September 1, 2019 – Desert Report: Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee
Infrasound is classified as any noise with frequencies less than 20 Hertz (twenty cycles per second), the typical lower limit of human hearing. The previous article in this series discussed hazards of infrasound exposure over extended periods of time, whether people are aware of the source or not. This follow-up article explores the potential for damage to pets and wildlife, and wraps up the infrasound discussion with a factual look at the U.S. President’s recent controversial comment that the noise from industrial wind turbines can cause cancer.
It is at the cellular level where cancer occurs and where infrasound is believed to cause damage, possibly even down to the DNA level. One of the more curious reports along these lines came out of Denmark in 2014, when a breaking news story from the World Council for Nature went viral, and newspaper headlines around the world reported that 1,600 minks on a Denmark farm were born prematurely, most stillborn. Scientists researching the phenomenon were unable to link the mass deaths to disease or toxins. The only unique factor they found was that the incident occurred after four industrial wind turbines were placed 328 meters from the farm. If the wind turbines were the cause, it is unknown whether the birth defects were the result of infrasound vibrations affecting fetal cells during mitosis or whether the harm was due to electrical effects from the wind turbine cables buried in the moist ground nearby. Such a report raises questions concerning harm caused to wildlife and especially to their developing young. Moreover, a concern that is in need of resolution is the effect that infrasonic vibrations might produce on pregnant humans, as well as the effects on pets and livestock.
According to Hearing Health USA website, scientific studies show that out of the ten animals known to possess the most sensitive hearing, three of those species are dogs, cats, and horses. Considering the tendency to put wind energy developments on rural lands, where such animal partners are prevalent, it is possible that humankind’s domesticated animals may also suffer, especially when one realizes that infrasound is a human designation based on what sound frequencies are audible to our ears. What has been classified as infrasound can be quite audible to animals with a hearing spectrum wider than our own.
In reference to laboratory animals, U.S. Animal Welfare Act regulations fail to address noise, but the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals provides recommendations for considering noise control when designing and operating animal facilities. Back in 1996, a researcher at Merck Research Laboratories provided evidence that rats who were unintentionally exposed to infrasound (due to a malfunctioning ventilation system) suffered from a variety of effects. Dr. Sherri Motzel cited clear-cut effects of sound on response to drug treatment, water intake, blood pressure, reproduction, glucose metabolism, and immune function. One study conducted at Merck Research Laboratories by Dr. Motzel and her colleagues demonstrated that infrasound in the range 1-10 Hertz was responsible for weight loss in rats in the study. This study and other reports in the literature indicate that much more emphasis should be placed on monitoring and controlling noise levels at multiple frequency and intensity ranges outside human hearing ranges in animal facilities because of the potential for adverse effects on study data and outcomes.
Many animals are known to be able to hear infrasound, such as cows, cuttlefish, ferret, goldfish, horses, octopi, pigeons, rock doves, squid, and whales. Likewise, not only are some animals able to hear infrasound frequencies, but certain species such as alligators, elephants, giraffe, hippopotamus, okapi, and rhinoceros use infrasound frequencies in their communications. When a record-breaking twenty-nine sperm whales beached themselves on North Sea shores in 2016, Utrecht University in the Netherlands performed studies into the cause of the deaths. Natural and unnatural (i.e. manmade) factors were explored, but manmade trauma was limited to possibilities of entanglement, ship-strikes, ingestion of plastics, or chemical pollution. Industrial wind turbine infrasound was never considered for the fatal strandings despite the fact that many of the whales died in view of massive offshore wind turbines.
Important honey bee communication takes place between 12-13 Hertz. How the production of infrasound from wind turbines might effect their ability to communicate directions may represent a threat to bee populations and pollination and needs to be investigated. There are no shortage of studies by the World Health Organization that warn of the health consequences of audible noise damage, but if a certain species is unable to hear infrasound noise, they may still be vulnerable to adverse effects: infrasound produces vibrations in the inner ear canal that causes stress to the brain. Moreover, as the mink farm in Denmark may have indicated, vibrations occurring at a cellular level might interfere with the normal reproduction of cells and produce birth defects.
