by Andrea Graham, audiologist, MSc From Lifestyle Hearing Magazine,
Imagine a windmill was placed in your area. You might not think it would affect you–but people in Canada, Denmark, Northern Ireland, Portugal, New Zealand, the UK and the United States are saying otherwise. They are reporting migraines, vertigo, tinnitus, sleep deprivation, memory problems, nervousness, fear, chest tightness or increased heart rate.
Articles about Visceral Vibratory Vestibular Disturbance (VVVD) Vibroacoustic Disease and Wind Turbine Syndrome are appearing in books, newspapers and on websites with increasing frequency. While the effects of intense noise in the range that we can hear are becoming more widely recognized and publicized, physicians and researchers are now concerned that infrasound–sounds that are in the frequency range too low for the human ear to hear–are the cause of these symptoms. They theorize that low-frequency sounds and vibrations emitted by wind turbines may interfere with the ear’s vestibular system, which controls our sense of balance, or may affect heart and lung tissues.
A controversial issue
Wind energy is such a promising source of renewable energy and the reduction of carbon emissions such a worthwhile goal. Should we not be doing everything in our power to encourage alternative energy sources? How can something that we cannot hear be causing a problem? Some experts have noted that sleep deprivation can cause most of the commonly reported symptoms. Are the people complaining about the windmills just not getting enough sleep? Supporters of wind energy also argue that there is not enough valid research to conclusively support medical concerns.
On the other hand, it took years to establish that cigarette smoke was harmful to human health, and residents living near wind farms are not the only people experiencing ill health caused by sound energy. Noise and vibration-related illness complaints can also result from exposure to traffic noise, machinery, generators and air conditioners. There is sufficient research in the aerospace, shipping and trucking industries to validate that other sources of low-frequency sound and vibration can be damaging.
International governments are trying to address concerns by initiating studies and establishing guidelines for appropriate noise limits and locations for large wind turbines. This is not an easy task; factors such as the size of the turbines, distance from residences, local topography, ground cover, atmospheric conditions and existing ambient sound levels must all be taken into consideration.
As Audiologists, we know sound affects different people in different ways and that we are only at the early stages of understanding the complexity of the human response to sound. We need to be conscious of the environmental impact of noise, as well as of carbon emissions. Independent investigation and responsible consultation should prevent us all from tilting at windmills.