Do Wind Turbines Cause Health Problems?

wind turbine
Wind energy currently accounts for about 8 percent of the total energy output in the United States. Global Wind Energy Council

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­As of May 2017, wind power accounts for about 8 percent of the electricity produced in the United States, more than any other renewable source. Nearly 58,000 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 8 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 the U.S. Department of Energy set goals in its 2017 Wind Vision: A New Era for Wind Power in the United States. Its aim is to have wind provide 10 percent of U.S. electrical demand in 2020, 20 percent by 2030 and 35 percent in 2050. Wind power already covers 14 percent of the electricity demands in the European Union.

­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 again in the news — the idea that wind power endangers the health of people who live near windmills. Some people call this theory "wind-turbine syndrome."

­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

Australia wind farm
Many residents living near wind farms like this one in Australia complain about noise and other health problems. Global Wind Energy Council

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­The rapidly spinning blades of huge wind turbines have an effect on their surroundings, and it goes beyond aesthetics. The rapidly spinning blades can produce a weak but distinctive noise, as well as disruptions in air pressure. The noise is generated by the movement of the blades through the air, as well as from the from the turbine machinery.

Infrasound, is sound that is lower in frequency than 20 Hz or cycles per second. That's the "normal" limit of human hearing. infrasound is the primary issue for those concerned about wind-turbine syndrome. They also say that audible sound and vibrations coming from wind turbines contribute to the health problems reported by some people who live close to wind farms. Symptoms of wind-turbine syndrome might include:

  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Night terrors
  • 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. 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

wind turbine
Jobs for wind turbine service technicians is expected to grow astronomically during the next 10 years. Global Wind Energy Council

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Some people who live in close proximity to wind turbines say they experience sleep disturbances, headaches and concentration problems. These symptoms and others could be explained as effects of infrasound, as well as constant humming and vibrations.

But here's the catch: Many of these same symptoms can be caused by other issues, like chronic sleep loss for example, which could be the unfortunate effect of living in a noisy area. People who live near highways or on busy streets may also have trouble sleeping, and lack of sleep can lead to other health problems like irritability, anxiety, concentration and dizziness. And a 2018 study by a team of researchers from the University of Toronto and Ramboll, an engineering company funding the work, found no direct link between residents' distance from wind turbines and sleep disturbances (as measured by sleep assessments and the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index), blood pressure or stress (either self-reported or measured via hair cortisol). The team's study also didn't explicitly find evidence that exposure to wind turbines actually impacts human health.

But to solve this sound issue, new wind-power technology employs sound-dampening systems. The latest wind turbines are considerably quieter than the first models built. Noise from gears and generators has been reduced, and modern wind turbine's housing is insulated. The blades have also been designed to further mitigate noise.

The Toronto study did, however, determine that people living closer to the turbines "were more likely to report being annoyed than respondents who live further away." So most experts recommend a larger buffer zone around wind farms to protect people from these effects. Arguments vary on how far the minimum "setbacks" (or distances) should be from a wind farm and residential development. Regulations vary by state and country. Some wind farms are currently located as close as a half mile (0.8 kilometers) from residential areas.

The bottom line is wind power is cleaner and becoming cheaper than any other domestically produced energy. Texas leads the nation in installed wind power capacity.

So the hope is that new buffer-zone regulations and sound-canceling technologies can do away with the question: Do wind turbines cause health problems? Because most of the science out there says they don't.

Last editorial update on Apr 4, 2019 12:43:34 pm.

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