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Analysis: Politics drown out facts following Wisconsin wind noise study

Five acousticians from four consulting firms were hired to gather noise data from the Shirley wind farm in Wisconsin. (Photo via Wisconsin PSC)

Five acousticians from four consulting firms were hired to gather noise data from the Shirley wind farm in Wisconsin. (Photo via Wisconsin PSC)

Is a recent Wisconsin study the smoking gun that proves wind turbine noise causes health problems?

It depends on whom you ask, and more importantly, whether that person is qualified to answer the question.

One month ago, five sound experts set up recording equipment at three homes near a Wisconsin wind farm that had been abandoned by their occupants, who blame the turbines for a variety of health issues.

Over the course of a few days, microphones picked up inaudible, low-frequency turbine noise in the home nearest to the turbines. The subsequent report prompted state Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, to call for an emergency moratorium on wind permits in the state, saying the analysis proves wind farms produce “dangerous” infrasound levels.

“These results compel them to act immediately to keep this nightmare from spreading,” Jacque told the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

However, whether turbine noise is to blame for nausea, headaches and other symptoms was well beyond the limited scope of the three-day field study, which acknowledges the issue as “serious” and “possibly affecting the future of the industry,” but calls for further research into the matter.

Testing claims

The study was intended to help inform Wisconsin’s ongoing debate over wind turbine siting. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission hired Clean Wisconsin, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, to review the proposed Highlands wind farm in St. Croix County, in western Wisconsin (Clean Wisconsin is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News).

During hearings for that project, opponents introduced witnesses who testified about suffering adverse health effects from living near the Shirley wind farm, southeast of Green Bay, forcing them to eventually abandon their homes near the project.

A sound expert hired by Clean Wisconsin proposed a sound-measurement survey in the abandoned homes to get a better understanding of the noise levels, particularly infrasound and low-frequency noise.

The utilities commission authorized funding for the study, and the homeowners agreed to let Clean Wisconsin’s acoustician into their homes to collect the measurements.

At the last moment, however, the three homeowners rescinded their invitation because an expert representing their view wasn’t invited to attend the survey.

Clean Wisconsin retooled and rescheduled the study, inviting four separate acoustics consulting firms to participate, including one, Rand Acoustics, that is often hired by wind farm opponents.

What they heard

The group spent three days going from house to house listening for sound as well as using highly sensitive microphones and other equipment to detect sound inaudible to the human ear.

All five consultants (one of the firms had two acousticians present) could hear turbine noise when standing outside the homes located 1,300 feet and 3,330 feet from the nearest turbines. Only one, Robert Rand of Rand Acoustics, said he could hear noise outside the third residence, 7,100 feet from the nearest turbine.

Rand was also the only one who said he could hear turbine noise inside the homes. He said sound was audible in all three homes, while only one of the other consultants, David Hessler, said he could faintly detect noise inside the nearest home.

Infrasound and low-frequency noise, which occur naturally and are always present in some level, were detected in all three of the homes, but could only be matched to turbine noise in the home closest to the wind farm.

In the other two homes, the noise inside the house didn’t match the profile of an outdoor microphone well enough to rule out other sources as the cause of the noise.

Shortcomings

Each of the acoustics firms was given an opportunity to interpret the results, but all four agreed on the conclusions and recommendations in an eight-page consensus report.

The effort was a “good start in quantifying low frequency and infrasound from wind turbines,” the sound experts’ consensus conclusion begins. But it was also a very limited study with some significant shortcomings.

The group strongly recommended more testing at the Shirley wind farm. Research could produce better results with more time and equipment, as well as cooperation from the wind farm’s owner, Duke Energy.

Duke Energy declined the researchers’ request to periodically turn their turbines off and on so they could measure noise levels with and without the turbine blades spinning, leaving it an experiment without a control.

“An important finding on this survey was that the cooperation of the wind farm operator is absolutely essential,” the report said.

Health issues

The issue of how infrasound and low-frequency noise affects physical health does come up in the report, though the consensus report underscores the scientific uncertainty about the link.

“The issue is complex and relatively new. Such reported adverse response is sparse or non-existent in the peer-reviewed literature,” it says.

