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Wind power and ecology  

Author:  | Environment, Health, Impacts, Noise, Wildlife

The survival of the world ecosystem, including of course ourselves, requires that we harness renewable energy in an environmentally tolerable way. One source of power is wind and it is vital that we assess the impact of current developments. We are destroying our only home, the Earth, on a scale that no other species has even remotely approached. Wind power has a long history. It has been an important local source of energy, for pumping water, grinding corn etc., for almost two millennia and during the last century millions of improved small wind turbines have been usefully installed on farms. In the last three decades a dramatic change has occurred with the development of enormous horizontal axis three-bladed wind turbines, all having vast blades with tip speeds of 100 kph [actually 240-320 kph —Ed.] whirling on top of massive towers, many more than 100 m high, built on huge concrete bases set into excavated ground. These huge machines have been built in large groups on dedicated land called wind farms.

An alternative approach has been the development of small machines often fitted to rooftops, even in cities. Quiet vertical axis machines have been widely set up in a number of countries, notably in Finland. One advantage of this “distributed energy production” is that the overall wind power is more constant than it is in large concentrated installations of the wind farm type, but the huge three bladed machines now dominate the landscape in many areas around the world and form the basis of several multi-billion dollar companies with immense lobbying power. Increasingly, people living near these vast machines have suggested they are detrimental to their health and there are some reports of abnormalities appearing in farm animals.

Most of the discussions have centred on the effects of the noise made by the wind farms, and many thousands of people have reported sleep disturbances and serious health effects forcing them to leave the area they have called home. The wind turbine companies refuted, even ridiculed these complaints, and pointed out that many common sources generate noise of greater intensity. The thousands of reports from doctors dealing with people suffering stress, sudden bursts of tachycardia, and hypertension would seem to be harder to discount, but these reports have not yet been prepared as a coordinated scientifically controlled study. The turbine companies and organizations buying clusters of the turbines often have considerable power over affected communities, through agreements with local administrators and contracts with residents for use of the land. In many cases the residents of wind farms have had to sign agreements forbidding public complaints.

The advocates of the new large machines respond to complaints by residents and their doctors by stating that people would not complain if they received adequate payment for the use of their land as a wind farm. There have been many statements belittling distressed or even seriously ill people, often along the lines that they are just awkward and resistant to progress. Objections are increasing however, and in a recent decision the Victorian government has decreed that wind turbines must be at least 2 km away from inhabited areas.

With audible noise, the loudness of the sound is often emphasised whereas it is only one factor. Consider the effect of music. It can have profound effects on behaviour even when very quiet. This can be shown experimentally. If you play Mozart to mice for a few hours they find their way out of a maze much faster than mice that have had to listen to noise. Similarly music can alleviate pain and is now used clinically for this purpose. The loudness of the music is almost irrelevant. It is the sequence of harmonic tones that is important in producing the effects. It is surely similar with noise. If you are nodding off to sleep and the wind picks up, starting a group of wind turbines and your brain picks up a quiet crunch-crunch-crunch, in an irregular and unpredictable sequence because the various turbines are not synchronous, you may not imagine a monster approaching but primitive circuits in your amygdala, prefrontal cortex and other areas of your brain will automatically fire off a stress response, triggering an increase in adrenaline and cortisol secretion. This fundamental mechanism has been an important factor in our survival as a species but we have not adapted to these previously unknown disturbances. Not good for a restful sleep.

After looking at evidence from several seemingly disparate areas of research it seems to me that the effect of the current wind farms is not confined to the noise they make. I am convinced that the evidence suggesting tissue damage both to people and to a wide range of other species is strong enough to sound a warning of environmental damage far beyond 2 km both on land and on water.

That the disturbance caused by the new large turbines is not trivial is highlighted by a recent decision by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) objecting to plans to build wind turbines on the north-west coast of England and the south-west coast of Scotland. Why? Because the vibrations, the “seismic noise” from such wind farms would interfere with the MOD instruments that detect terrorist bombs.

So, what do we know about the seismic noise of wind turbines? Quite a lot actually, but it has not yet received as much attention as it warrants. Like the UK MOD, scientists seeking to find evidence of gravitational waves have extremely sophisticated equipment designed to detect vibrations in rock, soil and water. Any device producing such vibrations can interfere with their research, so several centres, notably the Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), University of Oregon, near the Stateline Wind Project, and the VIRGO European Gravitational Observatory in Pisa, near a small wind farm, have done detailed measurements of the generation and transmission of seismic vibrations from large wind turbines. Both of these centres were able to detect seismic vibrations travelling through soil, rock and water. The vibrations were correlated unambiguously with the operation of the wind turbines. The distance travelled by these vibrations may surprise those who talk about siting homes no closer than 2 kilometres from the turbines. The seismic vibrations remained strong beyond 10 kilometres and were still detectable at 18 kilometres.

