Wind power accounts for about 1 percent of the electricity produced in the United States [source: Gillam]. Nearly 25,000 wind turbines crank out power throughout the country. These massive windmills -- up to 80 feet (24 meters) tall -- capture the energy in wind and convert it into free-flowing electrons that people can use to run dishwashers, air conditioning and lights.
That 1 percent may not sound like much until you realize that wind power is just catching on in the United States. Huge new wind farms accounting for thousands more megawatts of capacity are in development as we speak, and estimates put 20 percent of the nation's electricity coming from wind power by 2030 [source: The Oregonian]. The European Union hopes to reach that percentage even sooner -- by 2020.
Until recently, there were three main issues regarding the possible downsides of wind power: bird and bat deaths, cost, and disrupting the appearance of natural landscapes. But a new objection to wind power has popped up in the past few years, resting on the research of a few scientists. The latest argument states that wind power endangers the health of people who live near windmills. Some people call this theory "wind-turbine syndrome." Although the extent of the phenomenon is unknown, there does seem to be something to it.
Those concerned about wind-power syndrome are interested in finding out if and how wind power could be making people sick. Is everyone living near windmills facing health problems? Let's take a look at the possible health risks associated with wind farms and find out whether we should be worried about the steady increase in wind-generated power throughout the world.
Infrasound and The Body
The rapidly spinning blades of huge wind turbines have an effect on their surroundings, and it goes beyond aesthetics. The blade tips of a wind turbine can spin at speeds of up to 80 meters per second, or about 180 miles per hour. In high winds, this rapid spinning can produce sound and vibration -- in addition to disruptions in air pressure [source: MIT].
The extremely low air pressure surrounding a wind turbine could be the reason why bats die near them. A bat's lungs are very delicate, and it seems the low pressure might cause them to expand to the point of bursting blood vessels [source: NewScientist]. Scuba divers can certainly attest to the effects of pressure on the human body. And the corporeal effects of sound -- essentially fluctuations in air pressure that vibrate the eardrum -- are well-documented. For instance, infrasound -- sounds at such low frequency that they can't be picked up by the human ear but can carry through the atmosphere for thousands of kilometers -- is believed to cause certain breathing and digestive problems [source: Infrasound Lab].
Infrasound is the primary issue for those concerned about wind-turbine syndrome. They also say that audible sound and vibrations contribute to the health problems reported by some people who live close to wind farms. Symptoms of wind-turbine syndrome might include:
- sleep problems
- night terrors or learning disabilities in children
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- mood problems (irritability, anxiety)
- concentration and memory problems
- issues with equilibrium, dizziness and nausea
These symptoms have been observed and documented by a limited number of scientists studying small groups of people, and the scientific community hasn't concluded whether wind-turbine syndrome exists. There are also mixed opinions on whether wind turbines emit infrasound and if the amount is any more than that emitted by diesel engines or waves crashing on the beach [source: CleanTechnica, ABC Science]. But we do know that at high speeds, wind turbines can produce an audible hum and vibration that can be carried through the air.
It's these sounds and motions that provide clues and possible solutions to wind-turbine syndrome, which we'll explore in the next section.
Wind-Turbine Syndrome Explanations and Solutions
It's understood that some people who live in close proximity to wind turbines experience sleep disturbances, headaches and concentration problems. These symptoms and others could be explained as the effects of infrasound as well as constant humming and vibrations.
But here's the catch: Many of the symptoms of wind-turbine syndrome can also be caused by chronic sleep loss -- simply and unfortunately an effect of living near a noise-producing entity [source: Ohio Department of Health]. People who live near a highway or busy street may have trouble sleeping, which can lead to other health problems like irritability, anxiety, concentration and dizziness.
To solve this sound issue, new wind-power technology employs sound-dampening systems. Engineers are hoping that these newer systems -- which can block or cancel out multiple sound frequencies -- will reduce any sound-related problems associated with wind farm communities [source: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft].
Researchers studying wind-turbine syndrome also recommend a larger buffer zone around wind farms to protect people from any ill effects. Some people say that the distance should be least 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) [source: CleanTechnica]. Others suggest at least 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) [source: PlanetGore]. Some wind farms are currently located as close as a half mile (0.8 kilometers) from residential areas.
Whether we should be concerned with the expansion in wind power ultimately comes down to weighing the pros and cons. Is cleaner, cheaper, domestically produced energy worth the potential side effects of some people experiencing headaches? The hope is that new buffer-zone regulations and sound-canceling technologies can do away with the question entirely. If the issue persists, we'll have to decide whether wind power is important enough to pursue anyway -- much like deciding whether building a new, noisy highway that would reduce congestion and increase commerce is worth some unfortunate people losing sleep.
For more information on wind-turbine syndrome, wind power and related topics, explore the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- ABC Science. Brown note: bad vibration mega-hurts. May 13, 2008.http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2008/05/13/2242923.htm?site=science/greatmomentsinscience
- BWEA.Low Frequency Noise and Wind Turbines.http://www.bwea.com/ref/lowfrequencynoise.html
- CleanTechnica. Wind Turbines and… Health? August 18, 2008.http://cleantechnica.com/2008/08/18/wind-turbines-and-health/
- "Anti-noise" silences wind turbines.http://www.fraunhofer.de/EN/press/pi/2008/08/ResearchNews082008Topic3.jsp
- Gillam, Carey. Wind power gains adherents in United States. International Herald Tribune. Reuters.http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/05/19/business/wind.php
- Infrasound Lab. University of Hawaii.http://www.isla.hawaii.edu
- NewScientist Environment. Wind turbines make bat lungs explode. August 25, 2008.http://environment.newscientist.com/article/dn14593
- Ohio Department of Health. Bureau of Environment Health. Health Assessment Section. Literature search on the potential health impacts associated with wind-to-energy turbine operations.www.odh.ohio.gov/ASSETS/C43A4CD6C24B4F8493CB32D525FB7C27/Wind%20Turbine%20SUMMARY%20REPORT.pdf
- Planet Gore. Wind Turbine Syndrome. August 15, 2008.http://planetgore.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YTgxZjc4NzMyM2YxYTNjZDI5YTNlY2E0YjVhOWNmMGU=
- The Oregonian. Wind whips up health fears. August 10, 2008.http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/index.ssf?/base/news/1218250522129010.xml&coll=7&thispage=1
- WindAction.org. Wind Turbine Syndrome. March 12, 2006.http://www.windaction.org/pictures/2010