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Sleep disturbance and wind turbine noise  

Author:  | Health, Noise, Regulations

Report by Dr Christopher Hanning, BSc, MB, BS, MRCS, LRCP, FRCA, MD, on behalf of Stop Swinford Wind Farm Action Group (SSWFAG) – June 2009

2.2.4. Noise interferes with sleep in several ways. Firstly, it may be sufficiently loud or annoying to prevent the onset of sleep or the return to sleep following an awakening. It is clear also that some types of noise are more annoying than others. Constant noise is less annoying than irregular noise which varies in frequency and loudness, for example, snoring, particularly if accompanied by the snorts of sleep apnoea (breath holding). The swishing or thumping noise associated with wind turbines seems to be particularly annoying as the frequency and loudness varies with changes in wind speed and local atmospheric conditions. While there is no doubt of the occurrence of these noises and their audibility over long distances, up to 3-4km in some reports, the actual cause has not yet been fully elucidated (Bowdler 2008). Despite recommendations by the Government’s own Noise Working Group, UK research in this area has been stopped.

2.2.5. Secondly, noise experienced during sleep may arouse or awaken the sleeper. A sufficiently loud or prolonged noise will result in full awakening which may be long enough to recall. Short awakenings are not recalled as, during the transition from sleep to wakefulness, one of the last functions to recover is memory (strictly, the transfer of information from short term to long term memory). The reverse is true for the transition from wakefulness to sleep. Thus only awakenings of longer than 20-30 seconds are subsequently recalled. Research that relies on recalled awakenings alone may underestimate the effect.

2.2.6. Noise insufficient to cause awakening may cause an arousal. An arousal is brief, often only a few seconds long, with the sleeper moving from a deep level of sleep to a lighter level and back to a deeper level. Because full wakefulness is not reached, the sleeper has no memory of the event but the sleep has been disrupted just as effectively as if wakefulness had occurred. It is possible for several hundred arousals to occur each night without the sufferer being able to recall any of them. The sleep, because it is broken, is unrefreshing resulting in sleepiness, fatigue, headaches and poor memory and concentration (Martin 1997), many of the symptoms of “wind turbine syndrome”. Arousals are associated not just with an increase in brain activity but also with physiological changes, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which are thought to be responsible for the increase in cardiovascular risk. Arousals occur naturally during sleep and increase with age (Boselli 1998) which may make the elderly more vulnerable to wind turbine noise. Arousals may be caused by sound events as low as 32 dBA and awakenings with events of 42dBA (Muzet and Miedema 2005), well within the measured noise levels of current “wind farms” and the levels permitted by ETSU-R-97 . Arousals in SWS may trigger a parasomnia (sleep walking, night terrors etc.). Pierpont (2009 and personal communication) notes that parasomnias developed in some of the children in her study group when exposed to turbine noise. …

2.2.9. Sleep disturbance and impairment of the ability to return to sleep is not trivial as almost all of us can testify. In the short term, the resulting deprivation of sleep results in daytime fatigue and sleepiness, poor concentration and memory function. Accident risks increase. In the longer term, sleep deprivation is linked to depression, weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. …

3.8.2. In weighing the evidence, I find that, on the one hand there is a large number of reported cases of sleep disturbance and, in some cases, ill health, as a result of exposure to noise from wind turbines supported by a number of research reports that tend to confirm the validity of the anecdotal reports and provide a reasonable basis for the complaints. On the other, we have badly designed industry and government reports which seek to show that there is no problem. I find the latter unconvincing.

3.8.3. In my expert opinion, from my knowledge of sleep physiology and a review of the available research, I have no doubt that wind turbine noise emissions cause sleep disturbance and ill health. …

4.4.1. Table 1 (see end of text) shows recommendations for setback distance by a number of authorities. References can be found in the Bibliography. In general, noise engineers recommend lesser setback distances than physicians. The former rely more on measured and/or calculated sound pressures and the latter on clinical reports. It is logical to prefer the actual reports of the humans subjected to the noise rather than abstract calculations, even if the latter accurately measure ambient noise and allow for the low frequency components of wind turbine noise. Calculations can not measure annoyance and sleep disturbance, only humans can do so.

4.4.2. A setback distance of at least 1.5km is necessary to ensure, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that the wind turbine noise will not disturb the sleep of those living in proximity to the proposed Swinford development.

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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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