6 Problems with Wind Turbine Syndrome

Some believe that wind turbines are sickening people. Might there be anything to this?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Environment, Health

Skeptoid #388
November 12, 2013
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Today we're going to take a look into the high-powered world of wind generated electricity, and of one of its alleged side-effects: Wind Turbine Syndrome. For the past few years, a growing number of activists have charged that proximity to a wind turbine causes detrimental medical effects in humans. It's called Wind Turbine Syndrome, and depending on who you ask, it causes everything from fatigue to cancer. Is it possible that such a relatively simple and common machine could be sickening people?

For a long time, these giant modern windmills, usually clustered in wind farms, were known only to be ugly and annoying, as well as visually distracting. Other than being audible, mainly from the industrial roar of an air conditioning unit attached to the larger ones, they are not known to have any other environmental effects.

I wanted to hear what they sound like, so I went out to some nearby, some really huge 3-bladed ones that are pretty typical. I found that the air conditioners, which appear to be the same size and type as my own at my house, were the only audible noise. However, when you stand almost directly under the blades, you can hear a faint whoosh as each blade goes by. Here is a recording I made by pointing my phone up at the blades:

Note that it's really hard to hear anything other than the hum from the air conditioners. Here's another I found online:

And here's one more, said to be from a smaller wind turbine on a really windy day, note how you can hear the blades better:

Things changed in 2009, when a New York pediatrician, Dr. Nina Pierpont, self-published a pamphlet she called Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment. Her "natural experiment" was to speak on the telephone with 23 people who answered her advertisement asking if they lived near a wind turbine and if they ever felt sick. 15 of them of them said they had family members who would probably agree. Based on these 38 personal assessments, Pierpont claimed science proved her belief that wind turbines cause a vast array of maladies.

A number of activists, including a handful of other doctors, have joined her crusade, convinced that wind turbines are causing a huge number of physical ailments that we all previously took for granted. Unfortunately, she has failed to win any significant support from the science or medicine communities. Let's now look at six reasons why that's the case:

Problem #1: There is no consensus on what it does or who it affects.

The first thing you'll notice if you do any independent research on Wind Turbine Syndrome is how non-specific it is. Do pay attention to the fact that every article lists different causes and different effects. Is it sound, light, radio frequency, electromagnetism? Does it cause headaches, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, dizziness, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis? Just about everyone who's written about Wind Turbine Syndrome has a different idea about what it is and what it does. This fact doesn't prove anything, but it should serve as a radiantly waving red flag to warn you that the subject might be something upon which there's little agreement. And, on matters of sound science, there's generally at least a standard model of some kind. So while this doesn't prove anything, it should give any responsible researcher cause to reconsider.

Problem #2: The symptoms attributed to Wind Turbine Syndrome do not require any cause.

The complaints boil down to a few basic symptoms that are most often reported: fatigue, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, dizziness, irritability. These are among what we call "symptoms of life" — things that happen to everyone very often, none of which require a specific cause. We all feel fatigued sometimes, we all get headaches, everyone's got anxiety about something, and we all sometimes have trouble sleeping. In other words, the symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome are indistinguishable from normal, healthy responses to life.

I searched and searched, and have found exactly zero blinded studies done to see if the proximity of active wind turbines produces a physiological reaction that deviates from the norm. So at this point, there is no reliable evidence that the problem exists at all. There are any number of personal stories — Nina Pierpont relates dozens on her web site — but without any controlled study, her reports of those people's personal beliefs tell us nothing.

Problem #3: The timing of complaints is too unlikely.

If wind turbines did cause medical problems, we would expect to find a relationship between when they are installed and when people begin experiencing symptoms. But we don't.

Nina Pierpont's Wind Turbine Syndrome web site tells us that symptoms come on as early as ten minutes after getting close to a turbine. The first complaints, though, began not within minutes or days, but more than ten years after people began to be exposed.

In fact, the literature seems devoid of any cases of Wind Turbine Syndrome prior to Nina Pierpont's 2009 book. But pointing to this raises an obvious counterargument: Just because we didn't know how to diagnose it yet doesn't mean nobody suffered from it. While this sounds like a valid argument, it doesn't stand up. Whenever we've discovered the cause of a disease, like tuberculosis or leukemia, we have data that tells us people still suffered from the condition, undiagnosed though it may have been. With wind turbines, there has never been any evidence to suggest that "symptoms of life" have increased since the early 2000s when construction really started to take off.

