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“Wind Turbine Noise” — Responses to BMJ Editorial  

Author:  | Health, Noise, Siting

17 reviews on wind turbines and health … and not a single one referenced.
Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health, School of Public Health, University of Sydney
11 March 2012

Hanning and Evans, two writers who declare histories of anti-windfarm activity, say that “a large body of evidence” now exists that wind turbines disturb sleep and impair health within permissible distances from housing [1]. They are correct in saying that a large body of relevant evidence exists, but wildly incorrect in their interpretation of its conclusions. I have located no less than 17 reviews of the evidence on whether wind turbines and infrasound cause health problems, nearly all which satisfy the fully “independent” provenance being called for [2]. Predictably, none are referenced in the editorial.

As will be seen, all of these reviews make strong statements that the evidence is very poor that wind turbines in themselves cause problems. What these reviews conclude is that :

  • A small minority of exposed people claim to be adversely affected by wind turbines
  • Negative attitudes to wind turbines are more predictive of reported adverse health effects and annoyance than are objective measures of actual exposure
  • Being able to see wind turbines is similarly predictive of annoyance
  • Deriving income from hosting wind turbines on one’s land may have a “protective effect” against annoyance and health symptoms. Here, it is important to note that claims made by anti-wind farm groups that turbine hosts sign “gag” clauses which prevent them from complaining, are contestable. I have obtained contracts from different Australian firms and none say anything about “gags”. Also, no contract would ever preclude a citizen from pursuing a claim of negligence in common law.

I have also compiled an ever-growing list [3] – currently standing at 63 – of symptoms and diseases in humans, animals and even earthworms, that people opposed to wind farms have publicly attributed to exposure. The diffuse and sometimes bizarre nature of many of these claims, considered alongside the complete absence of even a single mention of “wind turbine syndrome” in PubMed suggests that this is a phenomenon which is a prime candidate for being considered a contemporary example of psychogenic illness[4,5]. I know of no agent that even causes even a small fraction of all the symptoms and diseases said in these websites to be caused by wind turbines.

In their editorial [1] Hanning and Evans cite three papers from a non-indexed journal, the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society which in August 2011 published an issue dedicated to papers opposed to wind farms. The journal was indexed between 1981-1995 by the Web of Science, but after 1995 indexing ceased, generally a sign that indexing services regard a journal as having fallen below an acceptable scientific standard.

The eight papers in the special Bulletin issue were written by 12 authors. Of these, 7 had given papers at the “First International Symposium: The Global Wind Industry and Adverse Health Effects: Loss of Social Justice?” The conference was an overtly anti-wind farm meeting.

A paper by Krough [6] provides an indication of the abject quality of the papers in that issue. The paper contains no methods section, so fails to conform to the most basic requirement of scientific reporting: that it contain details of how the research reported was undertaken. Instead, the author says that she “began investigating reports of adverse health effects made by individuals living in the environs” of wind turbines in Ontario, Canada for “more than two years”. Instead of describing any research, the author has written a paper which mixes up statements somehow apparently made to her by informants about negative effects of exposure to turbines with similar examples from other parts of the world, from websites and submission to enquiries. We are told nothing about the process by which her informants were interviewed, how they were selected and whether her “study” was approved by any institutional research ethics committee. There is not a single example of any informant reporting anything but adverse effects of exposure to windfarms, when it is widely acknowledged that a large majority of those so exposed report no adverse effects nor complain about turbines.

Hanning and Evans refer to Carl V Philips as an expert epidemiologist. Web of Science shows Philips has published just 10 cited papers (total cites 251). Philips today runs a private “Institute”, the Populi Health Institute, apparently consisting only of him. He testifies on behalf of complainants about wind farms.

Within hours of the BMJ publishing this peer reviewed editorial, I was being sent gloating emails by anti-wind farm activists, jubilant that a prestigious journal had published the editorial. In this instance, the BMJ needs to look at the adequacy of its peer review process.

References

1. Hanning CP, Evans A. Wind turbine noise. BMJ 2012;344:e1527. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e1527 (Published 8 March 2012)

2. Chapman S, Simonetti T. Summary of main conclusions reached in 17 reviews of the research literature on wind farms and health. School of Public Health, University of Sydney. 30 Jan 2012. http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/assets/pdfs/WindHealthReviews.docx

3. Chapman S, Simonetti T. Is there anything not caused by wind farms? A list of diseases and symptoms in humans and animals said to be caused by wind turbines. School of Public Health, University of Sydney. http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/assets/pdfs/WindfarmDiseases.docx

4. Bartholomew RE, Wessely S. Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness: From possessed nuns to chemical and biological terrorism fears. Br J Psychiatry 2002 180: 300-306.

5. Boss LP. Epidemic hysteria: a review of the published literature. Epidem Reviews 1997;19:233-243.

6. Krogh CME. Industrial wind turbine development and loss of social justice. Bull Science, Technol and Society 2011;31:321-333.

