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Wind Turbines and Proximity to Homes: The Impact of Wind Turbine Noise on Health  

Author:  | Health, Human rights, Noise, U.K.

A review of the literature & discussion of the issues ~~

This paper addresses not only the issues of wind energy policy where it violates the basic living environment of families and the adverse health effects ofwind turbine noise, but also assesses the considerable number of anecdotal reports from people living with wind turbine noise. As noted in the authors’ 2007 paper, although there are many who dismiss anecdotal reports as inconsequential or meaningless, these reports are from real people, living with real problems, often with no recourse: they put ‘the human face on science’. The authors also examine how this translates into a human rights issue, as government policy assigns more credibility to acousticians’ reports than to medical evidence, and assigns more importance to renewable energy policy than to the individual lives injured by that policy.

The paper begins with a review of the acoustic impact of wind turbine noise reported by families and communities in the UK as well as similar cases in Japan, Australasia, the United States, Canada, and throughout Europe. This first chapter collates and details some of the evidence of recent reported cases and the extent of discomfort, distress, and health problems suffered by those families with prolonged exposure to wind turbine noise.

Chapter 2 examines the views of leading acoustic experts on the reasons that the acoustic ‘bombardment’ impacts people physically. This chapter also reviews the problems and complexities in interpreting the UK ETSU-R-97 guidance and subsequent apparent difficulty enforcing noise conditions that emerge from ETSU.

Chapter 3 discusses peer-reviewed medical research and reports from internationally recognised authorities, e.g., the World Health Organization, supporting the anecdotal evidence of health problems experienced by families living near wind turbines; these families endure the pulsating noise as well as prolonged exposure. There is also a growing body of evidence-based research substantiating the adverse health impacts of environmental noise pollution, particularly with extended exposure, of which wind turbine noise is an example.

As with many public health issues, the problems with wind turbine noise started with anecdotal reports where turbines were built too close to homes. These complaints emerged in a scattered pattern, because often the people affected did not associate the sudden onset of their sleep disturbances, headaches, or inability to concentrate with the noise. Most people were confident when told by the wind energy companies and their local officials that wind turbines were not intrusive, that the noise produced is easily masked by background noise, and that the noise compared favourably with familiar sounds, e.g., a home fridge, or a quiet conversation in the library. Initially, each affected person thought his or her new symptoms were unique.

As more complaints emerged from those who lived near newly operational wind turbine sites, and those who pinpointed the start of their newly identified health problems with the movement of the blades, some of those affected – and a few health professionals – suspected that the source of their problems might be associated with the noise generated by the wind turbines. This association seemed more likely because the victims’ symptoms were relieved when they were away from their homes or farms. Moreover, the symptoms recurred once they returned home. These patterns emerged only over time, and across many wind turbine areas, internationally. Chapter 3 also reviews several pilot studies conducted by physicians in order to assess the anecdotal reports of health effects from those living near wind turbines.

Chapter 4 considers basic international human rights, apparently sidestepped by Britain, as its environmental policy appears to assign greater priority to the protection of landscape, bats, dormice, and water voles (though the authors certainly applaud those efforts). The State appears to accord more importance to, and enforces with more stringency, those issues to the detriment of policy that protects the health and dignity of families. As a result, in their ambition to achieve renewable energy targets, public officials authorise what amounts to the degrading and inhuman treatment of families.

The influential wind energy industry and its lobbyists, public agencies, environmental organisations, and many media sources often employ pejorative labels, such as NIMBY – Not In My Backyard, to decry or stigmatise those who complain, as insensitive to environmental pollution and global warming, in order to dismiss these anecdotal reports. Yet, it is essential to remember that many of those affected by wind turbine noise were those same people who welcomed the wind turbine schemes and were skeptical of those who complained about potential or actual noise interference. Many early wind turbine noise studies focused on annoyance and identified sleep disturbance as a frequent problem, but these studies did not collect data on health effects. Public health problems often evolve gradually and become more evident only with the passage of time as more people are affected (duration of exposure).

UK government renewable energy policy has focused more on expanding the role of industrial wind turbines rather than ensuring the protection of the health of those exposed to wind turbine noise, i.e., the protection of the public’s health. Thus, the voices of those affected by wind turbine noise have grown more insistent as more wind turbine sites are located near homes and villages. The solution has always seemed transparently straightforward: locate wind turbines further from homes and other sensitive structures. Of course, one must then determine the optimum distance, and there lies the rub, with industry pushing for minimal distances, while many others seek a more precautionary stance, in an effort to protect health, well-being, dignity, and quality of life.

Wind turbine noise is a form of and another cause of environmental noise pollution. Recent studies, both medical and acoustic, offer data to assist with the decision on where to site and how to design wind turbine arrays. Notably, wind energy developers often assert that there are virtually no studies on wind turbine noise and no evidence of its ill effects. However, there are not only studies specifically on the adverse effects of wind turbine noise, there are also studies on noise with similar or shared acoustic characteristics. Wind turbine noise is especially complicated because of the ‘cocktail’ of physical acoustic characters that comprise the noise pollution. The pulsating noise, characteristic of wind turbines, can be more intrusive than other types of noise, and the pulsations include both audible and inaudible components, i.e., low frequency noise, infrasound, and vibration. Noise with these characteristics is more intrusive, and the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines recommend lowering the permissible decibel levels when noise contains these characteristics. WHO makes these recommendations not merely to reduce annoyance or nuisance. WHO makes these recommendations because epidemiological studies indicate clearly that environmental noise is prejudicial and injurious to health. [WHO 1999, 2010, 2011]

WHO’s impartial reports are particularly compelling because they undergo periodic review and updating by its international panel of experts from diverse, related fields. Moreover, the panel’s findings and reports undergo a process of stringent review internally amongst the panelists, as well as externally, by reviewers not on the panel. Most recently WHO issued Night Noise Guidelines for Europe 2009, and the Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise 2011, which, with EU directives and guidelines on noise, offer policy-makers and other invested parties with descriptions of how health is adversely affected by noise, as well as with methodologies to ameliorate or to prevent injury to health from environmental noise.

Those affected by wind turbine noise could be your relatives, friends, neighbours, and even – at some point – you. Often these are people who know austerity intimately, who understand the dilemma of balancing environmental issues such as energy supply and global warming with current policy and future demands. Instead, they are marginalised and made to feel doltish and selfish. They also feel disenfranchised and abandoned by those in whom they have placed their trust. This cynicism is not unfounded, as many are left financially impoverished as they seek advice and support in order to make their voices heard. The issue of wind turbine noise is about real people, who are genuinely suffering degrading and inhuman treatment.

Planning for industrial estates near dwellings is more restrictive on noise control, with those facilities rarely operating daily, 24/7, than the noise controls on wind turbines. Selecting a minimum distance of 2km as a buffer between homes and the placement of a wind turbine – though an even greater distance may be required – is not excessive when the lives and well-being of those affected are taken into account. There is still ample opportunity for developers to site their schemes more appropriately and for government to redress errors in policy that allow these untoward, unpredictable, and unacceptable effects.

Barbara J Frey, BA, MA (University of Minnesota)
Peter J Hadden, BSc (Est Man), FRICS

January 2012

Download original document: “Wind Turbines and Proximity to Homes: The Impact of Wind Turbine Noise on Health

This article is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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