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Wind Turbines and… Health?

Old barn beside a wind turbineWind turbines are a fast, efficient way to produce renewable energy. They’re good for the environment, the power grid, and local communities. But some residents who live closest to the turbines complain about the noise, and limited data suggests it might be more than a nuisance.

Wind turbines have grown quieter with improvements in technology, but the fact remains that they generate noise. At night in particular, the atmospheric conditions change so that turbines are more likely to generate audible sound. Beyond causing annoyance, some residents have started to complain about health effects. They claim to suffer from exposure to “infra-sound”.

This sound is so low that the human ear can’t detect it, but that’s doesn’t mean it can’t impact the human body. After all, we can’t see UVA or UVB light rays, but you feel them in a sunburn. The question is how and to what extent? Is it serious enough to be a concern?

This is where research into the topic becomes tricky. It’s one thing to find a report or article online that discusses the topic; it’s another to find reputable research that  provides (unbiased? conclusive?) evidence. It’s an emotional subject, so reliable information is hard to find. Some sources made nasty accusations against an opponent (government, industry, organization, etc.) without any evidence at all. The conclusions I was able to draw are pretty straightforward, and they fit nicely into two points.

  • Known Problems

If you live close enough to a wind turbine, the noise could interfere with your daily life. Especially at night, the biggest complaint involves interrupted sleep. As a student with rambunctious room mates, I can agree that wearing earplugs to bed everyday is uncomfortable and inconvenient. The same problem is true near busy highways and construction sites. Many communities and nations have laws concerning noise pollution for this reason, and wind turbines are subject to those laws. Naturally, complaints begin to taper off as the distance between residents and the turbines increases. Two kilometers (1.2 miles) is often cited as an ideal minimum distance for everyone’s comfort.

  • The Unknown

Scientific evidence is sparse on other complaints. There’s not enough data to link wind turbines to serious health problems. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence is common enough from residents around the globe to pinpoint several issues. Infra-sound is one, and some studies propose that the vibrations can effect mood or bodily functions, including heart rhythms. They can also rattle the windows on your house. The flickering shadows from spinning propeller blades is another complaint, and is blamed for motion sickness, headaches, migraines and even seizures.

A community with distant turbinesKeep in mind that low-frequency sound and inconsistent light are common features of modern life, especially in the city. Diesel engines, for example, also produce a lot of infra-sound. Fluorescent lights have long been blamed for headaches. There’s also the issue that many researchers perusing these problems observe them in a small group of residents; as a result, most published studies involve a very small sample of people. With such narrow results, data is inconclusive. It’s possible that these problems are limited to a small portion of the population.

As a renewable resource, wind power provides many benefits for the environment and local communities. However, those benefits should not override the needs of residents. It is one thing to build these tall structures and perhaps upset a scenic view. It’s another to put them in someone’s back yard.

A buffer zone between turbines and residents will probably help prevent most reasonable complaints within a community, and could offer balance between the preferences of the people and the needs of the environment, economy, and/or power grid. Ideally, wind farms should be seen as beneficial to a community and society, not as a nuisance.

What is your opinion? Do you live near wind turbines? Comment below.

Related Articles:

World’s Largest Wind Farm Planned in Oregon

Wind and Rural Jobs

What About Silent Wind?

World’s Longest Turbine Blades

Photos via the Flickr Creative Commons: Wind turbine and barn by back stage. Bunbeg wind turbines by irishinukshuk.

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