Leventhall, G. Comments NHMRC June 2011: “Wind Turbine Syndrome” symptoms the same as “noise annoyance”

NHMRC Workshop, 7th June 2011, Canberra

In his comments to the NHMRC at this workshop in June 2011, UK Acoustician, and invited speaker Professor Geoffrey Leventhall stated that “Wind Turbine Syndrome” symptoms are the same as “noise annoyance” symptoms, and that he had known about them “for years” and that they were caused by exposure to audible noise, but not infrasound. 

There was no dispute about the very real existence of the same symptoms described by Dr Nina Pierpont.

Interestingly some of the symptoms which Professor Geoffrey Leventhall calls “noise annoyance” are symptoms which have also been noted by the researchers who have investigated and reported on vibroacoustic disease, also caused by chronic exposure to infrasound and low frequency noise eg nosebleeds.

Further Background

The disagreement between Professor Leventhall and Dr Pierpont on this occasion arises from the cause of those symptoms. Professor Leventhall attributed the cause to stress from severe annoyance caused by exposure to the audible noise, and disputed the role of infrasound. Dr Pierpont hypothesised in her 2009 study that infrasound was directly causing the symptoms she called “wind turbine syndrome”.

The Kelley / NASA research in the 1980’s, rediscovered in July 2013, demonstrated a direct causal link between impulsive wind turbine generated INFRAsound and low frequency noise and the “annoyance” symptoms reported by residents living near a gas fired power station and a single wind turbine (Kelley 1982, Kelley 1985). The “annoyance” symptoms included sleep disturbance and body vibrations. These Kelley / NASA research findings are in accordance with Dr Pierpont’s hypothesis when it is realised that when engineers are talking about “noise annoyance” or “annoyance” symptoms, the symptoms are identical to those of “wind turbine syndrome”.

Professor Leventhall’s statement to the NHMRC Workshop is important, because many people do not realise that “annoyance” when used by acoustic engineers and “wind turbine syndrome” are referring to the same symptoms. It is also important because Professor Leventhall has agreed that stress can be caused by audible noise. Chronic stress damages health, as does chronic sleep deprivation, and both can be caused by excessive audible noise.

Dr Pierpont was unaware of the Kelley research until 2013.

Professor Leventhall knew about the NASA / Kelley research in January 2011, five months prior to this NHMRC Workshop, but chose not to share that important NASA research with the NHMRC Workshop participants, and in particular the NASA/Kelley research finding that INFRA sound which was inaudible had caused some of the “annoyance” symptoms.

Professor Leventhall however did acknowledge Dr Pierpont’s contribution in identifying the susceptibility factors for developing the characteristic “noise annoyance” symptoms. Those susceptibility factors are a history of migraines, a history of motion sickness, and a history of inner ear pathology.

In the audience at the time when Professor Leventhall made this important statement about the very real existence of “Wind Turbine Syndrome” symptoms were three members of the current NHMRC Wind Farms and Human Health Reference Group, specifically Dr Norm Broner, Dr Liz Hanna, and Professor Wayne Smith. Also in the audience were representatives from the wind industry, the Climate and Health Alliance, the Doctors for the Environment, the Public Health Association, a number of State Health Departments, Federal Health Department representatives, and employees of the NHMRC as well as community members and three directors of the Waubra Foundation.

It is therefore remarkable that the wind industry, the Clean Energy Council, and the representatives associated with these public health advocacy groups (Climate and Health Alliance, Doctors for the Environment, Public Health Association) still dispute the existence of wind turbine syndrome symptoms, and still dispute the direct causation of those symptoms from exposure to sound energy, preferring instead to attribute it to a “nocebo effect” or scaremongering by the Waubra Foundation.

It is unfortunate that Professor Leventhall has also now adopted the “scaremongering” or “nocebo effect” explanation for the symptoms in a court case in Alberta in November 2013, whilst giving evidence as an expert witness for a wind developer.

A transcript of Professor Leventhall’s remarks is reproduced below, following the video clip.

Transcript of Professor Leventhall’s commentary to accompany the slides:

Okay, studies, now Pierpont based the wind turbine syndrome on interview with 10 families, 40 members. There have been lots of criticisms on this on epidemiological grounds of the self-selection and small numbers. But what struck me was that the results were already well-known. There is nothing new in the wind turbine syndrome. Except Pierpont showed us a predisposition due to existing health problems.

These are what she described as the symptoms for wind turbine syndrome:

Sleep disturbance, headache, tinnitus, ear pressure, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, visual blurring, tachycardia, irritability, problems with concentration and memory and on it goes, etc. etc.

Now when I saw those I thought to myself I’ve been familiar with these for years. These are exactly the same as the stress effects due to noise annoyance. And here are these that I’ve just shown on the previous slide for wind turbine syndrome and these are taken from from a paper I gave in 2002, long before I’d ever heard of Pierpont, showing the effects of noise, the very stressful effects which annoyance by noise can have on a small number of people.

Here we have sleep disturbance — insomnia; headache –headache; pressure in the ears — ear pressure; dizziness — nausea; eye strain — that’s visual blurring; we’ve got nose bleeds which she doesn’t have; and palpitations, skin burning, stress, tension etc.

These were known long before the wind turbine syndrome. About the first publication which gives some evidence goes back to 1989, and there have been several others since then.

I believe there is no evidence for the hypotheses held on which the wind turbine syndrome is based. I believe that infrasound at the levels produced by wind turbines do not have the effects which are attributed to it. More so the effects included in the wind turbine syndrome are well known as stress effects from audible noise.

Additional notes:

1. In a written expert witness statement given for the Erickson case in Ontario in January 2011, five months before this workshop presentation in June 2011, Professor Leventhall made it clear he was aware of the NASA / Kelley research which showed a direct causal relationship between INFRA sound and low frequency noise generated by a wind turbine and “annoyance” symptoms. However in his written evidence there was no reference to INFRA sound — rather just the word “sound” was used.

2. In oral evidence given in the Bull Creek BluEarth Renewables case in November 2013 in Alberta, Canada, Professor Leventhall suggested that the symptoms reported by wind turbine neighbours were instead due to a “nocebo effect” caused by publicity about the symptoms. The 2014 NHMRC Systematic Literature Review stated on p 164 that there was no research evidence collected from affected residents to support a nocebo effect as the cause of their symptoms.

3. The list of attendees at the NHMRC workshop in June 2011 can be viewed here.

The complete video webcast of Professor Leventhall’s presentation on 7th June 2011 from the NHMRC website may be viewed here