The statuesque and towering windmill represents one of Barack Obama’s grandiose hopes for renewable energy in our future. But windmills also have a troubling feature: They can be bad for your health.
Dr. Nina Pierpont has conducted substantial research on what she calls “wind turbine syndrome,” the clinical name she has given to the “constellation of symptoms experienced by many (though not all) who live near industrial wind turbines.” These include sleep problems like insomnia; headaches; dizziness; unsteadiness and nausea; exhaustion; anxiety; anger and irritability; depression; memory loss; eye problems; problems with concentration and learning; and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
Dr. Pierpont is no agenda-driven fright merchant. She received her PhD in behavioral ecology from Princeton and her M.D. from John’s Hopkins School of Medicine. But she does believe that the enthusiasm for wind power, espoused by the Obama administration, is seriously misguided. “As industrial windplants proliferate close to people’s homes and anywhere else people regularly congregate (schools, nursing homes, places of business, etc.) Wind Turbine Syndrome likely will become an industrial plague,” Dr. Pierpont warns.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been actively touting the benefits of wind power. President Obama marked Earth Day (April 22) by talking up wind power as he made a pitch for his energy plans, calling for “a new era of energy exploration in America. He said “the bulk of our efforts” must be focused on transitioning the county to more renewable energy.
In making his case, he picked a hard-hit town in Iowa, a state that ranks second only to Texas in installed wind capacity. Obama optimistically said that wind could generate as much as 20 percent of the U.S. electricity demand by 2030, and the Obama budget for 2010 has about $20 billion in tax incentives for green energy projects, including wind power. Supposedly, this investment will create as many as 250,000 jobs.
The available evidence suggests otherwise. Nations that have sought renewable energy through wind turbines have not experiences impressive job creation. In Spain, where wind turbines have provided 11 percent of that nation’s power demand, two jobs were lost for every one job created, according to a study by Professor Gabriel Calzada at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid. Professor Calzada said premiums paid in his country for solar, biomass, wave and wind power translated into a cost of $774,000 for each Spanish green job created since 2000.
There are other downsides to wind power. Research on wind turbines conducted in Portugal by the Center for Human Performance, an organization dedicated to research in what’s called “vibro-acoustic disease,” or VAD, echoes some of the health concerns raised by Dr. Nina Pierpont. The Center coordinates teams working in areas of cardiology, pulmonary, neurophysiology, and genetics research. The results of the research “irrefutably demonstrate that wind turbines in the proximity of residential areas produce acoustical environments that can lead to the development of VAD in near-by home dwellers,” in the words of Professor Mariana Alves-Pereira, School of Health Sciences, Lusofona University, Portugal.
Noise from windmills has been compared with the low thuds of base notes from music, or the sound of a helicopter in the distance. Low-frequency noise tends to be felt through vibrations, which can resonate with the human body. Some people find these vibrations quite disturbing. The low-frequency noise travels farther than the audible noise, up to several miles.
Further studies were reported in a January 2007 scientific paper by Barbara Frey and Peter Hadden that reviewed evidence and research by experts on the impact of industrial scale wind turbines suffered by those living nearby. The paper includes comments by families affected by wind turbines as well as coverage by news media. Commenting on wind turbine construction in her area, Darlene Ross of Milton, Vermont, notes that “Anyone susceptible to the negative health effects caused by wind turbines will not be able to move away without abandoning their homes,” she says. Ross’s view of wind power is summed up in three words: “No, No, No.”
It is not an isolated case. This spring, several people came forward with health complaints in Canada. On April 22, Dr. Robert McMurtry, an Ontario physician and a former assistant deputy minister of the Population and Public Health Branch of Health Canada, told a news conference in Toronto that while wind energy may offer a clean way to generate electricity, people who live near the giant windmills are suffering with serious health problems.
Volunteers distributed questionnaires in areas near wind farms, asking residents to describe whether they had any effects from the turbines. Of 76 people who responded to the surveys, 53 reported health complaints. They included headaches, heart palpitations, hearing problems, stress, anxiety, and depression. One woman responding to the survey, Barbara Ashbee, lives near 11 of the 45 big wind turbines. She recounted that the day the turbines started running, she and her husband, Dennis, stopped sleeping. “You can hear them in the bedroom. There is also a hum and vibration that permeates the house. I thought they were wonderful. But they’re not,” she said. “My memory now is horrible.”
In one of the reports in the U.S., a Dr. Robert Larivee of Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, said the noise can “contribute to indigestion, ulcers, and heartburn.”
Despite such health risks, wind energy retains its advocates. In 2008, according to environmental reporter Keith Schneider, the U.S. “added 7,500 megawatts of generating capacity from wind—equivalent to 8 large coal-fired power plants.” Schneider notes that “Texas alone this year spent $3 billion on wind generating equipment. Wind is the leading edge of a clean energy industrial sector.” And wind energy finds its most powerful supporter in the White House, who aspires to make wind a prime source of the country’s energy.
That goal remains very far from reality. The Energy Information Administration, for instance, estimates that by 2030 wind power will generate only 2.5 percent of the country’s energy demand. And even that meager output may come as cold comfort to those Americans who will reap the possible health consequences that come with living too close to the wind turbines that some see as the sign of the future.