Wind turbines majestically threshing the wind — what marvels of human engineering! To stand beneath one is breathtaking. To live near one can be hell on earth. So I have been told by countless people who suddenly find themselves grievously ill from the subtle yet devastating infrasonic jackhammer generated by these “clean, green, renewable energy” giants.
The explanation may be tucked away in the inner ear in a cluster of tiny, interconnected organs with a remarkable evolutionary pedigree. The vestibular organs — the semicircular canals, saccule, and utricle — function as Mother Nature’s gyroscope, controlling our sense of motion, position, and balance, including our spatial thinking. (Remember when you got carsick as a kid? Or seasick?)
Humans share these enigmatic organs with a host of other backboned species, including fish and amphibians. Some scientists indeed see them as a kind of pan-species master key for an extraordinarily broad range of brain function — amounting to a sixth sense.
One of those functions, it now appears, is to register and respond to the sounds and vibrations (infrasound) we don’t consciously hear, but feel — as from wind turbines. For many people, the response is swift and disastrous.
Sometimes it’s advantageous being a country doctor. Six years ago I began hearing health complaints from people living in the shadow of these gigantic turbines. At first it was merely local and regional, then global. Tellingly, virtually everyone described the same constellation of symptoms. Symptoms that were being triggered, I began to suspect, by vestibular dysregulation. (1) Sleep disturbance. Not simply awakened, but awakening in a panic (“flight or fight” response). (2) Headache. (3) Tinnitus. (4) Ear pressure. (5) Dizziness. (6) Vertigo. (7) Nausea. (8) Visual blurring. (9) Tachycardia. (10) Irritability. (11) Problems with concentration and memory. (12) Panic episodes associated with sensations of internal pulsation or quivering, which arise while awake or asleep. (This latter involving other, non-vestibular organs of balance, motion, and position sense.)
None of these people had experienced these symptoms to any appreciable degree before the turbines became operational. All said their symptoms disappeared rapidly whenever they spent several days away from home. All said the symptoms reappeared when they returned home.
Many had supported the wind farm project before all this happened. Now, some became so ill, they literally abandoned their homes — locked the door and left.
Taking my cue from a British country doctor who was reporting identical “wind turbine” symptoms among her patients, I did what clinicians call a case series. I interviewed 10 families (38 people) both here and abroad, who had either left their homes or were about to leave. I found a statistically significant correlation between the telltale symptoms and pre-existing motion sensitivity, inner ear damage, and migraine disorder. Each is a risk factor for what I now christened Wind Turbine Syndrome. My data suggest, further, that young children and adults beyond age 50 are also at substantial risk.
The response from ear, nose, throat clinicians (otolaryngologists and neuro-otologists) was immediate and encouraging. One was Dr. F. Owen Black, a highly regarded neuro-otologist who consults for the US Navy and NASA on vestibular dysregulation.
Another was Dr. Alec Salt at the Washington University School of Medicine, who recently published an NIH-funded, peer-reviewed study demonstrating that the cochlea (which links to the vestibular organs) responds to infrasound without registering it as sound. Infrasound, in fact, increases pressure inside both the cochlea and vestibular organs, distorting both balance and hearing.
Salt thus effectively shatters the dogma that “what you can’t hear, can’t hurt you.” It can indeed hurt you. The growing uproar among wind turbine neighbors testifies to this inconvenient truth.
My role is over. My waiting room is full. It’s time for governments to study this wind-generated scourge whose cure is simple. A 2 km setback (larger in hilly or mountainous terrain) fixes it. Wind developers, not unexpectedly, refuse to acknowledge the problem. They ridicule it as hysteria and NIMBYism (“Not In My Back Yard!”) — and refuse to build their machines 2 km (1.24 miles) away from homes.
“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” suggested Upton Sinclair. Perhaps so. In that case, expect more empty houses and (easily avoidable) suffering.
Nina Pierpont, MD, PhD, is a pediatrician and author of “Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment” (2009)