Are wind farms a health risk?

Behind the Headlines

Monday August 3 2009

There is no conclusive evidence that wind turbines affect health

“Living too close to wind turbines can cause heart disease, tinnitus, vertigo, panic attacks, migraines and sleep deprivation,” The Independent on Sunday reported. The newspaper said that research to be published later this year by an American doctor has identified a new health risk: “wind turbine syndrome”.

The story is based on the work of Dr Nina Pierpont, a New York paediatrician who is publishing a book based on her own case series study, discussions and theories. The study looked at 10 families living near wind turbines, the results of which were used to define a set of symptoms that can be used in future studies.

No firm conclusions can be drawn from this study as the design was weak and included only 38 people. Participants were asked about their symptoms before they were exposed to wind turbines to provide a control for their symptoms after exposure. This was not a sufficient control as many of the participants were reportedly already convinced that wind turbines caused their symptoms and were actively trying to move out of their homes or had already moved. Further study is needed.

 

Where did the story come from?

The story is based on the work of Dr Nina Pierpont, a New York paediatrician who is publishing a book based on her own case series study, discussions and theories of wind turbine syndrome. This appraisal is based on a draft of the book available through Dr Pierpont’s website.

 

What kind of scientific study was this?

The book is based around a case series study carried out by Dr Pierpont, which involved 10 families reporting symptoms they associated with living near a wind farm. The author says that the study’s purpose was to “establish a case definition” for the set of symptoms that people experience while living near wind turbine installations.

The researcher interviewed 23 people from 10 families by telephone, some of whom gave information on the symptoms of other family members, resulting in a total of 38 participants to include in analysis. It is not clear how these families were selected or what countries they come from. Dr Pierpont says that she collected information about the symptoms of everyone in the family to “further create comparison groups” and to investigate if certain aspects of medical history “pre-exposure” to wind turbines could predict particular symptoms that were experienced during exposure.

The 38 family members ranged in age from less than one to 75 years and lived within a range of 305m to 1.5km from wind turbines that had been erected since 2004. They were asked for the details of any symptoms they experienced before the turbines were erected, symptoms experienced while living near the operational turbines, and symptoms experienced after they had moved home or while they spent prolonged periods away from their homes.

Dr Pierpont’s book discusses the results of these interviews using a narrative approach, interspersing the findings with a discussion of the potential impact of wind turbines on the environment and the human body. The publication is divided into two sections, one for clinicians and one for non-clinicians. The “family tables” present the results of the interviews in the interviewees’ own words.

 

What were the results of the study?

Many participants had pre-existing comorbidities at baseline (before wind turbines were erected near their homes), including:

  • Seven people with a history of mental disorders.
  • Eight people with pre-existing migraine disorder.
  • Eight people with permanent hearing problems.
  • Six people with continuous tinnitus.
  • Twelve people who had previously been exposed to significant noise, such as through work in industrial or construction settings.
  • Eighteen people who were motion sensitive.
  • Seven people who remembered a history of a single concussion.

[There may be some overlap in the individuals in these groups].

The author then discusses the symptoms the participants reported during their period of exposure to wind turbines. These core symptoms had to be “common and widely described by study participants”, “closely linked…to turbine exposure” and “amenable to diagnosis by medical history”.

These include:

  • Sleep disturbance reported by 32 people (including trouble getting to sleep, prolonged awakening, night terrors).
  • Headache reported by 19 subjects as having increased in frequency, duration or severity since living near wind farms. These headaches were significantly associated with a pre-existing migraine disorder.
  • Tinnitus and ear sensations reported by 14 subjects as new or worse than baseline. This symptom was linked with previous noise exposure, baseline tinnitus and baseline hearing loss.
  • Balance problems during exposure to wind turbines reported by 16 subjects.
  • Internal quivering, vibration or pulsation sometimes in association with other symptoms including agitation, anxiety, nausea and irritability. The author calls this condition visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance (VVVD). There was no link between VVVD and previous panic disorder or panic episodes.
  • Concentration and memory problems reported by 20 people (all of whom were aged over 34 years) and some unexpected declines in school performance reported in children.
  • Significant irritability and anger reported in 28 people.
  • Fatigue and motivation problems in 21 people.

The author then discusses the appearance of other problems in some people including prolonged respiratory infections, exacerbations of pre-existing heart arrhythmias in two people, increased blood pressure in two people, gastrointestinal problems, pain, glucose instability in one person and worsening tinnitus in one person.

These symptoms are used to define "wind turbine syndrome".

