FALMOUTH, Mass. – Last September, under the cover of darkness, Barry Funfar set out on an act of civil disobedience. His target was a wind turbine the town installed about 1,600 feet from his Falmouth home. Funfar used sticky-backed letters and a large poster-board to vandalize a welcome sign near the turbine’s base. When he was done, the new sign read, “The Noise from This Turbine is Killing Me.” And the word “killing” was in red, and he signed his name with a thick black marker.
“I had this huge foam board and covered the whole thing. I used gorilla tape to make it hard to take off. I figured the police would be up to my house the next morning or something. But I heard nothing,” Funfar said.
Dozens of people living near the 1.65-megawatt turbine have reported sleep interruptions, headaches and vertigo since it was turned on last April. Neighbors say it’s like sea sickness – some people feel it, others don’t. But the effects seem to be cumulative in that symptoms appear and increase the longer they’re near the turbine.
What’s not clear is why. A town-commissioned sound study concluded the turbine produces broad spectrum sound at levels within town and state guidelines. But residents say it’s not the volume as much as the type of sound that’s the problem.
“I’ve learned it’s just a different kind of noise. It’s like it gets inside of me and just causes so much stress and anxiety that even when it isn’t going I have this fear of when it is going to start up again,” Funfar said.
Residents primarily report three different types of turbine noise (all of which we were unable to record on our visits to the turbine). The first and most easily understood noise is a swooshing sound that’s made at regular intervals when the blades spin. Then, there’s another, more erratic sound, which some compare to a sneaker bouncing around in a drier.
Heather Goldstone says both of those noises are called impulse sounds, which scientists know are harder to get used to than constant sounds. But for reasons scientists don’t understand, wind turbine noise seems to be more disturbing than other noises such as airports and highways.
“Many scientists and wind-energy advocates say that while people may become annoyed by turbine noise, annoyance is not considered a health impact from a clinical perspective. That said, chronic annoyance can build into stress, and stress could cause many of the symptoms people are complaining about,” Goldstone.
Goldstone cited the work of Dr. Michael Nissenbaum, a physician who has studied the impacts of two wind farms in Maine on nearby residents. “He told me he thinks there’s a more direct explanation: That sleep deprivation caused by turbine noise is taking a toll on people’s mental and physical health,” she said.
The residents who report being the most severely affected by Wind One blame low-frequency sound, often called infrasound, that is inaudible and controversial. They say it’s like a pulse that gets into their heads and makes their hearts race.
“People have different sensitivities to sound, particularly in the low-frequency range,” Goldstone says. “The question is whether sounds below a person’s hearing threshold can affect the ear in other ways and possibly lead to health impacts. Conventional wisdom says no, but a couple of recent studies say maybe. There’s just not enough science available to sort this out yet.”
Steven Clarke is the top wind expert in Governor Patrick’s administration. Clarke says he won’t downplay residents’ complaints. But it’s important to recognize that Falmouth is only one out of 26 turbines that have been installed in Massachusetts, including a half-dozen turbines similar in size and capacity to Wind One.
“Once you put that context around the Falmouth situation,” he says, “I think it becomes clear that we should look at this as a specific case and not generalize that wind energy in general is problematic.”
State leaders have heard complaints about the lack of science as town boards make decisions, and Clarke says the state is looking to partner with a scientific institution to further study turbine noise.
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