In short, the timing of "symptoms of life" and the appearance of wind turbines show no relationship.

Problem #4: The geographic dispersion of complaints is too unlikely.

If wind turbines did cause medical problems, we would expect to find a relationship between prevalence of the syndrome and populations living near wind farms. But we don't.

In fact, it's almost the case that the opposite is true. The people who should be most affected are those who live on the land where the wind turbines actually are. However a number of surveys of registered complaints have found that not a single person who has leased land to wind companies has reported illness as a result; and that worldwide, the residences of anti-wind activists are no closer to wind turbines than other people. Activists have charged that gag orders prohibiting complaints are part of all such lease agreements, but Dr. Simon Chapman, a public health researcher in Australia, has reviewed many such contracts and has yet to find such a clause.

It's also noteworthy that Wind Turbine Syndrome seems to happen almost exclusively in English speaking countries. In countries where little media coverage or activism has taken place in the local language, nobody seems to have noticed any problem with wind turbines. In countries like Germany and Spain, which are major users of wind power, mentions of Wind Turbine Syndrome have only just begun to appear; creating an even starker contrast than that in the English speaking world between how long the farms have been in use and when complaints of problems have appeared. China has the world's largest installation of wind turbines, with over a quarter of the world's total; and Wind Turbine Syndrome remains virtually unheard of.

In short, the locations of wind turbines and the locations of people suffering from them show no statistical relationship.

Problem #5: Only implausible causes have been suggested.

When you read the whole history of Wind Turbine Syndrome, various activists have suggested various mechanisms by which it causes physiological damage. Electromagnetic radiation has been suggested, but has largely dropped out of the popular literature; perhaps due to the fact that wind turbines are not significant sources. The glint of sunlight reflecting off the spinning blades has been blamed, but this seems to have been dropped also; probably because the white-painted blades don't make any noticeable glint and actual glints from reflective office buildings, etc., don't produce any ill effects. About the only cause that remains in the literature is sound — infrasound, to be specific: sound that is of such low frequency that it's below the audible spectrum.

There are two massive problems with this lone remaining claim. First and most obviously is the easily measurable fact that wind turbines do not produce any significant infrasound; and second and only slightly less obvious is the fact that infrasound has never been shown to enhance the symptoms of life: headaches, insomnia, and so on. A number of laboratory experiments have found potentially interesting effects on people from infrasound, but they don't include these symptoms, and have only been found when infrasound was played at high levels in an enclosed room. Out in the open, where the source is far away and producing almost no infrasound to begin with, we shouldn't (and don't) find any effects.

Problem #6: Almost nobody seems to agree that it exists.

From a survey of the published literature, I could only find the names of eleven authors who had written more than one published piece claiming that wind turbines are dangerous — published by someone other than themselves or each other (and I am including blogging as self-publication). In terms of impact factor (a common way to gauge the influence or reliability of a published source), this puts Wind Turbine Syndrome below just about any crazy idea you can come up with, less popular even than the claim that world leaders are reptilian aliens wearing electronic disguises.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Considering this, it's received an outrageously disproportionate amount of attention from the press. Why? Probably the same reason the press promotes any wild or sensational idea. It garners eyeball share and sells ads.

Now, obviously, the lack of support among researchers does not prove that Wind Turbine Syndrome doesn't exist; the bandwagon fallacy explicitly states that popular belief does not constitute proof. It's absolutely possible that Nina Pierpont and her supporters are that much farther ahead of today's scientific understanding. But fringe beliefs remain on the fringe for one overwhelming reason: they're wrong far more often than they're right. If it does turn out that science is wrong and Pierpont is right, then Skeptoid (and the rest of the scientific literature) will gladly report on that new development.

There's one piece of consistency with Wind Turbine Syndrome, and that is that it bears all the signs of a psychogenic condition. Stress affects everyone, producing the effects we term symptoms of life. When we hear that some new cause has been identified that's said to trigger those symptoms, we tend to attribute our suffering to that cause. When life happens to take us near that cause (wind turbines in this case), anxiety causes us to focus our attention on those symptoms. From our anecdotal perspectives, the reality of the syndrome has just been confirmed. Once a sufferer has made a correlation between the wind turbines and the symptoms, it's a virtual certainty that that sufferer will attribute the symptoms to the wind turbines. This has, so far, been the conclusion of the vast majority of serious researchers who have sought a cause for what Pierpont calls Wind Turbine Syndrome.

