As the Department of Environmental Protection prepares to conduct sound testing on Fairhaven’s two wind turbines, turbine opponents are concerned about what the state agency will not be testing for: Infrasound.
Infrasound is sound that humans cannot hear because it is lower in frequency than 20 Hertz. Turbine opponents claim that though the low-frequency sound waves are inaudible, they can have severe impacts on human health, from migraine headaches, to high blood pressure, to vertigo. These symptoms are known as “turbine syndrome,” a controversial subject among those who study sound and turbines alike.
Robert Rand is a private acoustician who conducted a study of infrasound coming from the wind turbines in Falmouth funded privately by Bruce McPherson, who opposed the Falmouth wind project. Rand said he initially set out to measure the levels of infrasound coming from the turbines, but became sick with turbine syndrome “within 20 minutes” of being inside the house where he was doing the testing.
“There were headaches, nausea, we were disoriented; we generally felt miserable,” he said.
Rand said he had never gotten sick around turbines before, and that this was the first test of turbine sound he had conducted indoors. Rand believes that the house acted as a drum and amplified the effect of the infrasound on his body.
His symptoms only persisted so long as he was inside the house, where he stayed for three days, despite the side effects, in order to complete the study.
“Our study doesn’t say that the turbines and the infrasound were the cause of how we were feeling,” he said. “But it does establish a correlation between infrasound levels and when we were feeling at our worst.”
James Manwell, the director of the wind energy research program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that “as someone who has spent a lot of time around turbines, I can’t imagine how you would get sick from them.”
“Infrasound clearly exists, it’s a frequency of vibration, but these health complaints people attribute to it are a mystery to me,” he said. “If you sleep with the window open in the middle of the night, can you hear them? Probably,” he said. “Do you care? Well, if you don’t like them, you care.”
Anjali Mehta is an ear, nose and throat doctor who practices in Fall River and Providence, R.I. While she has not personally treated patients with “turbine syndrome” she said there is scientific research to support the idea that inaudible sound can adversely affect the human body.
“There is this notion that ‘if you don’t hear it, it can’t hurt you,’ but in reality the outer hair cells are sensitive to infrasound waves,” she said.
Mehta said that sound is subjective, noting that people who chose to rent their land out for building turbines rarely complain about the noise.
“If you have some incentive, you don’t complain,” she said, “but just because infrasound is subjective doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect on people.”
Though “turbine syndrome” may seem ridiculous to some people, Mehta said it is not uncommon for people to have medical conditions, like chronic fatigue, that cannot be measured. For now, she cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the effects of infrasound.
“Turbines are still very new, and their effect on people is still being studied,” she said.
Spokesperson for the DEP Edmund Coletta said last month the department does not test for infrasound in its sound study because infrasound is not included in the State noise-level laws.
“Our policy relates to decibel differentiation between audible sounds,” he said. “That’s not related to infrasound.”