Malcolm Swinbanks recalls the night that he set up instruments to take measurements inside a home near a wind turbine in Ubly, Michigan.
The air was calm and the sunset impressive, but after three hours, Swinbanks grew nauseous and had struggled to concentrate.
After five hours, he felt seasick.
When he left the house, he had trouble driving, and he didn’t feel normal for another five hours.
While living near wind farms like one proposed for Buck Mountain in Schuylkill and Columbia counties, some people have been reporting symptoms like sleep disturbance, headaches and dizziness. They suspect that their problems could be due to low-frequency noise they hear or from emissions called infrasound that fall below what humans normally hear.
Wind turbines do emit low-frequency noise and infrasound, especially when the wind is turbulent near the ground, but the scientific community disagrees about whether the turbines affect health.
Swinbanks, who started studying the health effects of low-frequency noise with airplane engines 40 years ago, presented a paper about what happened to him in Ubly during the Sixth International Meeting on Wind Turbine Noise in Glasgow, Scotland, April 20 to 23 [link].
Ed Palubinsky of North Union Township received a copy of Swinbanks’ paper and related information after he expressed reservations in a Standard-Speaker article on April 5 about wind turbines proposed for Buck Mountain near his home.
Along Buck Mountain, a company called Pattern Development wants to build 30 wind turbines in Schuylkill and Columbia counties and a transmission line in Black Creek Township, Luzerne County.
When talking about the project with the Standard-Speaker, Palubinsky said the wind turbines would alter the scenery that he has enjoyed his whole life and change Buck Mountain from a natural area to an industrial site. He also pointed out that turbines can kill bats and birds, while construction equipment could kill rattlesnakes on the mountain.
The effect of wind turbines on birds and bats is documented worldwide, and letters from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission verify that rattlesnakes live on Buck Mountain.
Wind turbines also can throw ice chunks and cast flickering shadows into homes if the blades spin between the sun and the home.
Despite those drawbacks, wind turbines produce electricity without emitting carbon dioxide and other gases that a consensus of the scientific community says are changing the earth’s climate.
The scientific community, however, leans against saying wind farms harm health through the sounds that they emit, including low-frequency noise, or through their inaudible vibrations called infrasound.
“For the past 10 years, or more, the leading objectors to wind turbines have led a very successful propaganda campaign against wind turbines, partly centered on supposed dangers of infrasound. We are now in a confused situation in which many people hold sincere beliefs about infrasound, but these beliefs are based on false information, which has been fed to them by objector groups and their allies,” Dr. Geoff Leventhall, a consultant on noise vibrations and acoustics in Surrey, England, said in a submission to the Australian Senate’s Select Committee on Wind Turbines.
In the past six years, seven groups reviewing scientific literature about wind farms and health have reached similar conclusions.
“The available evidence does not support any direct causal link between wind turbines and pathological effects in humans,” the Australian Psychological Society wrote to the select committee on May 4 after examining the seven reviews.
Courts, too, generally rejected claims that wind turbines impair health. Last year, the Energy Policy Institute, an adherent of clean energy, looked at the outcome of 49 cases in five nations [link]. In only one case, in Massachusetts, did courts rule in favor of plaintiffs who said turbines caused health problems.
Two researchers at the medical school of Washington University in St. Louis, however, believe Leventhall and others have been too quick to rule out that low-frequency noise and infrasound from wind turbines might cause health effects.
Writing last year in Acoustics Today, Alec Salt and Jeffrey Lichtenhan said no studies have been done on the consequences of long-term exposure [link].
They point out possible effects that they said require more study. For example, 5 percent of the nerve fibers in the inner ear are of a type that respond more to infrasound than audible sound.
“The million-dollar question,” they write, “is whether the effects of wind turbine infrasound stimulation stays confined to the ear and has no other influences on the person or animal.” Such stimulation, they say, might cause ringing of the ears or interrupt sleep.
They also theorize that low-frequency noise could worsen hearing loss from audible noise. And they said a patient with swelling of the fluid in her inner ear reported that her symptoms of nausea and dizziness worsened when she was near wind turbines.
Asked about Salt and Lichtenhan’s views, Leventhall said in an email that they describe health effects in which the sound is audible or greater than what wind turbines generate.
Salt did not reply to an email.
Low-frequency sound can produce health effects but at higher decibel pressure than wind turbines emit, according to an expert panel’s review of Wind Turbine Sound and Health for the American and Canadian wind energy associations in 2009.
The review cited a finding by Leventhall that a frequency of 20 hertz or cycles per second can be severely painful at 145 decibels. That’s roughly equivalent to jet aircraft, where low-frequency sounds hit 140 decibels from 80 feet away – a noise that other research cited in the review said can produce nausea and changes in blood pressure and respiration.
In addition to low-frequency noise and infrasound, wind turbines also produce audible nose from their mechanical parts and the swooshing of their blades.
The frequency or pitch of sounds from turbines also can change or modulate every second, an occurrence that annoyed four of 130 people living near wind turbines in the United Kingdom, according to one study cited in the review.
To minimize the sound, turbines can be built farther from homes and engineered to operate more quietly.
The World Health Organization said noise levels shouldn’t exceed 40 decibels outside a home or 30 decibels inside a bedroom. About two of every three people in the United Kingdom, however, live where the night noise exceeds that level, that nation’s Health Protection Agency said in 2009.
That same year, a proposal for the Buck Mountain wind farm predicted that the sound from the turbines would be between 45 and 50 decibels for homes along Buck Mountain Road. Most of Main Street in Nuremberg falls between the bands of 35 and 40 decibels.
About 5 percent of people living near wind turbines in the Netherlands were annoyed at 35 to 40 decibels and 18 percent were annoyed at 40 to 45 decibels, a study summarized by expert review for the wind associations said.
People vary in their ability to hear sounds, and those with negative attitudes toward wind turbines tended to report more annoyance from them, the review said.
Along Buck Mountain, some of the proposed tower locations have been moved since 2009 so the decibel predictions aren’t final and will depend on the type of turbine selected later, Matt Dallas, a spokesman for Pattern Development, said in an email.
Distance to homes
A model ordinance for Pennsylvania says the distance from a wind turbine to a home should be at least five times the height of the turbine’s hub, which is 1,310 feet for the Buck Mountain project. The two closest homes are 1,323 feet and 1,389 feet from a turbine.
“As a scientist and a health-care provider, it has become obvious to me that windmills pose a threat to the health and welfare of our citizens,” Dr. Henry Zielinski Jr., a dentist from Zion Grove, wrote on May 18 when forwarding Swinbank’s report to the Schuylkill County commissioners.
Zielinski also forwarded news reports from Brown County, Wisconsin, where three families moved out of homes to escape symptoms that they attribute to nearby wind farms and where the health board declared a local wind farm to be a hazard after studying the issue for four years.
For the Buck Mountain wind farm, Pattern Development took over the project from Penn Wind, which did most of the studies for the site and obtained zoning approval to build 30 wind turbines n 2009.
The zoning approval requires the company to substantially complete the work by July 2, 2016 or else the permit will be considered to be expired, Schuylkill County planning director Susan Smith said in a letter to the North Union Township supervisors on May 30.
Dallas said Pattern Development doesn’t plan to start work until 2016.
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