Many animals, including humans, can be vulnerable to the ravages of cancer, and in this current century, scientists have pinpointed many newly suspected causes of the disease. When President Donald J. Trump suggested in a speech, on April 2, 2019 (at a Republican fund raising event) that infrasound can cause cancer, newspapers nationwide had a field day with that comment, soundly suggesting that no such evidence has ever been gathered or surmised, and that the President’s comment was an unfounded attack on “green” wind energy. But was it?
An unclassified military study conducted in Portugal over a 20-year period was titled, “Low Frequency Noise: A Major Risk Factor in Military Operations.” It is noteworthy that there is no question mark punctuating the end of that title. According to that medical study, 70% of individuals are susceptible to the development of Vibroacoustic Disease due to the cumulative effects of noises below the threshold of human hearing. Such adverse effects have been especially documented among pilots and other members of flight crews, who are continuously exposed to infrasound noise from the spinning of jet turbines or propellers. Moreover, according to that report, low frequency noise can trigger early aging processes and is not uncommonly responsible for forcing flight crew members into early retirement.
Some cases cited in the Portuguese study included data showing that 10% of workers who were regularly exposed to infrasound in an aeronautical plant developed late-onset epilepsy, which is a rate that is fifty times higher than what would be diagnosed in a general population. Using electron microscopy studies, researchers found that among infrasound exposed populations, low frequency noise damage appears to target the respiratory system, causing bronchitis, recurring infections of the oropharynx, and pleural effusion. Furthermore, high resolution CT scans identified atypical instances of lung fibrosis among non-smokers. Likewise, cardiovascular diseases represent a significant threat from infrasound where the thickening of the pericardium is known as a hallmark of Vibroacoustic Disease. That thickening acts like a blanket that covers the walls of major blood vessels, pericardia, aortic and mitral valves, and carotid arteries, diminishing their effectiveness.
But what about the claim of cancer caused by infrasound noise as suggested by POTUS? The Portuguese military study went on to claim, “The genotoxic component of LFN [Low Frequency Noise] has already been demonstrated in both animal and human models.” The medical term “genotoxic” refers to toxins (carcinogens, mutagens, and teratogens) that cause damage to DNA, which in turn may produce cancer, birth defects, and other genetic mutations. Specifically, when it comes to cancers caused by infrasound, low frequency noise-induced tumors have been identified in squamous cell carcinoma in the lungs, and similarly infrasound-induced cancerous tumors have been found in hollow organs such as the bladder, colon, kidney, and larynx, since hollow organs are more affected by vibrations and suffer worse. The report also stated, “Lupus is a common observation among LFN flight attendants and other LFN-exposed populations.” Military studies conducted in the U.S. add credence to the study from Portugal.
Corporations that profit from the wind energy industry claim, with some measure of justification, that there is limited evidence pointing to the adverse health effects of infrasound noise from industrial wind turbines. However, what they fail to mention is that a plethora of evidence exists on the pathogenic effects of infrasound from other sources, and that wind turbines produce infrasound in the same frequency range as these other sources. The key to researching the dangers of wind turbines then is to research what is already known about the health effects of infrasound (low frequency noise) to exposed subjects in fields such as aviation, and to study the symptoms and sources of Vibroacoustic Diseases in general.
On the basis of the evidence presented in these two articles, it is reasonable to be concerned about the adverse effects on human health that are caused by wind turbine infrasound. In matters of land planning where consequences to the environment are anticipated, it is usual that projects are rejected only if negative effects have been demonstrated.
Such a policy is in contrast to the way in which medical devices and pharmaceuticals are approved. When human health is involved, the FDA does not license a product until its safety has been demonstrated. Because infrasound may have serious consequences on human health, it is appropriate that approval of wind turbine facilities be proactive: safety must be assured before permits are awarded.
