pierpont.  Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment.  2009.  Nina Pierpont.  Presentation to the Hammond (NY) Wind Committee, July 2010

Stephen E. Ambrose, Robert W. Rand. The Bruce McPherson Infrasound and Low Frequency Noise Study: Adverse health effects produced by large industrial wind turbines confirmed.  December 14, 2011.

See pdf of Wind Farm Noise and Health: Lay summary of new research released in 2011


One Response to “Health effects of wind farms: summary of recent research”

  1. Jane Harvey Says:

    Wind Farms maybe great for the environment but I guess if you live near one in the countryside, it kind of takes away the beauty of living in the countryside. You may as well live on or near an industrial estate. Just my opinion but I can see why the stress related symptoms are apparent.