 

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

Dr Pierpont says that the core symptoms of wind turbine syndrome are sleep disturbance, headache, tinnitus, other ear and hearing sensations, balance and equilibrium disturbances, anxiety, nausea, irritability, energy loss, motivation loss, memory and concentration disturbances, and visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance.

The author advises a minimum distance for wind farms from properties, recommending at least 2km between wind turbines and residences on normal terrain and 3.2km in mountainous terrain.

While the author suggests that the report “documents a consistent and often debilitating complex of symptoms experienced by adults and children while living near large industrial wind turbines”, she also adds that “further research is needed to prove causes and physiological mechanisms, establish prevalence and to explore effects in special populations, including children”.

 

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This study provides no conclusive evidence that wind turbines have an effect on health or are causing the set of symptoms described here as "wind turbine syndrome". The study design was weak, the study was small and there was no comparison group.

Asking this particular group about their symptoms prior to their exposure to wind turbines was not a sufficient control measure. Many of the participants were reportedly already convinced that wind turbines were to blame for their symptoms and were actively trying to move out of their homes or had already moved.

It is also impossible to know how frequent these symptoms are in people who live near wind turbines compared to those who don’t. There is also no information on how the group was selected in the first place and some uncertainty as to which countries these people come from.

However, it is physically and biologically plausible that low frequency noise generated by wind turbines can affect people, and the author puts forward several possible theories regarding this.

The author acknowledges some of the study’s weaknesses and states that the next step would be an epidemiological study. One possibility would be to compare "wind turbine syndrome" like symptoms in people who live near wind turbines with those who don’t. This would show how common these symptoms are in the different groups.

Links to the headlines

Are wind farms a health risk? US scientist identifies 'wind turbine syndrome'. Independent on Sunday, August 02 2009

Living near a wind farm can cause heart disease, panic attacks and migraines. Daily Mail, August 03 2009

Links to the science

Pierpont, N. Wind Turbine Syndrome: a report on a natural experiment (March 7, 2009, pre-publication draft).

Wind Turbine Syndrome website

 

Ratings

How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 6 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating

Comments

The 9 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

CWatters said on 28 December 2012

A new paper entitled "Effects of industrial wind turbines on sleep and health" by Nissenbaum MA, Aramini JJ and Hanning CD was recently published in the peer reviewed journal Noise & Health 2012; 14:237-43.

This study included an epidemiological investigation of the relationship between reported adverse health effects and Industrial scale wind turbines among residents of two rural communities.

The study showed that people living withn 1.4km had worse sleep and lower SF36 Mental Component Scores than people living more than 1.4km away. The study also demonstrated a significant dose-response relationship after controlling for various factors such as age.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Mike Barnard said on 01 May 2012

NHS was far too kind to Dr. Pierpoint's self-published pamphlet.

1. Selection bias error - Dr. Pierpoint advertised specifically for people that attributed their health problems to wind farms. This fundamentally skews results and leads the discussion.

2. Sample size error - Dr. Pierpoint spoke over the phone to only 23 people. She accepted anecdotal evidence for an additional 15. Despite this, she published roughly 60 pages of statistics, charts and graphs. There is no statistical conclusion of any sort that can be drawn from a sample this small except the size of the sample.

3. Accepting anecdotal evidence - As pointed out, Dr. Pierpoint accepted anecdotal evidence about others' health impacts as valid.

4. Accepting self-reporting of symptoms, severity and causation. This is antithetical to medical practice. Doctors are trained to listen to patient's complaints, then use independent means to validate a diagnosis. Self-reporting by patients is considered to be of very low quality and only guides assessment.

5. No validation of prior health histories. Dr. Pierpoint does not assess the prior medical histories of the respondents. Accepting statements of health impacts with no histories is also deeply flawed methodology.

Despite these major flaws, Dr. Pierpoint named a syndrome, self-published a book, identified a laundry list of symptoms and encouraged others to repeat her methodologically inept study.

For context, wind turbines, unlike coal, emit no pollution, emit no carbon, do not kill miners and do not cause life-threatening respiratory ailments.

Your references point to Dr. Pierpoint's Wind Turbine Syndrome as 'the science'. To achieve mild balance, you should also point to the Ontario, Massachusetts, Oregon and AWEA/CanWEA studies, all of which are much more credible, and all of which disprove her hypotheses and conclusions.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Ian Shephard said on 17 December 2009

Dr Pierpont's research does not correlate the home locations with the layout of the wind farm. This is very significant.

When a turbine operates in the turbulent wake of another, its blades move through disturbed air containing velocities ranging from the speed of the undisturbed wind down to near zero.

