BAD AXE – In Huron County, reports of wind turbines causing death and miscarriages have circulated.
Health officials say the claims are full of hot air.
Gretchen Tenbusch, health officer for Huron and Tuscola counties’ health departments, said she had looked at five death certificates of individuals supposedly dying from wind turbines. Her review found that three of the people were “not even in a wind farm”; one had a heart attack and wind turbines couldn’t be linked to cause of death; and turbines could not have been blamed for the fourth person’s death.
While the turbine deaths were debunked, other residents have complained of health effects like migraines, Meniere’s disease, tinnitus and trouble sleeping.
So Tenbusch called on colleague Dr. Jevon McFadden.
McFadden is a Clinton County physician and medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assigned to the Michigan Department of Community Health and Human Services.
On Tuesday, he explained the public health impacts of wind energy to county commissioners, speaking mostly of sound and noise concerns.
“I’m not an acoustics expert by any means,” McFadden said. “I have been to homes, I have been up to turbines, I’ve been inside turbines, (and) I’ve spoken to a number of landowners of affected homes.”
McFadden cited a 2009 self-published study by pediatrician Nina Pierpont, in which she coins “Wind Turbine Syndrome” as making people sick. She interviewed 10 families and 38 people, relying on self-reported data, he said.
“In general, wind turbine syndrome is not widely accepted within medical science,” McFadden said.
That’s because, according to McFadden, the study was not medically reviewed. A 2013 ABC News report pointed out criticism for improper peer review (Pierpont reportedly chose her reviewers); the use of a small sample size and no control group; and the fact that Pierpont didn’t examine her subjects or their medical records, but interviewed them by phone.
“If the CDC doesn’t have any basis for what you’re talking about, that should be pretty strong evidence that there is nothing happening out there,” Commissioner Clark Elftman said.
There are, however, health effects of chronic exposure to wind turbine noise: hearing impairment, hypertension, ischemic heart disease and sleep disturbance.
But McFadden says other factors influence those ailments.
“Wind turbine visibility has been shown to be more strongly associated with self-reported symptoms than turbine noise itself,” he said. “Symptoms of stress, anger and annoyance also are more strongly associated with self-reported symptoms than actual noise levels themselves. And financial compensation, or lack thereof, is also reported, in several studies, to have a stronger association with self-reported symptoms than actual noise levels.”
The takeaway: wind turbine noise may not tell the entire story.
Another setback is the lack of published studies to actually curate that story. McFadden says there are four case series studies, which he characterized as “relatively weak” but important for generating hypotheses, and 26 cross-sectional studies that “can’t tell us whether or not one thing has caused another thing.”
However, annoyance of wind turbines is well documented in the limited amount of peer-reviewed studies and abundant local news reports, and often culled by online aggregators and interest groups opposing wind energy.
McFadden gleaned from a 2004 study by Eja Pedersen – “probably the leading authority on wind turbines in the world,” he said – that wind turbines do exhibit a quality survey respondents characterized as “more highly annoying than other environmental sources of noise” – aircraft, road traffic and railway noise.
Pedersen’s 2007 “Visual and acoustic impact of wind turbine farms on residents” study in the Netherlands took that notion further.
Survey respondents were exposed to wind turbine sound levels between 24 and 54 dBA, from distances as close to 55 feet and as far as 1.3 miles.
While researchers said the only health effect due to sound from wind turbines is, at high levels, interruption of sleep, the study pegged sound as the “most annoying aspect of wind turbines.”
“Sound is therefore an important and negative feature of wind farms and we recommend that, in the planning of wind farms, the negative impact of the sound and sound reduction should be given more attention,” the study states.
Researchers said the study couldn’t conclude whether health effects like sleep disturbance and stress are caused by annoyance or vice versa, or whether both are related to another factor.
People who have economical benefits from wind turbines shared a different perspective.
Researchers said they were much less or not at all annoyed, “even though they often live closer to wind farms and are exposed to higher sound levels” – and they reported less sleep interruptions than those who did not benefit financially.
Visibility of turbines also factor in, the researchers found.
“When wind turbines are invisible, they cause less annoyance,” the study states.
But the studies have limitations.
In a 2014 systematic review of health effects related to wind turbine noise exposure, J.H. Schmidt and Mads Klokker write, “selection bias and information bias of differing magnitudes were found to be present in all current studies investigating wind turbine noise exposure and adverse health effects.”
“What I mean by that (is) response rates have been relatively low – some as low as 8 percent, some upwards of 30 or 40 percent,” McFadden said. “But you could imagine that those who respond to such a survey are those who are generally more invested in whatever the survey is asking. They tend to be more opinionated … and thus they’re not going to present a representative sample of a community at large.”
According to McFadden, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that wind turbines cause objectively-measured adverse health outcomes to nearby residents.
As Huron County planners review a newly drafted ordinance regulating wind energy for 16 townships under county zoning, their biggest challenge comes in addressing sound from turbines. Of the 22-page document – almost three times the length of the 2010 revised ordinance – about half of it details sound. They will continue review at a special meeting, set for 7 p.m. Thursday.