When new technologies become prevalent, it is human nature to study the risks that may accompany them. We once questioned if the human body could travel at the speeds enabled by the automobile and whether microwave ovens could cause cancer. Telephones were once claimed to be harmful to people’s well-being. Then, eventually, through scientific research and studying real world scenarios, we learn the facts, and identify and separate actual risks from understandable, but unfounded fears.
This is a common cycle, and it is the situation in which the wind industry currently finds itself. Wind energy enjoys considerable public support and hundreds of thousands of people around the world live near operating wind turbines without ill effects. However, wind energy also has its detractors who have publicized their concerns that the sound emitted from wind turbines is a direct cause of adverse health effects.
These questions are important, but luckily, they have been asked for many years, studied and the quality peer-reviewed: evidence concludes that the effects from the audible or inaudible sound from wind turbines, is just like any other sound. Just as some are potentially annoyed by other sounds associated with modern life, some may not be pleased with the sound or other aspects of wind energy – but annoyance is not evidence of, nor the same as, an adverse health effect.
The wind industry takes seriously the issue of health, both of individuals and of the planet. In 2009, our industry took a proactive step towards better understanding the assertions some made regarding the sound of wind turbines by commissioning an independent, comprehensive review of the question: “Wind Turbine Sound and Health Effects, Expert Panel Review” (Colby, 2009).. Since then, multiple scientists around the world have thoroughly reviewed similar potential concerns and numerous governmental studies in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have each confirmed the 2009 Expert Panel findings. Indeed, a Massachusetts Department of Public Health study just last year combined experts from the fields of public health, epidemiology, toxicology, neurology and sleep medicine, neuroscience, and mechanical engineering to study this subject. Their study found a lack of evidence that noise from wind turbines causes health problems or disease and that claims to the contrary were not supported: “There is no evidence for a set of health effects from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a "Wind Turbine Syndrome."
That might sound contrary to what you’ve been hearing in Wisconsin. As reported in the Green Bay Press Gazette (Jacque: Study finds ‘dangerous levels’ of noise from turbines), wind energy opponents in Wisconsin used a recent report on low-frequency noise and infrasound to sound an alarm on the dangers of wind turbines. Claiming that this study indicates a significant issue exists, opponents are calling for an immediate moratorium on wind development. However, this drastic conclusion is not supported by the results of this report. While the report identifies opportunities for additional study, it is important to note that the only consultant who claimed to experience health impacts and heard turbine sounds at each location is described within the report as “almost exclusively retained by opponents of wind projects.” He asserts that setbacks in excess of a mile are not sufficient, and he and one of his previous co-authors are the only consultants of any kind (acoustical, ecological or the other thousands of technical professionals and employees who routinely work in and around operating projects) in the world known to have reported effects during or after a visit to a wind turbine. Furthermore, acoustical expert David Hessler, whose firm was the prime consultancy for this effort, commented in several recent interviews that "Current indications are that the levels of low-frequency noise from the project are quite low and nothing was found that would suggest a problem." (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wind farm study results a mixed bag).
Such statements are consistent with similar studies, conducted by Hessler and others, which have found that a relatively small percentage of people living in close proximity to projects find them bothersome (Noise Control Engineering Journal, Vol. 59, No. 1, 2011). It is unclear whether these limited concerns are directly related to sound or the mere presence of the wind farm itself and their opinions of the project prior to construction are not documented. See also http://www.naruc.org/Grants/Documents/Final%20full%20MN%20SERCAT%20rep%20with%20NARUC%20cover%20Hessler.pdf . The following table from Hessler et al shows that a very small percentage of the population in and around a wind farm find the noise objectionable and complain about it.
In reality, there is little news to be found in the new report. It claims only that wind turbines produced measurable levels of infrasound, something we have not disputed. It has been widely known for many years that infrasound is emitted by wind turbines. As explained in the 2009 Expert Panel Review, the mere presence of measurable levels of infrasound does not mean that people are being harmed. We are surrounded [MB2] by measurable levels of infrasound and low-frequency noise, both from natural (i.e. ocean waves[MB3] ) and man-made sources. Recent work in Australia noted that infrasound levels by the beach or in the downtown business district exceeded those measured in proximity to wind turbines (PacificHydro and Sonus, December, 2010[MB4] ). This most recent report by Hessler et al includes similar data: measurements collected outside and in close proximity to turbines while they were on and off do not indicate substantial infrasonic sound from the turbines– turbine related sounds were found to dominate only at frequencies greater than 100 Hz (G2 note on[MB5] a Piano) (Appendix B, Figure 5-1).