In 2018, the World Health Organization published new environmental noise guidelines that were a long time in coming. Back in 2010, member states in the European region met in Parma, Italy, for the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health. During that meeting, requests were made of WHO to update their noise guidelines to include for the first time such serious concerns as wind turbines. To fulfill that request, WHO grudgingly conducted “systematic reviews of evidence … to assess the relationship between environmental noise and the following health outcomes: cardiovascular and metabolic effects; annoyance; effects on sleep; cognitive impairment; hearing impairment and tinnitus; adverse birth outcomes; and quality of life, mental health and well-being.” The reason for asserting that WHO was reluctant to be completely forthcoming in their reviews is based on their statement, “As the foregoing overview has shown, very little evidence is available about the adverse health effects of continuous exposure to wind turbine noise.” Considering the plethora of current scholarly research that is available on the adverse health effects of wind turbine infrasound, such a statement comes across as disingenuous.
Despite their seeming reluctance, WHO guidelines noted that wind turbine noise above 45 dB was found to be harmful. It is significant that WHO did not temper their assessment with terms such as “may be” but instead boldly stated “is associated with adverse health effects.” In particular, WHO listed the following seven most commonly reported critical health outcomes of exposure to noise, wind turbine or otherwise: 1. Cardiovascular disease; 2. Annoyance; 3. Cognitive impairment; 4. Hearing impairment and tinnitus; 5. Adverse birth outcomes; 6. Quality of life, well-being and mental health; and 7. Metabolic outcomes. Regarding nighttime exposure only, WHO listed “effects on sleep.” Furthermore, the WHO report stated, “Wind turbines are not a recent phenomenon, but their quantity, size and type have increased significantly over recent years. As they are often built in the middle of otherwise quiet and natural areas, they can adversely affect the integrity of a site.” They also admitted that they were “not aware of any existing interventions… to reduce harms from wind turbine noise.” Moreover, the report confirmed, “Wind turbines can generate infrasound or lower frequencies of sound than traffic sources.” The report also went on to confirm that “the repetitive nature of the sound of the rotating blades and atmospheric influence leading to a variability of amplitude modulation … can be a source of above average annoyance.”
Considering that the most harmful noise from wind turbines has been found to be in the infrasound range, which is below the threshold of human hearing, decibel levels are not the most scientifically sound measurements. As the report conceded, “Standard methods of measuring sound, most commonly including A-weighting, may not capture the low-frequency sound and amplitude modulation characteristic of wind turbine noise.” Even more significant was the admission that “it may be concluded that the acoustical description of wind turbine noise by the [usually reported] means … may be a poor characterization of wind turbine noise and may limit the ability to observe associations between wind turbine noise and health outcomes.” In the end, WHO did confirm that quantifiable scientific evidence exists to imply that wind turbine noise causes annoyance.
While that particular WHO report and their associated guidelines were targeted at Europeans, the report was clear in its warning that “In terms of their health implications, the recommended exposure levels can be considered applicable in other regions and suitable for a global audience.” It is noteworthy that the term “wind turbine,” not counting the many instances of that term in the index and reference pages, occurs approximately 150 times in the full WHO report [http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/383921/noise-guidelines-eng.pdf].
In regards to providing FDA-type protection to the public by putting the burden of health effects proof on the corporations, twenty years earlier, WHO (1999) provided three major envi-ronmental management principles that they believed should be applied by governments to noise management policies: [https://www.who.int/docstore/peh/noise/Comnoise-5.pdf]
1) The precautionary principle: “In all cases, noise should be reduced to the lowest level achievable in a particular situation. Where there is a reasonable possibility that public health will be damaged, action should be taken to protect public health without awaiting full scientific proof.”
2) The polluter pays principle: “The full costs associated with noise pollution (including monitoring, management, lowering levels and supervision) should be met by those responsible for the source of noise.”
3) The prevention principle: “Action should be taken where possible to reduce noise at the source. Land-use planning should be guided by an environmental health impact assessment that considers noise as well as other pollutants.”
This two-part presentation of research on the adverse health effects from industrial wind turbine infrasound noise clearly points to a need to implement such WHO noise management principles in order to more adequately protect both human lives and wildlife.
Dr. Donald Allen Deever is a former park ranger, science teacher, flight instructor, freelance journalist, and PhD with majors in nursing education, software development, and writing pedagogy. He recently helped defeat the Crescent Peak Wind project in Southern Nevada, one of the most misplaced wind energy developments in history. He and his wife live in Searchlight on their own ten-acre nature preserve.
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