Bad Vibes in Kingston, Mass.
Clean, green wind power might be our best weapon against climate change. So why do some people say it’s their worst nightmare?
Wind turbine syndrome has recently begun to receive more and more attention. Its vaguely defined but disturbing constellation of physical symptoms range from anxiety and migraines to heart palpitations and high blood pressure. The symptoms are said to be attributable to low-frequency sound. “We think of noise as just being felt with the ears,” explains Lilli-Ann Green, a healthcare consultant and former art teacher who sits on the Wind Wise board and is the group’s top adviser on the science behind wind turbine syndrome. “But sound is pressure waves—it’s hitting your body over and over again. Many people have ear pressure and ear pain and headaches. A lot of people have nausea and dizziness, the same symptoms you would see if you were seasick.” Green’s concern over the syndrome helped motivate her to form a local group that defeated a proposed turbine near her home in Wellfleet in 2010. After that, she and her husband began spreading the message in towns like Kingston and Falmouth, as well as in other communities where public opposition wound up sinking wind proposals.
For his part, Mark Beaton believes that wind turbine syndrome is so much hooey. “They come in, get people riled up, give them misinformation,” he says. “We have countered all their claims at public meetings, said, ‘This is not happening.’”
Still, in community after community where windmill projects are being considered, the specter of wind turbine syndrome has roused opposition. “Typically what happens is people hear that a wind power plant is going to be built in their town, and they get online and start doing research,” says Eleanor Tillinghast, who lives in the Berkshires and helped found Wind Wise Massachusetts in 2010. “And then they reach out to us.”
On a blustery day in September, I travel to Falmouth to visit Sue Hobart, a woman who has received her share of coverage in the local press because she believes she is suffering from a serious case of wind turbine syndrome. Though Hobart has no official affiliation with Wind Wise, the group’s publicist, Barry Wanger, has urged me to meet with her so I can see for myself the effects of living near a windmill.
Hobart has asked me to meet her at her abandoned home, a custom-built ranch at the end of a long gravel driveway, surrounded by scrub oak and wilting hydrangeas. When I arrive, she and her husband, Ed, take me on a tour of the house, which has been sitting empty since 2012, when they fled to a fixer-upper in Bourne. On the back deck, we pause to peer through the trees at a 400-foot turbine that sits next to a sand pit about 1,600 feet away. When I can hear it, the turbine sounds like a far-off jet plane.
“You hear that thing that’s like a roar?” Ed asks.
“Nobody thinks it’s going to hurt them, a little sound like that,” Sue says. “You think you can get used to it, but it gets worse and worse.” We listen to the turbine for another minute or two, and then Sue suggests we retreat to the front porch, where we won’t get “whomped.”
Sue, who is 58, says she first began feeling symptoms of wind turbine syndrome shortly after the town’s third windmill went up, in the summer of 2011. It started with a little dizziness and a persistent headache, which she attributed to the busy season at her job as a wedding florist, and to the stress of having Ed, a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, away at sea. She felt nauseous and tired, and she couldn’t sleep. In time, she came to realize that she felt better when she was away from the house, and slowly it dawned on her that the turbine was making her ill. She began to research wind turbines online, eventually coming across the work of Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician in upstate New York.
The idea that windmills can make you sick was popularized by Pierpont in her book, Wind Turbine Syndrome, which she self-published in 2009. After windmill developers came to her town in 2004 seeking land leases, Pierpont conducted phone interviews with 10 families in North America and Europe who reported disturbed sleep, ear problems, headaches, irritability, and loss of cognitive function after wind turbines were built nearby. She concluded that infrasound—noise at frequencies below the level of human hearing—could be interfering with the balance organs of the inner ear and causing people’s internal organs to vibrate. The book’s methodology and conclusions remain highly controversial. Pierpont declined to be interviewed for this article.
Steven Rauch, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Harvard Medical School who examined Sue Hobart, says Pierpont’s hypothesis is plausible, although until further research is done, he considers himself “agnostic.” “There is no direct evidence yet to support this diagnosis,” Rauch says, “but there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that says it’s probably real.” The inner ear’s sensitivity to infrasound has been documented previously, he explains, and “it deserves to be studied.”
A few surveys by doctors and psychologists in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Europe have similarly found that some people who live near wind turbines report symptoms consistent with the syndrome, but so far no rigorous research has directly supported Pierpont’s claims. In 2012 a literature review commissioned by the Massachusetts departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health found no evidence that the syndrome exists—though that conclusion has been vigorously disputed by Wind Wise. And last year a team of researchers at the University of Sydney, in Australia, concluded the syndrome is a “communicated disease,” likely to be caused by the nocebo effect. I asked the study’s lead author, the public health professor Simon Chapman, what that means, exactly. “The nocebo effect,” he told me, “is the ugly stepsister of the placebo effect.” People can experience real, physical symptoms simply because they expect an otherwise harmless substance or stimulus to hurt them, Chapman explained. “The old expression ‘to worry yourself sick’ is very relevant here.”