The report adds to the body of anecdotal evidence in an appendix by Rand, who says he “is prone to seasickness” and personally experienced nausea, headaches, dizziness and other symptoms during the sound recording. He also interviewed the homeowners about their symptoms.

Rand, in a section not endorsed by the other consultants, says the illness experienced by himself and others near wind turbines may be a form of motion sickness caused by the low frequencies.

Another of the researchers, Paul Schomer, also suggests that low-frequency vibrations from the turbines could cause nausea and other symptoms by putting pressure on the ear canal, but cautions “that the wind turbines make people sick is difficult to prove or disprove.”

Bruce Walker of Channel Island Acoustics reminds readers in his notes that the study was conducted by acousticians, not doctors.

“The author is not qualified to make judgments regarding human response to normally subliminal sources of acoustic excitation,” Walker wrote.

The other two consulting firms note that they have measured infrasound levels at other wind farms “that substantially exceed those measured here and to the best of their knowledge there are no reported adverse effects for noise or adverse health issues.”

The few anecdotes included in Rand’s appendix neither prove or disprove that infrasound or low-frequency noise can make people sick. They also don’t change the current scientific consensus on the topic, says Tyson Cook, staff scientist for Clean Wisconsin.

“When it comes to wind turbines in particular, there is no evidence of that happening.”

Comments (14)

Interestingly in your article you do not mention the fact that Clean Wisconsin took a signed study by these companies and before they turned it in to the PSC , they took out all the references in 1 1/2 pages for section 5.2 . When they were exposed for this ,they said the PSC did not need the info so they removed it. Really? Why dont you put that in your own addendum. Also the study companies referred to a govt. study about health problems with aircraft pilots that was attributed to low frequency and infrasound at lower levels than experienced in the homes. Pretty definative and worth more unbiased looks.

By Dave on Jan 8, 2013

Funny the concensus report link doesnt seem to work!!! How odd , maybe it needed to be ” modified ” by Clean wisconsin!!

By Dave on Jan 8, 2013

Thanks, Dave, for pointing out the broken link. It’s fixed now. And please feel free to send me any additional information you have on the report.

The Navy study is mentioned in the report, and it’s not exactly what you’re describing. The subjects in that study experienced symptoms after being subjected to physical movements, not just infrasound. Those findings are only applicable “if one makes the leap from physical vibration of the body to physical vibration of the media the body is in,” according to the report (emphasis mine). It’s conjecture, not science, and certainly not definitive.

By Ken Paulman on Jan 8, 2013

Disruptions in the transmission of sensory information from the ear to the brain can cause vertigo, dizziness, nausea, palpitations, sweating, and difficulties with balance, vision, or hearing. Low frequency noise is known to cause “disruptions” that can be debilitating. This is why the US military deploys it as a weapons system. I know the wind industry wants this to be untrue, but it is a medical fact and the sooner we acknowledge it and set appropriate setback standards, the better for all concerned. Ignoring this or denying it does nothing to endear the industry or it’s proponents to an increasingly angry public.

By Mary on Jan 8, 2013

Ken, you can cause motion sickness by either placing someone in a stationary seat and vibrating/moving a screen in front of them, or by popping them on a roller coaster or a ride like Expedition Space at Epcot. It is not a leap to acknowledge that both internal and external mechanisms can be effect the body in concert or independent of one another. Unfortunately, I can demonstrate both methods of inducing nausea due to severe motion sickness.

By Mary on Jan 8, 2013

Given the reticence of the wind industry to acknowledge this problem, I can understand the homeowners wanting some assurance that the acousticians conducting the tests were not industry representatives. It is such a pity that science is over-looked in favor of politics, both in discussions on this topic, and in permitting. Westwood Professional Services biologist Rob Bouta spelled this out quite clearly in a power point previously available on the internet. If we’re going to get scientific solutions to science based problems, we need to focus on science, not perceptions.

By Mary on Jan 8, 2013

I live amongst 86 turbines and the noise is very real. If you would like to come stay at the homes in our area, I am sure someone would love to have you visit us. Many nights we hear them in our home and have many sleepless nights. So, unless you have experienced it first hand like many residents in many states have, I don’t feel you have an opionion because it is not effecting your health.