 

Brian Dunning

© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Chapman, S. "The Sickening Truth about Wind Farm Syndrome." New Scientist. 6 Oct. 2012, Issue 2885: 26-27.

DTI. The Measurement of Low Frequency Noise at Three UK Wind Farms. London: Department of Trade and Industry UK, 2006.

Leventhal, G. "Infrasound from Wind Turbines: Fact, Fiction or Deception." Canadian Acoustics. 1 Apr. 2006, Volume 24, Number 2: 29-36.

NHMRC. Wind Turbines and Health: A Rapid Review of the Evidence. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, 2010.

Pierpont, N. Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment. Santa Fe: K-Selected Books, 2009.

Rogers, A., Manwell, J.,Wright, S. Wind Turbine Acoustic Noise. Amherst: Renewable Energy Research Laboratory, University of Massachusetts, 2006.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "6 Problems with Wind Turbine Syndrome." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 12 Nov 2013. Web. 21 Sep 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4388>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 98 comments

I want to point out that your anecdotal experience was pretty meaningless as wind-turbine noise of concern is below the threshold of human hearing. So ya, it was 'quiet' for you even while generating considerable sound energy. Infrasound has been shown to induce anxiety and nausea.

The idea is that long term exposure to this low frequency vibration body causes anxiety and related symptoms (headache, nausea, etc). Resonant frequency of eyes is about 11Hz, for example and may cause one to feel 'strange' and have the sensation of seeing things in peripheral vision that aren't there.

It seems a reasonable theory and I'm not going to dismiss it without a serious study (certainly not based on your anecdotal evidence and misunderstanding of the issue) . Seems likely such studies have already been done - anyone have references?

Ian, Canada
January 16, 2014 11:11am

Coming from the only known area where a turbine farm has been legally halted and publishing a "skeptic" website, I was curious as to what science had to say on wind turbine syndrome. Naive me! Science seems to be all over the place so I finally ended up publishing examples that show how many shades of "truth" there are on the subject. Needless to say, I'm as confused as when I started.
"The Prof"
http://www.bunch-of-malarkey.com/

Regis Yaworski, Prince Edward County, ON, Canada
February 28, 2014 8:24am

I am living near a wind farm and I am suffering of a lot of WTS. My son started nose blooding without recognizing any visible reason. Nearly every day-very strong. so I wrote the dates of blooding into a calender for one year. Then I could see that there was a connection with the windmills (when all three were working) for 100%. 28 other people of our village suffered of the same symptoms. Migrena,nose blooding, brain bloodings, heart-rhythm-problems and also Schlaganfall (brain strikes).... I went to the law because the infrasound measure was more than79 decibel in my living room. seven years later, after I knew already this symptoms I discovered the study of Nina Pierpont. It goes hand in hand with my observations and I am sure she is right. You cannot hear infrasound- but you will feel it- be sure. You cannot see radioactivity - but you will feel it - be sure. But there would be a solution -take the right dose and the right distance - and ther would not be a problem. But first you have to win against political power, money and energy concerns who try to make true science wrong to gain moro andmore money.

Auguste, Austria
April 2, 2014 2:42pm

You are comparing different types of sound.

http://bst.sagepub.com/content/31/4/296.abstract

The low frequencies from wind turbines can not only be annoying, but prevent you from getting sleep, especially if when they are cited within 550M as they are allowed to be in much of North America. Ignoring this will result in negative experiences for countless people who are against their will forced to live next to wind turbines is a SURE FIRE way to turn people against it.

Instead of dismissing any concerns and telling people they are imagining things, how about asking for standards that site large turbines far enough away that people cannot be bothered by the infrasound. At least 2km would be a good start.

But it looks like the wind industry is just going to go ahead and ignore popular concern, just as the nuclear industry did in the 1970s which killed development for over a generation.

Norskediv, St.Louis, USA
April 9, 2014 11:54pm

Every time you drive your car at highway speeds you are exposing yourself to between 80 and 120 decibels of multi-frequency infrasound. Auto makers try to reduce it because it gets annoying above 120 db or so.