The power a turbine extracts from wind relates to the third power of the blade tip speed to air speed ratio (the Tip Speed Ratio - TSR) while the noise produced relates to the eighth power of the TSR.

The wind industry accepts that a turbine situated up to 10 rotor diameters downwind from another will suffer some reduction in output power but it ignores the greater impact on noise.

Any turbine affected by turbulence will rotate at a nearly constant speed due to its inertia and its speed control systems. When its blades pass in and out of slow moving air pockets, the TSR must be constantly changing and will be much higher than normal and therefore producing much more noise when in the slowest air.

When two or more turbines, separated by less than 10 rotor diameters, are in line with the wind direction then the noise generated by the downwind one will be dramatically increased and is likely to greatly exceed the level at which it was assessed as being compliant with ETSU-R-97.

In Mrs Davis's case, her home is at the end of a row of 5 turbines separated by less the 5 rotor diameters and must be exposed to noise levels way above the ETSU-R-97 limits.

I have raised these issues in relation to a proposed wind farm in my locality and I have provided a full outline to the consultants, Hayes McKenzie, but after several months during which time I have received several assurances from the developer that HM will respond, so far they have failed to do so. I can only assume they are unable or unwilling to refute my evidence.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Ian Shephard said on 17 December 2009

Dr Pierpont's research does not correlate the home locations with the layout of the wind farm. This is very significant.

When a turbine operates in the turbulent wake of another, its blades move through disturbed air containing velocities ranging from the speed of the undisturbed wind down to near zero.

The power a turbine extracts from wind relates to the third power of the blade tip speed to air speed ratio (the Tip Speed Ratio - TSR) while the noise produced relates to the eighth power of the TSR.

The wind industry accepts that a turbine situated up to 10 rotor diameters downwind from another will suffer some reduction in output power but it ignores the greater impact on noise.

Any turbine affected by turbulence will rotate at a nearly constant speed due to its inertia and its speed control systems. When its blades pass in and out of slow moving air pockets, the TSR must be constantly changing and will be much higher than normal and therefore producing much more noise when in the slowest air.

When two or more turbines, separated by less than 10 rotor diameters, are in line with the wind direction then the noise generated by the downwind one will be dramatically increased and is likely to greatly exceed the level at which it was assessed as being compliant with ETSU-R-97.

In Mrs Davis's case, her home is at the end of a row of 5 turbines separated by less the 5 rotor diameters and must be exposed to noise levels way above the ETSU-R-97 limits.

I have raised these issues in relation to a proposed wind farm in my locality and I have provided a full outline to the consultants, Hayes McKenzie, but after several months during which time I have received several assurances from the developer that HM will respond, so far they have failed to do so. I can only assume they are unable or unwilling to refute my evidence.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

climateworrier said on 22 September 2009

Is this a site for health advice or for the promotion of Government policy?

This article has been seized upon by the wind industry as a means of dismissing health concerns. They selectively quote “no conclusive evidence”.

Instead of denigrating Dr Pierpoint, her paper should be taken as an indication that properly funded research is required. Sadly the Government and the highly profitable wind industry have not come forward – are they afraid that it might deliver the wrong results?

Are we are about to do another BSE by vigorously denying the problem until it is impossible to ignore. When we have expended millions of tonnes of carbon emissions building windfarms in unsuitable locations and then have to decide whether they should be decommissioned, the residents relocated or just abandoned to their misery (like Ms Davis).

Early windfarms had relatively small turbines and were well separated from homes. Many current proposals place giant turbines as close to homes as the current noise model allows. If Wind Farm Syndrome could exist (which this article admits is possible), then we must stop a potential epidemic by recommending a precautionary approach until we know better. Why do we not adopt Scotland’s 2km separation?

Finally, I found Mr Twidell’s contribution arrogant, insulting and insensitive. He virtually calls Ms Davis a liar inventing her symptoms to spite the windfarm. After seizing on the denigration of the Pierpoint paper because of the limitation of the study, he insults our intelligence by suggesting that by making a couple of short visits to the windfarm, he can disprove Ms Davis. As a well known promoter of wind he must know that the most compelling theory attributes WFS to resonances within the human skeleton. His will be a different shape to Ms Davis’ & so his personal experience is irrelevant.

