Wind farms and health – Revisiting the debate

The following is a recent information sheet put together by researcher Jon Gorr.

Wind power has been in use around the world for decades with very little human impact. Research occurs when issues create enough interest or concern to compel researchers and scientists into study. Governments fund research but often on a need to know basis. If they don’t need to know, its more likely than not because there’s insufficient interest in the topic and if there’s not enough interest it’s because there’s not enough harm being done to merit people being interested in the topic.

The growth in windfarm construction has caused some community concern of late.  By late 2009, some 50 Australian windfarms were meeting approximately 1% of Australia’s electricity demands.  This mirrors growth world-wide.  In the German State of Schleswig-Holstein there are more than 2,270 wind-turbines, more than 800 of them along the North Sea coast. As at the end of June 2010 there were more than 21,315 wind-turbines across Germany.  The health effects are debated in many communities in which windfarms are planned.

Well, are they safe?

In July 2010 the Australian National Health & Medical Research Council concluded:
“The health effects of many forms of renewable energy generation, such as wind farms, have not been assessed to the same extent as those from traditional sources.

However, renewable energy generation is associated with few adverse health effects compared with the well documented health burdens of polluting forms of electricity generation.[1]

Professor Peter Seligman agrees.  He says that beyond 360 metres, the level of infrasound emitted from a wind-farm, typically between 1 and 20 Hz, is below the ambient levels near a beach and below that in the CBD of a city.  On the other hand, we are all subjected to far higher internally self‐generated natural infrasound levels which clearly, are not a problem.[2]

But isn’t there medical opposition to wind farms?

There is some opposition to wind farms.    “Wind farms….currently cause a high degree of anxiety and stress in local communities, which in itself is an adverse impact that needs to be addressed as far as possible.” [3] Is that because of the noise and shadow flicker limits required under the wind farm planning guidelines?  Probably not.  It’s the social and economic aspects of major projects that have lasting impacts on local communities.  In some instances these are very direct and pit neighbour against neighbour where one sees a financial benefit from a lease for example, and another gains no financial benefit and sees only negative impacts from vegetation removal, visual intrusion etc.

Dr Geoff Levanthall explains the medical consequences thus:

Once antagonisms been developed, even the slightest perception of a noise may lead to stress and, in its turn, long term stress may lead to somatic effects. However, this is not a function of the characteristics of the noise alone, but of the noise and listener in combination[4]

Hardly a medical reason to oppose windfarms.

Actual medical opposition to wind farms, at least at a distance of less than 2 km from a dwelling, comes from Nina Pierpoint, a general practitioner who claims to be an authority on “wind turbine syndrome”. She’s the author of a 2009 self-published book containing descriptions of the health problems of just 10 families (38 people, 21 adults) in five different countries who once lived near wind turbines and who are convinced the turbines made them ill. With approximately 100,000 turbines worldwide and uncounted 1,000s living around them, her sample is too small to have any scientific value.

Further, it was conducted without scientific controls. Symptoms she describes are common symptoms in the community and no evidence has been presented that such symptoms are more common in people living near wind turbines. She doesn’t include interviews with people living near windfarms who do not report health effects.

This is rather odd, because Pierpoint admits[5] that:

Sleep disturbance, annoyance, and questionnaire measures of stress were correlated with noise levels among people who did not benefit economically from turbines. Annoyance occurred at lower dBA noise levels than for road, rail, or air traffic noise, as in the similar Swedish study. Being awakened from sleep was associated with higher noise levels, and difficulty falling asleep and higher stress scores were associated with annoyance. “Respondents with economic benefits reported almost no annoyance,” though they lived closest to the turbines and experienced the highest modeled noise levels.

A recent Australian Parliamentary Committee on Rural Wind Farms was scathing in its condemnation of Pierpoint:[6]

7.56 The Committee notes the concerns expressed by Inquiry participants regarding ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’. The Committee further notes that research findings of ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ have not been published in a peer‐reviewed journal.

7.57 The Committee is concerned that the significance of ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ is being unnecessarily exaggerated because Dr Pierpont is a medial doctor and has published a book on the issue, rather than any scientific merit of such a syndrome. As a result, a degree of fear is being instilled in communities that may host wind turbines. The Committee is concerned that, based on evidence received, this unwarranted fear may be causing greater health impacts than the presence of any actual ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’.

