Could a wind turbine drive you crazy?
In general, there’s strong public support for sustainable energy sources. A 2016 Pew research poll showed that 83 percent of Americans said they favored expanding wind turbine farms, while the majority of respondents opposed more offshore drilling, fracking, and coal mining.
But unfortunately, some enduring myths threaten wind projects before they get off the ground (metaphorically speaking). Among the most prevalent: the idea that wind turbines cause madness and suicide.
Yes, this is an actual concern. “Wind-turbine syndrome” is a dubious medical condition, allegedly suffered by people who live within several miles of turbines. Symptoms are said to include insomnia, headaches, and nausea. Recently, economist Eric Zou made the case that wind farms increase rates of suicide in surrounding areas. A group of landowners actually filed suit in Michigan alleging a wind project in the Upper Peninsula is causing adverse health effects, including sleep interruption and deprivation, stress, “extreme fatigue, anxiety and emotional distress.” In farm terms, this sounds a bit like hogwash!
The concern is that wind turbines create low-frequency noise that disturbs sleep patterns, eventually leading to severe symptoms. It’s a fairly scary idea—but is there anything to it?
In a word, no. First, let’s consider the relatively moderate noise output levels of a typical modern wind turbine. By the time the sound reaches the closest nearby residence, it’s about 40 decibels in volume—quieter than a typical home air conditioner. Some of that noise is low-frequency “infrasound,” but there’s no evidence whatsoever that exposure to these low frequencies causes any ill health effects.
As one 2011 review of peer-reviewed studies found, people are more likely to react negatively to wind turbines due to “visual cues and attitude,” rather than noise levels. What’s more, the infrasound from wind turbines is hardly unique. Similar low-frequency noises can stem from things such as a babbling brook, a ceiling fan, or a truck driving down a distant road.
We’re not cherry-picking studies, by the way. No credible review has found any evidence that wind turbines create noise at especially dangerous frequencies or volume levels, and while any form of fuel collection has an effect on its surrounding environment, wind is both clean and efficient.
In other words: Wind-turbine syndrome simply doesn’t exist.
Partly because it’s an interesting concept in the not-always-interesting world of sustainable energy. Sure, websites could write about the 100,000 new jobs created by the U.S. wind sector in 2016 or explain how wind doesn’t emit particulate matter like other fuel sources, but a headline like “wind turbines might cause suicides” will draw a much wider audience. Admit it: It got you to click.
When people look for a reason to oppose wind energy, they tend to accept any dramatic story that supports their position. We’re not saying that there aren’t any reasons to question wind as a sustainable energy source, but if something sounds especially over the top, it certainly deserves a closer look.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the Waubra Foundation, created to oppose Australian wind farming, actively promoted the existence of wind-turbine syndrome using astroturfing tactics. Astroturfing is the practice of masking a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from a credible source while being fictitiously supported by grassroots participants. Several members of the Waubra Foundation also deny the existence of climate change, and the organization’s founder, Peter Mitchell, owns or is heavily involved in various oil and petroleum companies.
The idea of wind-turbine syndrome strikes all the right chords. It’s frightening, dramatic, and compelling—it’s no wonder that the fossil fuel industry has embraced it outright.
While these types of ideas might seem interesting, they’re meant to overshadow a more meaningful narrative. The United States is the top wind-energy producing country in the world. In 2016, wind turbines supplied Iowa with over 36 percent of its electricity. Wind power could supply 20 percent of U.S. energy by 2030, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs along the way.
Wind energy, alongside other renewable sources, offers more advanced electricity options than ever before. Pseudoscience only derails the legitimate, important discussions we need to have in order to make great advancements in sustainable infrastructure.
‘Suicide’ is a serious and tragic word, but when wind power is blamed as its cause, the topic becomes ludicrous. Simply put, wind-turbine syndrome is an erroneous and meritless claim and a morally shameless tall tale to boot.