Genetics may play a role in health problems reported by some people who live near industrial wind turbines, according to Dr. Colin Novak, an engineering professor at the University of Windsor.
Novak, an expert in noise vibration and harshness and psychoacoustics has partnered with fellow engineer Dr. Setsuo Maeda, from the Japanese National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, who is also a medical doctor, to study the possibility that DNA can predict a person’s vulnerability to infrasound, a low frequency and inaudible noise, emitted from wind turbines.
The study will take several years to complete.
“What we’re thinking is, this might explain why some people seem to be a little bit more sensitive to infrasound than others,” Novak said.
Low frequency sound exposure has been documented to create side effects.
“If a person is exposed over a long period of time to infrasound at relatively low amplitudes, they do experience the symptoms of nauseous anxiety,” Novak said.
Infrasound side effects are comparable to seasickness, he explained.
“Not everyone is susceptible to the same degree. The same can be said with infrasound,” Novak said. “That’s where it ties back into that genetic hypothesis that we have.”
As part of the study, Novak and Maeda hope to collect DNA from people living near wind farms to help back their hypothesis.
“You have to jump through a lot of hoops with ethics and controls etcetera,” Novak said.
He added finding willing DNA donors is a difficult task.
“The wind farm operators … can be nervous of what you might find and the residents also tend to be, in my experience, suspicious of any scientific study,” Novak said.
The study is currently attempting to characterize the sound created by wind turbines to assist in establishing a genetic link.
“We’re doing extensive measurements and getting a better understanding of the noise propagation characteristics,” Novak said.
A link between infrasound and turbines has not been proven.
“No one has really been able to link these to low frequency sound,” Novak said.
He explained sound data used in turbine studies doesn’t mimic an actual windmill.
“The only real studies they are using in terms of acoustics of the blades are from older studies using helicopter blades,” Novak said. “They’re really not the same thing. … There is very little study on the actual noise emissions characteristics.”
When a turbine blade passes its pedestal, it generates a different sound than a helicopter, Novak explained.
“That’s where you get the whoosh type of sound. You don’t have that with a helicopter blade and they spin a lot faster,” he said.
“They are really two different animals.”
While numerous researchers have published theories on wind turbines and possible health effects, they lack scientific backing, Novak said.
“Most of the papers related to this are more opinionated,” he explained.
A popular hypothesis is that the health problems caused by turbines are psychosomatic.
“In terms of, ‘I don’t want it in my backyard,’ they become hypersensitive to their presence and they do develop these physical characteristics,” Novak said.
Although Novak isn’t certain infrasound is to blame for reported ill effects from turbines, he believes the number of claims is too large to ignore.
“There are too many people who claimed to have a negative impact that we can just doubt it,” Novak said. “Is it really infrasonic sound? I don’t have enough information to make that conclusion.”