It is important then to ask the question whether vibrations can affect health. Here we can refer to a quite extensive literature on communication between creatures. These range from the simplest multicellular organisms such as Physarum polycephalum, a yeast that can at times join with its neighbours and coordinate joint behaviour by transmitting vibrations from cell to cell, to a wide range of insects that transmit information to others of their species using a range of different mechanisms. In most species the frequencies used are below 20 Hz and transmission is through solids, usually the fine stems of flowers and leaves. The vibrations produced in a plant stem by a small insect are so tiny they are undetectable without very sensitive equipment. For a small insect however they are immensely significant, sending information about potential threats, about food, and of course courtship. Most marine creatures, some of them very small, transmit information through water, also usually by low frequency vibration. All fish are very sensitive to low frequency vibrations and any angler will tell you that merely walking on the side of a lake will send most fish scurrying out of range of their net.

The sensitivity of earthworms to vibration is well-known not only to anglers but to predators that have learned to bring the worms to the surface by a carefully calculated series of taps on the ground. Here it is important to note that there are many reports from farmers that seagulls no longer follow the plough in areas near wind turbines. It has been suggested that the seagulls have learned that the worms have all been driven away and that in that area the farmer’s plough will not bring breakfast to the surface. They must go elsewhere for their food.

How many of the species found in the soil and waterways have been affected by wind farm vibrations? We do not know because the necessary environmental and ecological studies have simply not been done. There are many anecdotal reports but it is surely urgent that we learn a great deal more. Of particular concern is that many farmers have reported that bees are no longer seen in the vicinity of wind farms.

What is known of the effect of vibrations on people working in industry? Here there is a great deal of information, but it is not widely known. Much of what has been discovered over the last three decades is reported by Mariana Alves-Pereira and Nuño Castelo Branco of Portugal. These extensive studies report numerous serious illnesses and, yes, many deaths, mainly from unusual cancers. A particularly characteristic finding is a thickening of the fibrous sheath surrounding the heart, the pericardium. Diseases such as type I diabetes and epilepsy developing late in life were also found and unusual malignant tumours were seen in the lungs, colon and brain. Rage attacks occurred in some individuals and sudden attacks of nonconvulsive mental defects were seen. These illnesses were caused by low frequency vibrations and developed slowly over many years, with deaths usually occurring after five years of exposure. The low frequency induced disease complex is called Vibro Acoustic Disease, or VAD and is thought to be the result of disruption of the fine fibres that connect the cells of the body. This disease complex is not yet widely recognised clinically or legally and this has seriously delayed diagnosis. Detailed experimental studies of VAD pathology have been reported. A characteristic finding is the production of excess collagen in the absence of an inflammatory response. This results in the thickening of blood vessel walls and abnormal gas flow in the lungs. Other findings in the experimental studies were unusual cell death without the usual “cell suicide” mechanism of apoptosis.

So, what can we expect from the noise and vibrations caused by wind farms? Many of the illnesses caused by industrial vibrations would not be associated with wind farms by doctors seeing such patients. Someone develops a heart disease, a brain tumour or gets a stroke five years after a wind farm starts up a few kilometres from their home. Or they have their first epileptic fit very late in life, or they get a cancer in the lung or bowel. Few doctors today would make the connection with the wind farm. A diagnosis of VAD could be made by detecting a thickening of the pericardium, but this would not be done unless the clinician suspected VAD. The association of this disease with wind farm operation is not widely known.

Putting all this together, it seems obvious to me that there is a very urgent need to study disease rates and death rates in the areas near wind farms and in “control” areas more than 10 km away. There is also an urgent need to organise clinical and epidemiological studies to seek further evidence of the diseases and pathology described in the studies of industrial Vibro Acoustic Disease. There is similarly a very urgent need for veterinarians and ecologists to follow up the reports from farmers all around the world of abnormalities in farm animals near current large wind turbines, as with chickens that are hatching with crossed beaks and other abnormalities, and stock of many types being born with unusual abnormalities. Above all I feel that there is an urgent need to study the epidemiology of organisms that live in the soil and water around wind farms. These organisms are known to communicate by low frequency vibration. All of this must be correlated with precise measurements of noise and vibration associated with wind turbine operation. Such measurements must be made on the turbine towers, on surrounding soils and on surrounding buildings out to at least 10 km.

And what of the prospects for wind power today? A potentially extremely valuable source of auxiliary power I would say, but definitely not if it continues to be developed for massive commercial gain as at present. Instead of covering the planet with small quiet wind turbines feeding continuously into an international power grid we have “wind farms” springing up as concentrated power producing enterprises that are as much like a farm as an open cut coal mine.

Nature and Society, October-November 2011, pp. 7-9

Max Whisson, MB, BS FRCPath, is a retired pathologist with a strong interest in ecological issues. He invented the Whisson Windmill, a device for extracting water from the atmosphere.

Download original document: Nature and Society, October-November 2011

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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