This conclusion on this article should be clearly updated to “more work is required to prove or disprove this issue”.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Wiggyjane said on 09 September 2009

Mr Twidell is correct that the problems I and my family have experienced are as a result of living near to Deeping St Nicholas Windfarm. It is laughable (or would be if it weren’t so serious) that he attempts to dismiss the fact that the low frequency hum caused by the structural resonance of the towers even when motionless doesn’t exist. Independent acousticians from the UK and beyond have measured the problems we have experienced. “Our” windfarm breaches not only the local planning condition but also the national planning conditions on many nights. We anticipate that following our High Court Case that the companies concerned will have some explaining to do to their members! The phenomena I and others experience can only be heard, and felt at a distance. All our new medical conditions have been reported to our Gp’s, and several have warranted referrals to hospital and on occasion in patient admissions. All were new symptoms, resulting in new diagnosis. Some of the symptoms have resolved since moving 5 miles away. My husband has to work at home; some symptoms remain, and require ongoing medication. We participated in Dr Pierpont’s work believing it to be a useful start to exploration of the issues. Many more people across the world are now suffering in the same way as newer, bigger windfarms come on stream. I do not know if it is acute sleep deprivation that leads to the symptoms, or the continual low frequency battering that we receive, the so called beat effect, or indeed a combination of both. Mr Twidell should be a little more circumspect in believing everything that comes from the Company itself. Many other Developers have been to visit us at our home, they are always surprised, and sometimes shocked by what they hear, and feel. I say again, more research is required about how the ever increasing larger turbines interact with the environment around them.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

John Twidell, AMSET Centre, Leicstershire said on 02 September 2009

Ms Davis is to be commended in giving her name. No such credit can be given to the 'National Health Consultant' who gives no name and persists in stating that Dr Pierpont's research is 'convincing' when this NHS Choices report above gives evidence to the contrary. One suspects that the reply is merely a 'copy and paste' response.

Regarding Ms Davis's comment, I wonder if she refers to the windfarm at Deeping St. Nicholas, Lincolnshire? I have attended the last two AGM's of that windfarm and heard reports that careful measurements by experts have failed to detect the noises that Ms Davis hears, Indeed, she heard such noise apparently when the turbines were already shut down by a local grid failure. I myself visited the operating windfarm and could hear no amplitude modulated noise such as described and had no 'low frequency' sensation. We all know of course that psychological upset leads to distress and it is clear that Ms Davis is seriously upset, for which we must sympathize. I find that knowing wind turbines generate clean electricity in the locality helps me be at peace with their operation.
John Twidell, AMSET Centre, Leicestershire

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Wiggyjane said on 25 August 2009


I have read with dismay your criticisms of Dr Nina Pierpont’s work on WindTurbineSyndrome. As I represent five of the people studied within her book all I know is that although I and my family welcomed the wind farm, we did not expect to start suffering from health deficits in the way that we have. You should also be aware (and I can only speak for the UK folk within the case studies), that our GP's have been consulted (with our permission) and in my family’s case our medical notes have been summarised, and made available to Dr Pierpont. There are two other UK families within the study. and all 3 families have now abandoned our homes. In our case we found we could only sleep for 3-4 hours a night, and had many of the physical effects described. We certainly were not planning on moving home, it’s our farmhouse and we were planning on extending it not abandoning it!!
Our home is no longer marketable as a home, and internally the noise levels at night exceed the World Health Organisations safe levels for community sleep. Our home is acknowledged to have significant high levels of both audible and low frequency noise.. Why some Wind Farms cause problems for nearby residents and some don’t is a matter for research. Currently within the UK 20% of windfarms are causing noise problems that are bad enough to interrupt people’s sleep and cause them to complain to their local Environmental Health officers. The way Wind Turbine Noise is measured is different from the way other noise nuisances are measured, and this it is more difficult to monitor and enforce. Dr Pierpont would be the first to say that more research is needed, and I would endorse this. The significant sleep deprivation over weeks and months may be enough to cause physical effects on its own, although from my observations I think there are other factors at play as w ell. But please don’t just dismiss this out of hand.

Jane Davis. RGN. RM. RHV. MA.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Sleepdoc said on 19 August 2009

As an NHS Consultant in Sleep Medicine, I must disagree with your conclusion that there is no evidence that wind turbine noise effects health. There is copious evidence that other sources of noise effect health, why should wind turbines be any different?

I too have reservations as to whether there is a true "Wind Turbine Syndrome" but there is no doubt that some people are adversely effected by living too close to turbines. Dr Pierpont's research is useful in that she convincingly shows the link between symptoms and exposure. There is also still doubt as to whether this occurs through audible noise or low frequency noise but it certainly happens.

Review the work of Drs van den Berg from Holland and Dr Pedersen from Sweden, especially her latest paper in J Acoust Soc Am to find that current guidance to limit wind farm noise (ETSU R 97) does not provide sufficient protection and permits noise levels that are far to high. The proportion of people annoyed or suffering from sleep disturbance is too high.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices