One complaint voiced by wind turbine opponents is that the turbines create too much noise — even noise below the range of human hearing, known as infrasound. These concerns fuel claims about “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” which advocates say is a medical condition that involves mental health problems, heart disease, and vertigo.
A study by an acoustic engineering group in Australia found that that infrasound generated by wind turbines is less loud than the infrasound created by a listener’s own heartbeat. It found that wind turbine infrasound does increase as wind speed increases, but this is often masked by the natural noise of wind moving through the area.
The Association of Australian Acoustical Consultants said that “those investigations conclude that infrasound levels adjacent to wind farms are below the threshold of perception and below currently accepted limits set for infrasound.”
Those limits are levels of infrasound that people encounter already, created by natural sources like breathing, wind, and waves, as well as mechanical sources like aircraft, traffic, and fossil fuel industry. The study noted that wind turbine noise is all relative:
Our environment has lots of infrasound already in it, the levels generated by wind farms from our point of view are quite low in comparison and they’re no higher than what is already out there in the natural environment. … People themselves generate infrasound through things like their own heartbeat, through breathing and these levels of infrasound can be substantially higher than an external noise source.
A study by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection found that there was no evidence for “Wind Turbine Syndrome.” It also found no concrete evidence for the “flicker” of the shadows of rotating wind blades causing seizures or other symptoms.
So what is going on here?
An experimental study in the journal Health Psychology found that people would report the experience of wind turbine syndrome caused by infrasound if they merely had the suggestion. Participants either experienced real infrasound or a fake alternative, and what determined if they experienced symptoms wasn’t the type of sound — it was whether they were told beforehand about the supposed dangers of infrasound.
The well-known placebo has a lesser-known opposite called a “nocebo.” This is the expectancy of the harm of something that most people have likely never heard of before experiencing it. The study by the acoustical experts removed another plank from “communicated disease.”
Right after President Obama was re-elected, Stephen Colbert spoke about the dangers of Wind Turbine Syndrome and concluded that “we should all just keep burning fossil fuels. That way the problem won’t be all in your head, it’ll be spread evenly throughout your lungs.”