While politicians and others may opine on this issue for various reasons, current science does not support the assertion that there is anything inherently dangerous about the sound of wind turbines. Opposition groups have expressed concerns about infrasound for many years, and the numerous scientific reviews referenced above, have not identified any reason for concern. Dr. Geoff Leventhall, a world-renowned infrasound and low-frequency sound expert, recently noted, “There is no mystery about infrasound, but it has been falsely used by those opposed to wind turbines in order to alarm others, and also as a distraction, which they know will be difficult and time consuming to work on, whilst at the same time they ask for a moratorium on further construction until the work is done."
Furthermore, consideration of any potential health effects related to wind turbine sound should always include the benefits of wind energy for the environment and public health. Wind energy is an inexhaustible resource that generates no air or water pollution or hazardous waste, does not deplete fresh water resources, and requires no mining, transportation, or refining of a feedstock or fuel.
Experts around the world have resoundingly stated that audible and inaudible sounds emitted from wind turbines do not represent a human health risk. At the end of the day, we must make choices as to how we power our society. While questions may be raised about wind energy, its impacts are understood and the industry is constantly making strides to improve technology and siting practices to further lessen it already limited effects. However, the impacts of other forms of energy generation are also well understood and well documented, and many of the impacts from these traditional forms of generation have especially acute, negative impacts on the health of our children, the quality of the air we breathe, and the water we drink.
Time and time again, scientific evidence has shown that wind turbines, in addition to providing affordable, homegrown energy and local economic development, are safe and benefit public health. That’s a combination Wisconsin communities should support.
Ontario tribunal turns down anti-wind appeal, December 26, 2012
Reason trumps fear in Australian debate on wind energy and sound, December 5, 2012
Nissenbaum paper on turbine sound recycles claims on wind energy and health already found inadequate by courts and expert panel, November 16, 2012
Negative oriented personality traits and wind turbine sound, November 2, 2012
Quality of research on wind farms published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, September 25, 2012
Wind energy associations: Wind 'one of safest forms of electricity', July 30, 2012
'Say No to Wind Turbines'–and Yes to ?, July 25, 2012
Fact check: On turbine sound, it's Bryce vs. science, July 24, 2012
Fourteen wind energy myths debunked, June 20, 2012
Wind turbines not a threat to human health, another study finds, May 31, 2012
Fact check: Lomborg lacking on wind's economics, emissions reductions, March 23, 2012
Public opinion watch: Ontarians: Wind power one of safest forms of electricity generation, March 6, 2012
Opinion: Wind turbines are good for our health, March 2, 2012
Review of wind turbine sound studies gives debate needed balance, February 28, 2012
Anti-wind-farm ‘astroturfers’ in Australia, February 27, 2012
NBC4's 'iReporter' lacks context on wind turbine sound, February 14, 2012
Fact check: Bryce misleads again on land, sound, resource use, January 31, 2012
Despite science, wind turbine sound sparks discussion in Wisconsin, January 30, 2012
Massachusetts clears wind of health effects after independent experts review evidence, January 20, 2012
Opinion: Dr. W. David Colby: Turbines and health, December 2, 2011
Canadian researchers: No direct link between wind turbines and health, November 29, 2011
Wind power: A quiet solution to climate change, June 27, 2011
Sierra Club Canada 1.1: Time to confront anti-wind fear campaign, June 15, 2011
Environmental Defence (Canada): 'No basis' for health impact claims, June 6, 2011
Sierra Club Canada: Time to confront anti-wind disinformation campaign, June 3, 2011
WINDPOWER report: New study finds minimal low-frequency and infrasound impact from wind turbines, May 25, 2011
Does the sound of money soothe Wind Turbine Syndrome?, April 25, 2011
WHO guidelines on sound are … guidelines, March 28, 2011
Scientists, doctor weigh in on wind and health, November 30, 2010
Wind turbine sound: The neighbors speak, March 18, 2010
Expert panel concludes wind turbine sounds not harmful to human health, December 15, 2009