There is, of course, much contrary medical opinion.

Dr Geoff Leventhall, Consultant in Noise Vibration and Acoustics, the UK’s leading expert on low frequency noise, and author of the Defra Report on Low Frequency Noise and its Effects, says:

•       At separation distances from wind turbines which are typical of residential locations the levels of infrasound from wind turbines are well below the human perception level.

•      Infrasound from wind turbines is often at levels below that of the noise generated by wind around buildings and other obstacles.

•      The levels of vibration from wind turbines are so small that only the most sophisticated instrumentation and data processing can reveal their presence, and they are almost impossible to detect. Vibrations at this level and in this frequency range will be available from all kinds of sources such as traffic and background. Scientific instruments are far more sensitive detectors than the human body, which is subject to internally generated noise and vibration.

•      There is no robust evidence that low frequency noise (including ‘infrasound’) or ground-borne vibration from wind farms, generally has adverse effects on wind farm neighbours.

•      A low level of audible noise is not normally a problem, unless the listener is antagonistic to the source.

•      I can state quite categorically that there is no significant infrasound from current designs of wind turbines. To say that there is an infrasound problem is one of the hares which objectors to wind farms like to run. There will not be any effects from infrasound from the turbines.[7]

The group, Doctors for the Environment, agrees:

•      Noise is the predominant concern of people living near turbines, leading to annoyance in a small proportion of exposed people, particularly in association with negative visual impacts or lack of perceived personal benefit. This may have implications for the health and well-being of these individuals.

•      However there is no convincing evidence in the scientific literature of direct physiological effects occurring at sound levels commonly associated with modern wind turbines.[8]

Admittedly some windfarms fail standards.

It is apparent that when built a percentage of wind projects fail the noise requirements of their permits, because of the poor modelling used.  This is not a health issue.  The solution is not to ban the wind farm but to have better modelling.

On the other hand

Would you prefer to live 360 metres from a nuclear power plant?


[1]A Rapid Review of the Evidence

[2]Submission to Federal Senate inquiry into the ‘Social and economic impact of rural wind farms’. no 465

[3]. New South Wales. Parliament Legislative Council, General Purpose Standing Committee No. 5 Rural Wind Farms

[4]. Levanthall, op cit p 5

[5]. page 120 of her book

[6].  on page 121 (New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council, 2009 (December)

[7]. Defra (2003), A Review of Published Research on Low Frequency Noise and its Effects, Report for Defra by Dr Geoff Leventhall Assisted by Dr Peter Pelmear and Dr Stephen Benton. Available online at

http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/noise/lowfrequency/pdf/lowfreqnoise.pdf

[8]. Submission to the Senate Community Affairs Committee Inquiry into the Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms, submission no 829,  23 February 2011

3 thoughts on “Wind farms and health – Revisiting the debate

  1. Excellent article which puts the so-called debate on wind farms into proper perspective and highlights how selective opponents really are. Having followed the discussion across Australia over the last several years, it’s quite clear that misinformation, NIMBY-ism, ignorance and envy (all encouraged by the fossil fuel lobby) are the primary drivers behind those who oppose wind farm development.

    Even more disappointing is that our weak kneed politicians, particularly on the conservative side so readily sell out reason and objectivity to pander to noisy wind farm opponents.

    It’s time wind farm opponents were called out for what they really are, denialists that inhabit the same world as tobacco industry apologists, acid rain denialists, ozone hole denialists and those who denied the link between asbestos and mesothelioma. They have all the credibility of young earth creationists. None.

  2. The comment by B Donaldson is a total joke, this comment is so far removed from the truth that one is unable to comment to such rot!

  3. Steve! Good to see you are still painting yourself into a corner.

    Of course the reason you can’t comment, or at least add anything meaningful to the discussion is that like all self appointed guardians, you’re not interested in letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Proof for this is you and your fellow denialists still resorting to the same tired, old, refuted excuses for opposing wind energy and occasionally managing to flush out some “expert” in a feeble effort to spook the unwary.

    Never mind, the world goes on without you, wind energy continues to grow across the planet while the guardians become more and more irrelevant. Are you sure you are not affiliated with the antivax movement? Your methods and your denial of reality are identical.

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