Once I learned how turbines can affect people, I had to speak up.
I just returned from a meeting of my county planning committee, where we debated the pros and cons of our neighbor’s proposal to put up two 400-foot wind turbines, with the closest about 1,300 feet from our property line. My family lives on a bluff on the edge of Northfield. I cannot sleep. It was my first contact with any kind of city or county planning, and the four-hour meeting was surreal. But let me step back and provide the background to this story.
I am an integrative physician who mainly works with patients suffering chronic problems. Often, they have seen many traditional doctors who have not been able to help them; they come to me as a last resort. They have “functional problems” – irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headaches, fibromyalgia. Often their doctors “can’t find anything wrong” with X-rays, blood tests or biopsies. But nonetheless these people are sick. Many of them are very sensitive to environmental stimuli, probably as an adaptive reaction to their chronic problems.
So back to the wind on the bluff. I also fancy myself an environmentalist. We placed a geothermal heat pump in our house 12 years ago when most people didn’t know what they were. I regularly walk the 6-mile round trip to work to save on CO2 emissions. So six weeks ago when we heard about the plan to put up these turbines, I was a little ambivalent. My brother, who lives nearby, didn’t like it. I have always liked wind power, and though I didn’t really want such large structures in my morning sky, I kind of let it go.
Then I got hit over the head. I was reading the New York Times and came upon an article about multiple lawsuits against wind farms all over the United States because of health concerns, and I said to myself, “What health concerns?” Three hours of intense Internet research later, I was shocked.
I know environmental sensitivity; these are the patients I take care of every day.
The last four weeks have been a blur. Getting up to speed on the science of sound and the medical research related to wind turbines has been exhausting, and in the process I have discovered the dark medical underbelly of industrial-sized turbines. They produce a lot of infrasonic and low-frequency noise. You don’t hear it, but it can make you sick. It is hard to put a number on how many people are affected, but some experts suggest that 15 percent of people living within one-half to one mile of one of these turbines will develop some sort of symptom. Sleep disturbance is the most common problem. If you are old, or young, tend to get carsick easily, or have a chronic medical disease, you are at higher risk. Some are affected so severely that they have to move.
Minnesota’s wind turbine setbacks are ridiculously outdated, although the Public Utilities Commission is trying to catch up. Some European countries have listened to their citizens and have moved setbacks to between half a mile and a mile. We listen to the big wind energy companies and are stuck around 500 feet.
There were five wind projects on the docket at the planning meeting, and I kept standing up with my two minutes of time for each of them trying to educate about infrasonic noise and about why we need to protect people with these setbacks. I think they thought I was a madman. I felt like a canary in the mine yelling, “Please, please – we can have wind turbines, but don’t place them closer then one-half mile from residences, or these people, especially vulnerable people, will get sick!”
We lost four and tied one (tabled for now). I felt devastated.
But don’t count me out, because this canary can still sing.
Gary Carlson is board-certified in family medicine, holistic medicine and medical acupuncture. He works at the Allina Medical Clinic in Northfield and the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing at the Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
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