Wind Turbine Noise and Human Health:
A Four-Decade History of Evidence that Wind Turbines Pose Risks
By Jerry L. Punch and Richard R. James
Jerry Punch, PhD, is an audiologist and professor emeritus at Michigan State University in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders.
Since his retirement in 2011, he has become actively involved as a private audiological consultant in areas related to his long-standing interest in community noise.
Richard James, INCE, BME, is an acoustical consultant with over 40 years of experience in industrial noise measurement and control. He served as an adjunct instructor in Michigan State University’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders from 1985-2013 and currently serves as an adjunct professor in Central Michigan University’s Department of Communication Disorders.
Many expert-review panels and some individual authors, in the U.S. and internationally, have taken the position that there is little literature to support concerns about adverse health effects (AHEs) from noise emitted by industrial wind turbines (IWTs). In this review, we systematically examine the literature that bears on some of the particular claims that are commonly made in support of the view that a causal link is non-existent. Investigation of the veracity of those claims requires that multiple topics be addressed, and the following specific topics were targeted for this review: (1) emissions of infrasound and low-frequency noise (ILFN) by IWTs, (2) the perception of ILFN by humans, (3) the evidentiary bases for establishing a causative link between IWTs and AHEs, as well as the physiological bases for such a link, (4) recommended setback distances and permissible noise levels, (5) the relationship between annoyance and health, (6) alternative causes of the reported health problems, (7) recommended methods for measuring infrasound, (8) foundations for establishing a medical diagnosis of AHEs due to IWTs, (9) research designs useful in establishing causation, (10) the role of psychological expectations as an explanation for the reported adverse effects, (11) the prevalence of AHEs in individuals exposed to IWTs, and (12) the scope and quality of literature addressing the link between IWT noise and AHEs. The reviewed evidence overwhelmingly supports the notion that acoustic emissions from IWTs is a leading cause of AHEs in a substantial segment of the population.
Whether infrasound and low-frequency noise (ILFN) from industrial wind turbines (IWTs) is detrimental to human health is currently a highly controversial topic. Advocates of industrialscale wind energy assert that there is no credible scientific evidence of a causal relationship, while many reputable professionals believe that there is sufficient scientific evidence to establish a causal link between IWTs and detrimental health effects for a non-trivial percentage of individuals who reside in communities hosting IWTs. The veracity of claims regarding the effects on human health is being debated on a global scale by the wind industry; individuals living near IWTs; attorneys and expert witnesses in courts of law; print and web-based media; documentary films (which currently include Windfall, Wind Rush, and Down Wind); and scientists and other professionals in government reports, on the Internet, and in scientific and professional papers presented at society meetings and published in peer-reviewed journals.
The debate surrounding IWTs extends to many controversial issues, including physical safety, visibility, shadow flicker, and threats to property values and wildlife. Many problems involving wind turbines, including mechanical failures, accidents, and other mishaps, have been discussed on the Internet. At least one website has extensively catalogued these incidents, and the large number of incidents reported by that site is described by its webmaster as grossly underestimating the actual number of documented incidents. The most vigorous debate, however, centers on ILFN and its effects on human health.
The overall purpose of this article is to provide a systematic review of legitimate sources that bear directly and indirectly on the question of the extent to which IWT noise leads to the many health complaints that are being attributed to it. The authors accessed most articles and reports referenced in this review by employing Google, Google Scholar, and PubMed as the primary search engines. Our basic aim was to provide a comprehensive and representative—though not exhaustive—review of the literature that is relevant to many of the claims made by wind industry advocates. An exhaustive review is an elusive and impractical goal, given the large volume of directly and indirectly related work done in this area over the past several decades and the current pace of such work.
We have discussed in this paper various elements of acoustics, sound perception, sound measurement, and psychological reactions, and the role these factors play in support of the view that a general-causative link exists between human health and ILFN emitted by IWTs. The available evidence warrants the following conclusions:
- Large wind turbines generate infrasound, which is not normally experienced as sound by most human listeners. Some people, however, experience it in the form of pathological symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, or motion sickness, which appear to be caused by the excitation of resonances inside closed structures and the human body itself.
- WTN has unique acoustic characteristics when compared to other environmental noises. These characteristics include low-amplitude, amplitude-modulated, intermittent occurrences of tones that mirror the peak energy of the blade-pass frequency and the first several harmonics. The coupling mechanisms in the inner ear prevent internally generated sound, but not externally generated sound, from being perceived, which means that perception of wind turbine infrasound is far more disturbing than infrasound generated within the human body.