Given the logarithmic pressure scale of decibels, it means that riding in a car subjects you to thousands of times the infrasonic pressure variation as standing under a wind turbine at full speed.

Somehow we manage to survive highway driving without becoming quivering blobs of goo. I've seen parents drive their babies around to get them to sleep.

Given this, and all the other gaps in the WTS argument, I will say, yes, you are imagining things. You are imagining things vividly enough that it is inducing emotionally derived real physical symptoms.

Imagine if a trusted friend told you that he saw your child/parent/spouse die in a car accident. You would have an extreme emotional reaction that would, in turn, induce a severe set of physical reactions. Now imagine that your trusted friend was mistaken, but you didn't know that. You would still be experiencing real physical symptoms from the emotional shock, but for no real reason. That is what we have here.

Canute, Central Vermont
April 11, 2014 11:29am

"You cannot see radioactivity - but you will feel it"

You can, actually, see radiation. Not in that "light is EM radiation so...well there you have it" way. Astronauts see flashes of white light when cosmic rays interact with their eyes and a non-insignificant number of people associated with radiological accidents (like the Demon Core going critical by accident) reported seeing flashes of blue light at the time of the incident.

Another Nick, Alexandria VA
May 5, 2014 11:23am

Check out Mike Rowe's "Dirty Jobs" episode where he takes on changing the oil inside a wind turbine. I'll relate what I remember.

The climb up is pretty epic.

The inner spaces of the wind turbines are awfully small. And they need a very serious re-engineering. The team has to get the smallest person in the group to sort of stand on his head, and reach around, looking for the bolt that his custom-bolt-tool will take off.

Mike can't even get in there. A brave cameraman did to show the tight squeeze.

Then the oil comes splashing down on his face and goggles. Imagine his happiness.

Oil filter is then swapped.

Then, oh happy joy, new oil has to be *added*.

We have wind turbines up near Boulder, Colorado.

I've seen them strip their gears and do a runaway until they come apart. Pretty spectacular stuff! That's a lot of angular momentum (energy of a rotating thing) in there.

I seriously think we need a far better design if we're going to rely on wind power.

And a question I've never gotten an answer to:

Wyoming has wind. It has wind all the time. It never stops. It literally has driven people insane.

Now: Why aren't there wind turbines there? It has to be one of the steadiest wind sources around.

Wyoming is *amazingly* unpopulated; it's like the creator took all the cool stuff of Wyoming and jammed it all into the NW corner, making Yellowstone Park, which is something you must see.

Any help would be most appreciated.

Thanks,
Dave

QuantumDavid, Denver, CO
August 11, 2014 9:54am

From my limited understanding of wind turbine engineering, the airfoil tip velocity is arbitrarily limited because of aeroacoustic noise generation. I know there is research being performed in academia and industry on computational aeroacoustic simulation of wind turbine blades as blade tip velocity has not reached the efficiency limit. However, noise pollution is regarded as a legitimate issue and is what I would argue to be the only possible objective contribution to "wind turbine syndrome".

Joe, South Dakota
August 12, 2014 11:54am

David, there are wind farms in Wyoming and more are under construction or in planning. However, there is more to developing a wind farm than putting up wind turbines. The electricity must be transmitted to where it is needed, thus construction of additional transmission lines is required. There are few major population centers nearby, so it is often more economic to build wind farms closer to such locations.

Canyon, Verde
August 17, 2014 1:23pm

There's a problem with this particular piece of refutation: it relies almost entirely on one badly-done study. It's a refuted *study*, not a refutation of WTS.

Wind Turbine Syndrome -- or stress from the effects of nearby wind turbines -- is real. When a person lives in an area where flicker, noise, or infrasound from the turbine can affect him/her, it's a form of stress that can bring on or exacerbate illness.

There have been well-documented cases, but they are relatively uncommon compared to the general population nearby the wind generators. Most are caused by poor siting and pre-construction planning. As with any technology, bad planning and engineering can and will cause problems, but overall, wind energy technology is quite safe. Deaths associated with wind energy are almost entirely due to repair technical falls, with two recent deaths when a turbine caught fire while techs were working inside.

This is a very safe and useful technology; the solution is to give consideration to noise, infrasound, and flicker in placement of the turbines and design accordingly. Wind turbines will prove increasingly important and should be as well-designed as possible.

Dogmug, Philadelphia, PA
August 29, 2014 12:21pm

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