Re: Wind turbine noise [authors’ reply]
Christopher D Hanning, Honorary Consultant in Sleep Medicine, and Alun Evans, University Hospitals of Leicester, Leicester
15 March 2012

The weakness of Professor Chapman’s objections are evident from the tone of his response and his extensive use of ad hominen attacks, straw men and appeals to authority. He describes us as having “histories of anti-windfarm activity” as if that automatically rendered our opinions invalid. Neither of us have campaigned against windfarms in general, only against wind turbines being placed too close to human habitation, a public health objective which should have met with Prof Chapman’s approval. As Prof Chapman is a member of the Climate and Health Alliance, an advocacy group that campaigns for renewable energy, and could fairly be described as having a history of pro-windfarm activity, by his logic his opinions should be treated with equal scepticism.

Our editorial was careful to concentrate on sleep disturbance as the outcome measure for the adverse effects of wind turbine noise as we believe it is less susceptible to psychological effects than “annoyance”. We made no mention of “wind turbine syndrome” or any of the other symptoms that have been attributed to wind turbine noise. Professor Chapman’s assertions that complaints of ill-health from wind turbine noise are the product of mass hysteria are just that, assertions. There is no objective evidence to support them. There is clear evidence of causality and obvious mechanisms for wind turbine noise to disturb sleep rendering these assertions highly unlikely.

Prof Chapman makes much of his list of 17 reviews. Closer inspection shows that at least five were written before most of the studies cited in our editorial were published. One is in draft form and thus can not be relied upon, one reviewed the potential contribution of low frequency noise to annoyance and the rest were authored either by those with close associations with the wind industry or government departments committed to implementing wind energy and are thus hardly independent. We contend that the onus of proving safety falls on those introducing new forms of environmental pollution, including noise pollution, not on those exposed to the pollutant. A major principle of public health medicine is prevention. The reviews cited by Prof Chapman stand these principles on their heads.

We are not alone in calling for a review of current guidance for wind turbine noise and independent research. A review written by one of us (Hanning, 2011) contains a referenced list of 11 physicians and acousticians who have recommended greater setbacks and lesser noise levels than those currently permitted. An Environmental Review Tribunal in Ontario held in 2011 took oral and written evidence from over 20 experts including several contributors to Prof Chapman’s list and concluded: “… the debate should not be simplified to one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans. The evidence presented to the Tribunal demonstrates that they can, if facilities are placed too close to residents. The debate has now evolved to one of degree.” (Case Nos. 10-121 and 10-122. p 207). The Tribunal called also for more research as do we.

We are firm in our assertion that the evidence for harm at distances and noise levels permitted under current regulations in most jurisdictions is such that regulators should take notice and initiate research. If wind turbines are as benign as Prof Chapman asserts he should have no objection to research being undertaken. After all, there is not a single published study showing a lack of adverse effects on sleep and health.

What interventions are required?
Mike Barnard, mbarnard@ca.ibm.com, Toronto, Ontario
12 April 2012

While Simon Chapman does an excellent job of rebutting the primary arguments of this article, if we were to take it at face value from a public health policy, what would suggested interventions be?

As the authors assert that this is a matter of annoying noise causing sleep disturbance, then surely they will be interested in low-cost, effective noise annoyance reduction measures.

For example, a white noise generator can be purchase for less than $30USD. This provides masking noise which would eliminate any impact from nearby wind turbines.

Similarly, comfortable foam earplugs would also be reasonable interventions. These can be purchased in bulk for cents per ear plug.

There are many stress reduction and annoyance distraction techniques available with the click of a button on the internet. Most of these can be studied and practiced free of charge by anyone interested in dealing with ultimately trivial annoyances that they are over-focussing upon.

Finally, closing windows and installing quilted blinds would not only significantly decrease noise, but would also decrease light, improving sleep as well.

The quilted blinds are the only expensive alternative in the above interventions.

All of these techniques are in use today in households around the world to deal with traffic noise, sirens, airplane noise, noisy neighbours, nearby industrial works, streetcars and dawn tractor startups. Urban and rural dwellers depend on them to ensure a comfortable and uninterrupted sleep.

By comparison, increasing setbacks of wind turbines by hundreds of meters, which their numbers suggest, would cause a significant reduction in possible sites for this clean and economical form of energy, cause an increase in distant wind turbines with associated higher costs, causing an overall increase of electricity costs and secondary health impacts to all consumers.

That the authors’ only suggested intervention is greater setbacks for wind turbines betrays their agenda. Their solution is vastly out of proportion to the problem.

Re: Wind turbine noise
Sarah Jane Davis, Nurse, and Health Visitor, Spalding, Lincolnshire, England
22 April 2012

Writing as someone who used to live 1km from a windfarm, and whose career has been involved in some way or other with public health. I make the following observations. We welcomed the wind farm, why would we not? We could not see the turbines from our home. We thought them to be admirable structures, a significant engineering achievement, and graceful in operation. We were completely and wholly unprepared for the noise and sleep deprivation that we immediately suffered from. None of my family have had problems sleeping before, but we did then, and being suddenly awoken in the early hours and being unable to get back to sleep night after night is very unpleasant, and rapidly makes normal day to day living almost impossible. It is well documented, and within the public domain that we tried (as other respondents have suggested) ear plugs, white noise machines, fans and medication. Nothing worked. Once we stopped sleeping at home, we were able to sleep normally again. We can sleep next to motorways, industrial sites, strain stations and airports – but this was something else altogether. You do not habituate to it.