- There is voluminous evidence, ranging from anecdotal accounts from around the world to peer-reviewed scientific research, that audible and inaudible low-frequency noise and infrasound from IWTs leads to complaints ranging from annoyance to AHEs in a substantial percentage of the population. Although sleep disturbance is the most common problem cited, a variety of other health problems has been reported by numerous reputable sources. Recent research is largely consistent with Pierpont’s original description of Wind Turbine Syndrome. Research on humans and lower animals has shown that it is biologically plausible that inner ear mechanisms, in conjunction with the brain, can process acoustic energy in ways that result in pathological perceptions that are not interpreted as sound. Both balance and hearing mechanisms appear to be involved in evoking these perceptions. The findings that infrasonic stimuli can amplitude modulate higher frequencies in the audible region, and that infrasound may be more perceptible when higher frequencies are absent, are especially compelling in suggesting that what we can’t hear can hurt us.
- To prevent AHEs, scientists have recommended that distances separating turbines and residences be 0.5-2.5 miles, and 1.25 miles (2 km) or more has been commonly recommended. Clearly, the short siting distances used by the industry for physical safety do not protect against AHEs. Alternatively, researchers have recommended sound levels typically ranging from 30-40 dBA for safeguarding health, which is consistent with the recommendation of nighttime noise levels by the WHO.
- Annoyance is a health issue for many people living near IWTs, which is consistent with both the WHO’s definition of health and contemporary models of the relationships among annoyance, stress, and health.
- The scientific evidence regarding factors other than amplitude-modulated ILFN as an explanation for most of the health complaints near IWTs, including electromagnetic fields (dirty electricity), is weak; the preponderance of research suggests that ILFN is the most viable explanation for such complaints.
- The A-weighted decibel scale, which effectively excludes infrasound and substantial amounts of low-frequency noise, is inadequate to predict the level of outdoor or indoor infrasound, to reveal correlations to infrasound, or to show a definitive relationship with AHEs, and achievement of these goals requires the development of new measurement methods.
- Even though Wind Turbine Syndrome is not currently included in the ICD coding system, that system includes most of the acknowledged symptoms of the syndrome. Medical professionals, therefore, have the necessary tools to evaluate and treat it, and that process has already begun on a limited scale.
- While some epidemiologically solid research has been done in the area of IWTs and AHEs, evidence from other sources cannot be ignored. Hill noted the nature of such sources in 1965, and Phillips, in 2011, described the importance of other kinds of evidence, including adverse event reports, in establishing a causative relationship. One of the strongest types of evidence is the case-crossover experimental design, which the wind industry has unwittingly imposed for years on multiple families, many of whom have abandoned their homes to escape IWT noise exposure.
- While psychological expectations and the power of suggestion conceivably can influence perceptions of the effects of WTN on health status, no scientifically valid studies have yet convincingly shown that psychological forces are the major driver of such perceptions.
- Accurate estimates of the percentage of people who are affected by IWTs exist only for annoyance, not AHEs. Multiple reports, however, emphasize the relationships that exist between annoyance, stress, health, and quality of life, and indicate that a non-trivial percentage of people who live near IWTs experience AHEs. Those reports are consistent with thousands of reports worldwide. Although it seems reasonable to conclude that noise from IWTs does not cause AHEs in the majority of exposed populations, and that accurate estimates of AHEs are yet to be established, it is also clear that considerable numbers of people are affected and that they deserve to be heard and protected from adverse health impacts.
- The available literature, which includes research reported by scientists and other reputable professionals in peer-reviewed journals, government documents, print and web-based media, and in scientific and professional papers presented at society meetings, is sufficient to establish a general causal link between a variety of commonly observed AHEs and noise emitted by IWTs.
Based on all the evidence presented, our fundamental view is that the controversy surrounding AHEs should not be polarized into two groups consisting of either pro-wind or anti-wind factions, but rather one in which there is room for a third, pro-health, perspective. Essentially, the pro-wind view is that IWTs should be installed wherever feasible, that definitive scientific research is lacking to indicate that turbines cause AHEs, and that if you can’t hear it, you can’t feel it. The anti-wind view is that IWTs should not be installed anywhere because wind is not an economically viable source of renewable energy, that all government subsidies and development efforts should end, and that what we can’t hear can hurt us. A pro-health view is that there is enough anecdotal and scientific evidence to indicate that ILFN from IWTs causes annoyance, sleep disturbance, stress, and a variety of other AHEs to warrant siting the turbines at distances sufficient to avoid such harmful effects, which, without proper siting, occur in a substantial percentage of the population. That view holds that what we can’t hear can hurt some of us, and that the precautionary principle must be followed in siting IWTs if such health risks are to be avoided. Industrial-scale wind turbines should not be located near people’s homes, educational and recreational facilities, and workplaces. It is our belief that the bulk of the available evidence justifies a pro-health perspective. It is unacceptable to consider people living near wind turbines as collateral damage while this debate continues.
Further scientific investigations of the dose-response relationship between IWT noise and specific health effects in exposed individuals are sorely needed. However, people should be protected by conservative siting guidelines that recognize the concerns raised in this review. Hopefully, such research can and will be planned and executed by independent researchers with the full cooperation of the wind industry. The major objective of such research should be to reveal directions for the industry in balancing the energy needs of society with the need to protect public health.Download this paper