Can wind turbines be harmful to your health? If so, how? And if not, are those complaining about adverse health effects just malingering, lazy malcontents who make themselves sick by thinking about turbines, as the wind industry would have us believe?
Recently re-discovered findings on infrasound and its effects on living organisms, especially humans, may provide valuable insight into what’s happening to people with wind turbine syndrome.
We all know that very loud audible sound can damage our hearing. At wavelengths above normal human hearing range, audible to dogs and used by bats to navigate and find prey, there is minimal effect beyond the immediate vicinity of the source. A dog whistle is impressive, in spite of its limited range, because it is so effective where we humans cannot hear it.
But what of infrasound, of lower, longer wavelength, which humans can’t hear, though pilot whales and elephants can? Have we been neglecting it because it is not part of our normal evolutionary repertoire? How bad is it?
The short answer is, very. An infrasound stun gun, made in Sweden, will immobilize (or worse) anyone in just seconds. A dose of infrasound can make anyone sick in just five minutes. That’s proven and easily verified. It’s not all bad news though. Elephants use it to communicate over a 10-to-20 km distance. Whales use it to communicate over hundreds of km. Nuclear subs also use it to communicate, as well as track each other and locate enemy subs by the unique infrasound signature made by their propellers.
Needless to say, there is no shortage of scientific research on infrasound, much of it classified.
Were you carsick as a child? That’s infrasound. Not everyone is affected and you probably grew out of it. You were not a marine in Vietnam, sitting in the open door of a large chopper, wearing big ear protectors, a machine-gun in front. Many of these marines got nauseated and beset with headaches, courtesy of the infrasound from the rotors above them.
The ear protectors were useless against it, as infrasound does not enter by the ears but through the entire body.
When a Swedish company tried to market an infrasound stun gun in the 1990s, Claude Renard, a retired professor from the military naval academy in France wrote that this was a very dangerous idea.
That’s because infrasound (IS) affects soft tissue: brain
(headaches, inability to concentrate), liver, digestive tract , probably inner ear (nausea and vomiting). Humans, not being elephants, don’t cope well with IS.
This phenomenon, Renard mentioned, also shows up in sick building syndrome -usually encountered in brand-new very large complexes such as hospitals and office buildings where monstrous ventilation systems are cranking out — you guessed it — infrasound.
These buildings are often rebuilt, redesigned, with extra ventilation to clear suspected chemical vapours from carpets, curtains, particleboard. The most susceptible people are reassigned elsewhere.
Reading Prof. Renard’s report tweaked a memory: I was living in Chatham in the 1980s when the Judy Lamarsh Federal Building was opened there, soon to be closed again after many staff fell mysteriously ill. The solution -increased ventilation -was only partly effective. From what we know infrasound was not only a culprit, but likely the number one culprit.
How ironic it would be if the “fix” worked because the fan-speed was increased, thus turning infrasound into audible sound, a mere nuisance. It’s an interesting conjecture.
Now let’s connect the dots between what’s known about infrasound and what is now known as wind turbine syndrome.
Professor Renard did just that a few years ago when wind-turbines were slated to be installed in his region of France. He re-issued his earlier paper in shorter form to state that the then-existing minimum distances were hugely inadequate.
When the French Academy of Sciences later recommended that minimum distances be increased to 1.5 km, he commented that he was pleased, but that no-one seemed to be getting the message that infrasound is the problem, not audible sound. It’s taking us all a while.
So, where is the proof? How do we get from a stun gun or a five-minute exposure in a lab to the effect of wind turbines and their actual effects in the field?
Start with the symptoms. In all of the above-mentioned instances, including wind turbines, the reported symptoms are identical: nausea, headaches, lack of sleep, inability to concentrate. It’s the evidence of many straws in the wind.
But that isn’t scientific proof, and there ‘s the rub: Infra-sound, not traveling in straight lines but in narrow bands or layers, the geography of the ground, temperature inversions, wind-shear, thermal layering, atmospheric humidity, all these deflect the waves from a straight path. The conditions in which the infrasound is produced vary greatly, depending on wind-speed, dynamic load, angle of attack of the blade (pitch) and the varying speed in any part of the blade.
This guarantees the mix of infrasound, audible sound and ultrasound will be complex, variable and unpredictable. It is difficult to control as well, even if an operator wished to do so. It is therefore tough to predict when and where the infrasound waves will hit with concentrated power, though hit they most certainly will. Someone coming to measure a turbine’s IS output may find no measurable effect a short time after a complaint is lodged.
Does this prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that infrasound is the cause of wind turbine syndrome? Not if you don’t want to look.
I can, however, think of ways to obtain such proof, and I don’t mean causing a lab-rat to vomit by means of infrasound. That would not change anybody’s mind.
Think again of the earlier-mentioned pilot whales, some of whom are regularly reported beaching themselves in some faraway bay. Though infrasound caused by propellers is a prominent suspect, that too would be very difficult to prove. The type of place where they beach themselves to die fits a narrow set of requirements: a gradual slope underwater, leading to the beach, can focus and amplify the energy of the IS waves. It is commonly supposed that the animals, driven by pain, haul themselves onto the beach to get away from the infrasound and the pain it causes.
Too hard to believe? Let’s do a thought exercise. Imagine a line of boats, each with a powerful IS generator, driving a pod of pilot whales toward a beach. Now that would be proof! But in practice it couldn’t be done, could it?
We recoil in revulsion at the very thought of inflicting such pain on a sentient, intelligent animal with a brain larger than ours -a mammal, a social one at that, whose intellectual capacity we do not fully understand. The question for Dalton McGuinty: What makes it OK to test this on several hundred, soon to be thousands of human beings in rural Ontario?
Andre Den Tandt lives on a farm in Grey County, near the Silcote Corners wind project area.