Noise is of course a physical “presence”, and given that science is still discovering more and more about how the body “hears” and interprets sounds, my feeling is that we are; A) not measuring what is actually being emitted that impacts on human bodies and B) not perhaps yet able to scientifically understand the impact of whatever “frequency” (if that is what it is) has on the human body. There is, in my opinion, much yet to be learnt and understood about sound waves and their impacts. There is much to be aid for not dismissing something as being of little or no relevance just because you cant see it, not seeing it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Re: Wind turbine noise
Michael Addison, retired
24 April 2012

It is heartening to see the work of Chris Hanning recognised by the medical fraternity. The emissions from wind turbines are a real concern for the health of people who are forced to live near them.

The ill effects , described , have been positively identified by many, many epidemiologists, neurologists and other health professionals but sadly not by the UK Government which continues to promote the cause of the Wind Energy developers. The only logical conclusion being that the Government is more concerned with the profits of the energy companies than it is with the health of the Nation.

The UK Government is a signatory to the Rio Declaration which requires the Precautionary Principle to be invoked where there is uncertainty about the safety and well being of human kind, animals and plant life. Compliance with this legal duty would mean the prohibition of wind turbines near to people’s dwellings and the introduction of a 2km buffer zone until such time as the scientific evidence confirms there is no risk to human health.

Many cases of people feeling ill near to wind turbines and of people leaving their homes because they can not tolerate the adverse effects are well documented.

It is time the UK Government took this matter seriously, stopped all windfarm planning applications and approvals within2 km of peoples house, employed properly qualified and experienced scientists in the field of medicine to fully investigate this matter rather than relying on acoustic experts employed by the wind industry and to re write the ETSUR97 noise regulations so that they protect the people rather than empower the energy companies.

Re: Wind turbine noise [authors’ reply]
Christopher D Hanning, Honorary Consultant in Sleep Medicine, and Alun Evans, University Hospitals of Leicester, Leicester
25 July 2012

We thank Mr Barnard for his interest in our editorial and for at least appearing to agree with us that wind turbine noise causes annoyance.

Unfortunately, his ideas for “low cost solutions” will not be effective in reducing either “annoyance” or sleep disturbance. He seems incapable of recognising that, in this context, the term “annoyance” is used to denote a level of stress leading to harm, not just a mild irritation. Noise is universally recognised as a major public health problem causing not just sleep disruption with all its consequent effects including increases in blood pressure and myocardial infarction. The only effective measures are to reduce noise emission at source and/or attenuate the noise before it arrives at the receptor. For higher frequency noise, improved sound insulation of properties may be effective but the low frequency and infrasound emitted by wind turbines is not well attenuated and noise levels within a building may be higher than those outside. They can even be worse with the windows shut. Sadly therefore, Mr Barnard’s suggestions of thick blinds and closed windows will not be effective. Closed windows in summer either make the bedroom over warm or bring the need for air conditioning, neither of which may be conducive to good sleep.

Wind developers rely on increases in background noise with increased wind speed to mask turbine noise. Because of the low frequency content and impulsive nature of wind turbine noise, it is not masked by ambient noise and is audible 10-15dB below background. A white noise generator does not emit low frequency sound and therefore is useless in this range. If it is employed at sufficient intensities to mask other wind turbine noise frequencies, it will also impair sleep as is confirmed by a recent news report [1].

Earplugs are uncomfortable, only suitable for short term use and would not be effective against low frequency and infra sound. Cognitive behavioural techniques have been suggested as a means of dealing with low frequency noise annoyance but are only effective when the source can not be identified (the hum). Wind turbines are all too obvious a source of noise.

All of Mr Barnard’s suggested measures would cause either distress or expense to those who find wind turbine noise thrust upon them. When secondhand smoke in public buildings was shown to inflict harm on non-smokers, the solution was to remove the source. No one, instead, seriously suggested impinging on the rights of non-smokers by forcing them to purchase respirators or nosegays to hide the smell. Factories are not permitted with noise emissions which are certain to impair the sleep of local inhabitants., We know of no good reason why wind turbines should not be subject to the same regulation. It is simply not good enough to exhort people to close their windows and wear ear plugs.

All governments seek to limit noise from all sources and we see no reason why wind energy should be exempt. We make no judgement about the value or otherwise of this form of electricity generation. If governments decree that the need to implement wind energy is so urgent that public health constraints can be overridden then appropriate compensation for those harmed must be put in place. We have no “agenda” save a desire to see that this public health problem is properly investigated and appropriate setback distances determined.

1. Fairfield residents given noise generators to drown out sound of windmills. Jul 16, 2012. www.wktv.com/news/local/Fairfield-residents-given-noise-generators-to-drown-out-sound-of-windmills-162627096.html

This material is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this material resides with the author(s). As part of its noncommercial effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send queries to query/wind-watch.org.

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