Punch, James A Four-Decade History of Evidence: Wind Turbines Pose Risks
Wind Turbine Noise and Human Health: A Four-Decade History of Evidence that Wind Turbines Pose Risks
“The reviewed evidence overwhelmingly supports the notion that acoustic emissions from Industrial Wind Turbines is a leading cause of Adverse Health Effects in a substantial segment of the population.”
Jerry L. Punch, Professor Emeritus, Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
Richard R. James, E-Coustic Solutions LLC, and Adjunct Professor, Department of Communication Disorders, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, USA
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.
*Revised October 21, 2016
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 industrial-scale 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.
The role of evidentiary facts
Adverse impacts on people and property are among the most contentious issues that are typically the focus of legal proceedings involving IWT noise. Based on the forensic and research experiences of the authors, we believe that a resolution of the controversial aspects of this debate will require not just relevant scientific research, but rather a series of legal judgments based on the effective evaluation and interpretation of the existing research. In fact, much research and some already-rendered legal decisions show convincingly that some segments of the population suffer damaging effects from exposure to wind turbine noise (WTN). What is needed among the scientific community, local and national governmental agencies, and political leaders, is honest
discourse about methods for reducing carbon emissions in ways that do not turn some rural communities into sacrifice zones.[2, 3]
Many symptoms and complaints of adverse health effects (AHEs) related to IWTs have been self-reported by individuals living near wind turbines and described in published case reports. There is a group of core symptoms and complaints, however—including sleep disturbance, headache, dizziness, vertigo, and ear pressure or pain—that are remarkably common worldwide. Dr. Nina Pierpont was the first to report these core symptoms in a case series, and she termed these core symptoms Wind Turbine Syndrome. For the sake of brevity, we will on occasion refer to Wind Turbine Syndrome as a substitute for this group of common symptoms and complaints, even though the phrase itself is currently not utilized as a medical diagnostic entity
Numerous reviews of the literature have already been published that allege that there is no credible link between WTN emissions and AHEs. Those reviews have typically been sanctioned by state or provincial government agencies that have missions to support the development of wind energy, and which in turn appoint expert panels whose members hold views that regularly favor the wind industry and, therefore, may have conflicting interests. Too often, in the opinion of the authors, such reviews are biased in support of political policy decisions that promote the financial interests of wind developers, and perceived financial benefits to local communities, over the common good. None of those reviews has been specifically targeted toward describing or explaining the relationship between exposure to complex, dynamically modulated infra- and low-frequency sound from wind turbines or other industrial sources (e.g., noise-induced Sick Building Syndrome) and AHEs. Our primary objective in this article is to review the existing scientific and professional literature that is frequently overlooked in such reviews conducted by wind energy proponents. Such literature can be useful in legal proceedings in questioning and articulating the available evidence of risks to people who live in the footprint of utility-scale wind energy projects.
Some of the published reviews have been criticized for their failure to meet the standards noted by Horner, who reminds us that readers should regard literature reviews with caution, and employ an audit strategy in evaluating their completeness, accuracy, and objectivity. Authors, including ourselves, have an inherent obligation to ensure that such reviews cite all known legitimate sources that serve as the basis for their views of the issues and reflect accurately the contents of all references cited.
Some courts of law in the U.S. and other countries now tend to rely heavily on testimony that adheres to the principle that proof of evidence of causation of AHEs from IWTs be based on the peer-reviewed literature. Presumably, that practice in the U.S. stems at least partially from advocacy by the Office of Management and Budget that internal and external government science documents be peer-reviewed government-wide for the purpose of increasing the quality and credibility of scientific information generated by the federal government. Peer-review standards are considered paramount in that effort.
While the peer-review process has many virtues, it also has its shortcomings, which are well known. For example, not all journals or individual reviews of submitted manuscripts are of equal quality, as specific journals and specific reviewers may have ideological or philosophical biases, which may or may not be surmised from the journals’ mission statements. Nonetheless, the peer- review process is one of the most widely acknowledged ways to control the quality of published works. We contend, however, that there are other credible sources of information, even though those sources may not have been subjected to as rigorous a peer-review process as that employed by many scientific journals. Such sources include papers presented at meetings of scientific and professional societies; reports and other documents commissioned by state and local governmental agencies, especially if such documents are authored by independent researchers; legal testimony given under oath by qualified scientists and professionals; and some information available on the Internet, especially if written by professionals who have reputable track records in their disciplines. Although we will emphasize the peer-reviewed literature in this article, we will also cite some of these additional sources as authoritative. Our citing of selected non-peer- reviewed reports, with a few exceptions, is based on our familiarity with the professional reputations of the authors of those reports, normally earned through publication of a solid body of work in the peer-reviewed literature and by acceptance of their work by other professionals and peers. Typically, individuals so referenced enjoy positive national or international recognition in their respective fields of expertise.
We begin this review by calling attention to a quote from geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of the prestigious journal Science. McNutt has been quoted as stating:
“Science is not a body of facts. Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”
In fact, science consists of a variety of overlapping methodological approaches, which must be interwoven to discover answers to complex problems. That conviction has guided our attempt to re-examine the controversial topic at hand.
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.
- 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 lead 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 mi., and 1.25 mi. (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. 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.
Statement of conflict of interest: The authors declare no conflicts of interest. Mr. James is on the Board of Directors for the Society for Wind Vigilance, an international federation of physicians, acousticians, engineers, and other professionals who share scientific research on the topic of health and wind turbines.