By Iivinginohio on Jan 8, 2013

No one disputes that they make noise. This study and several others have confirmed that. Whether turbines cause health problems is a separate question, one that this study was not designed to address.

The point here is not to deny that this is an issue, but to explain exactly what this report does and doesn’t say.

By Ken Paulman on Jan 9, 2013

Health problems in our area are lack of sleep due to noise, migraine headaches from shadow flicker, nausea and vomiting from flicker, just to name a few. My family came from Wisconsin and could not sleep upstairs of our home due to the noise. My son has light sentative eyes and cannot find one room in the house to get away from shadow flicker. I cannot be outside in my yard, garden, even going for a walk because the minute I get outside when these things are running, I get pressure/pain in my ears that is unbearable. Some friends came from out of state, we sat on my porch, the noise and rotation of the turbines made her sick to her stomach. After getting out of site and sound of the turbines, about two hours later, she was fine. I could go on, but let me ask this, do you know all the exisiting health issues people have in their lives such as sezuires, heart problems, etc., prior to building a turbine 1000, 1200 or even 1400 feet from their homes? No, you do not. Should we allow these companies to put more burden on the residents who already have health issues prior to a wind farm? No we should not. An 82 year old man in my neighborhood, went outside three times in the bitter snow storm two years ago after 11 pm, because he thought there was something wrong with the water pump outside. It ended up being turbine noise. Should we as residents have to live like this? Who would have been responsible if he would have fallen and nobody was there to help him? Another neighbor has severe migraines, the flicker triggers them more often now and she ends up in ER they are so bad. Who is paying her bill? It sure is not the wind company. Maybe you should contact the people who did the report and ask them who hired them, who paid them and to answer all your questions. This should be public knowledge.

By Iivinginohio on Jan 9, 2013

It is public knowledge. All explained in the story and in the report itself.

By Ken Paulman on Jan 9, 2013

Clean Wisconsin now says that even though they removed portions of the study without permission of the study’s authors, that they will consider the study as valid in the conclusions made even though they will have to remove the signitures of the scientists who created the study. Can you say they are worried about a lawsuit?
I think the biggest thing to come out of this study is that the PSC needs to further study this with multiple groups of researchers . Require that the turbine company comply with the request to turn the turbines on and off and then have the results reviewed by un-biased medical researchers . They then take the results and creat appropriate rules for inhabited areas. Out west who cares since there is a lot of room to not affect people, but in more densely populated areas it makes a difference.
The future of the Wind industry needs help with this since they obviously wont do it themselves.

By Dave on Jan 9, 2013

What we found is that once they were up and running, the only answer from the wind developer was money. They will not shut them off when the noise is bad or shadow flicker is bad. It costs them federal subsidy money (PTC) to shut them off. You need a moritorium until all of this is worked out in Wisconsin. Be careful in your request from the wind company on turning them on and off during a study because they can flip the blades so during the study, you will not get an accurate reading of noise, then when the study is done, they will flip them back to where they are the most efficient for them and you will have a lot of noise again. Been down that road with the wind company as well.

By Iivinginohio on Jan 9, 2013

Listen to our interview of acoustician Richard James regarding infrasound and the The Shirley Study.

blogtalkradio (dot) com (slash) windwise

By Wind Wise Radio on Jan 14, 2013

EverPower Renewables are proposing over 100 industrial wind turbines in eastern Chamapign County Ohio. The minimum setback in Ohio is 541 ft from property lines and a little over 900 ft to habited structures. The proposed project is Buckeye Wind I (56 turbines already approved by the OPSB) & Buckeye Wind II, with another 50+ turbines being proposed. My family and I will be surrounded by turbines. Estimating to be as close as 1600 ft to our property. When I read all of the negative health effects and the noise disturbance issues, I am fearful. This area is strongly opposed to the projects because of the siting issues. Even knowing this, the OPSB has “strongly recommended approval.” The old saying goes, “money talks and bull…..” Well, you get the picture.

By April on Jan 20, 2013