Giant wind turbines spin next to Daniel d’Entremont’s home in a tiny rural community in southwestern Nova Scotia.
The large house in Lower West Pubnico is now empty and abandoned, d’Entremont says, because inaudible sound from the 17-turbine wind farm made his family sick.
“The noise is unbearable,” he says from Abrams River, the nearby community he recently relocated to with his wife and four of his six children.
“It’s like a surround sound – you can’t avoid it, you can’t ignore it. It just comes right into your head.”
D’Entremont blames the turbines for sending low-frequency sound into his old house, located about 400 metres from the nearest turbine.
He says his family couldn’t sleep, his children were constantly tired and suffering headaches, and nobody in the house could concentrate.
The d’Entremont family’s complaints touch on a little-known – and little-studied – debate over whether inaudible sounds from wind farms can cause health problems for residents living nearby.
While the operator of the wind farm brushes off the family’s claims, experts say vibrations from the turbines embedded deep into the ground have the potential to affect the health of some.
And new sound testing commissioned by the federal government hopes to offer more insight into what, if anything, is happening at d’Entremont’s home.
The Lower West Pubnico wind farm was fully operational in May 2005, and it wasn’t long before d’Entremont’s family starting feeling ill.
D’Entremont says complaints to politicians and to the wind farm’s owner were largely ignored, but several area naturopaths told him to relocate.
He finally moved in February after receiving the same advice from a U.S. pediatrician who has studied the effects of wind turbines on children.
“Around wind turbines, it appears there are always some people who are very disturbed by them,” Dr. Nina Pierpont says from her office in Malone, N.Y.
“It’s not everybody, so it creates a lot of controversy.
“When the exposure is inside a house, occurring 24 hours a day, even if the sound intensity is less, there is potential to produce serious pathology.”
Charles Demond, president of Pubnico Point Wind Farm Inc., says Pierpont has never visited the site.
He says the wind farm was built according to local zoning bylaws, which determine how close turbines can be to houses, and that sound tests concluded the noise levels weren’t harmful.
“Here’s someone claiming that his world is changing, but those comments don’t add up,” says Demond. “The sound testing indicated that the noise level from that wind farm is not outside any guidelines.”
Ottawa and several provinces across Canada have started to promote and foster wind energy projects.
Last year’s federal budget quadrupled the Wind Power Production Incentive, which provides funding for wind farms, and the plan is to invest at least $920 million in promoting wind power over the next 15 years.
But the growth is occurring in a largely unregulated environment.
Ontario, one of the only provinces with any regulations governing wind farms, requires a noise-impact assessment for areas up to 1,000 metres from the wind turbine.
In Pincher Creek, Alta., home of one of the largest wind farms in Canada, turbines must be set back at a distance four times their height.
In Lower West Pubnico, it’s only twice the height of the turbines.
Noise standards also differ, and none exist to regulate levels of low-frequency sound.
A report by a Halifax audio specialist measured the loudest sounds on d’Entremont’s property from the Lower West Pubnico wind farm at 50.32 decibels – roughly the intensity of a human voice nearby – below the recommended level of 55 decibels.
But Demond concedes previous tests could not rule out any effects from low-frequency noise.
“To be totally fair, what he concluded is that he didn’t have the equipment necessary to go to those sub-frequency levels to unequivocally walk away with a concrete answer,” says Demond.
That reveals a fundamental problem with the way wind farm noise is measured, making it almost impossible to know whether wind farms are causing health problems, audio experts say.
Gordon Whitehead, an audiologist who retired last month from a 21-year career at Dalhousie University in Halifax, insists low-frequency noise can affect the health of some people.
He says such inaudible vibrations – the same kind of vibrations that music fans can feel in their bodies at a loud rock concert – can lead to symptoms including loss of balance and blurred vision.
“There’s a lot of research out of the U.S. about killing large animals by hitting them with very large, very loud low-frequency sound – literally stopping the heart,” says Whitehead.
“A wind farm doesn’t produce sounds loud enough to do that, but the point is if you’re in a situation where the land around you is very dense, then some people who are very sensitive to that are going to pick that up.”
Whitehead says noise regulations only deal with sounds that humans can hear, so tests rarely focus on the low-frequency sounds in question.
“I’m in favour of wind farms, but in analysing them you have to make certain that you’re not creating a problem – and I don’t know if they are.”
The complaints from the d’Entremont family have prompted the federal Natural Resources Department to order new noise testing, which will measure the low-frequency sound in Lower West Pubnico.
“I think there is some debate about whether there is impact from low-frequency noise,” says Denis Zborowski, manager of the federal Wind Power Production Incentive program. “Normally it isn’t covered because it’s not audible.”
Zborowski says without Canadian standards, the new study, expected to be released this summer, will rely on international standards and current research to draw conclusions.
Michael Sharpe, another Dalhousie University audiologist, says even if someone isn’t affected directly by low-frequency noise, the constant swoosh of the blades, even at allowable levels, can have psychological effects.
“If the sound is audible and it annoys you, then it can seem louder,” says Sharpe, who compares it to a dripping tap that can keep someone awake at night.
“As your stress level increases, your awareness of the annoying sound increases as well. As we know, elevated stress levels for a prolonged period of time can have a negative health effect.”
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