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What are the health effects of wind farms?

A recent environmental study on the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm project highlights potential human health effects caused by wind turbines.

The good news? The study – the Environmental Impact Statement released by the Bureau of Land Management – asserts that the Chokecherry wind farm would be too far away from residents to cause measurable negative health impact.

The bad news is noise vibrations from the turbines have been linked to migraines, motion sickness, vertigo, and visual and gastrointestinal sensitivity, the EIS stated.

Shadow flicker, which occurs when shadows pass through windows as turbine blades pass in front of the sun, can initiate epilepsy and cause annoyance resulting in physical and mental stress.

The PacifiCorp energy company maintains four wind farms located in Converse County, 60 to 80 miles from Rawlins, said Margaret Oler, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power.

“To my knowledge, we have not received any complaints (about health issues),” Oler said.

People in Massachusetts complaining about adverse health effects prompted a research team of medical doctors and environmental experts to compile a report of possible health impacts and preventative measures. The report was released in January 2012.

Sheryl Grace, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Boston University, was part of the eight-member panel.

The most pressing potential health concerns they found coincided with the findings listed in the EIS. The shadow flicker can be diminished by correctly setting up the wind turbines in relation with the sun, Grace said.

Ice throw was another health concern the Massachusetts panel identified, where ice accumulates on a turbine blade and falls or is thrown off, potentially causing harm to those beneath the ice. That, too, is preventable by ensuring residential areas are far enough away from any falling ice.

One of the issues Grace and others on the research team found a lot of complaints about was noise level and low-frequency vibrations.

The argument is if there was a constant humming from the turbines, people could tune it out as “white noise,” she said. Because turbines make more of a “whoosh, whoosh” sound, followed by seconds of silence, people notice it. And there have been correlations between noise level and sleep deprivation.

“If someone’s not sleeping, that’s a problem,” Grace said.

People who are complaining about the turbines want them moved at least a mile from the nearest residential area, Grace said.

Vibrations appeared to affect only some people, while others had no complaints, Grace said. That could point to a psychosomatic issue, or it could mean some people are more susceptible to low-frequency vibrations.

“Is there an annoyance factor that leads to health effects?” she asked. “I think there’s so many things at play.”

But while vibrations could be causing some people health problems in Massachusetts, Grace also figured a wind farm in Wyoming would probably be rural enough to either cause no or very few health concerns.

While doing research for the report, Grace spoke to friends who worked on wind farms in Texas, and they said they never had any health problems from working there, nor did they hear of any residents complaining about health problems because of the turbines.

To Grace’s knowledge, no U.S. follow-up to the report is planned, but researchers in Canada are working on an in-depth study to measure the health of people living in the vicinity of wind farms, Grace said.

“I think it would be great if there were people to follow-up on this vibration aspect,” she said. “(The panel) would love to take what we know now and fill in the gaps.”

More Information


Possible heath effects linked to wind turbines

• Migraines

• Motion sickness

• Vertigo

• Visual and gastrointestinal sensitivity

• Epilepsy irritation

• Physical and mental stress

About the project

The wind farm, proposed by the Power Company of Wyoming, would be made up of 1,000 wind turbines on 229,076 acres of public and private land on two sites south of Rawlins. It’s expected to generate 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts of renewable power. Current construction is planned to begin in 2013.