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?

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Sue Hobart says she abandoned her dream house in Falmouth to get away from the 400-foot turbine behind it, which she believes gave her wind turbine syndrome. “I hadn’t slept for two and a half years,” she says. (Photograph by Toan Trinh)

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.”

  • Kerry Kearney

    I’ve been following wind energy in Massachusetts for a few years, and this article is balanced and accurate. Good piece of journalism. The obvious conclusion is that several turbines have been sited too close to homes. Residents don’t enjoy attending Health Board meetings just to complain, and it’s ridiculous to accuse middle class families of doing the bidding of Big Oil. There’s a problem, and there’s a solution; don’t site them so close to homes. Has the State bothered to map out residential complaints around each turbine in Massachusetts?

    • Alec Sevins

      Balanced, eh? You really think there are magic places to put countless additional 400-700 foot towers on a finite planet with limited zones of consistently adequate wind speeds? The whole “careful siting” ruse fails out of the gate. If they could be carefully sited it would have happened already. A cursory look at a map of rural homes shows that it’s impossible to scatter wind turbines effectively while respecting residents. And wildlife has no say in the matter, especially birds and bats that keep dying. Wind turbines blight the landscape and soundscape no matter where they’re installed. The only fair place to put them would be right in the cities that draw most of their power, but of course that’s impractical.

  • NortheasternEE

    Wind industry propaganda has convinced environmentalists, political leaders and the public that renewable energy is necessary to combat Global Warming. This is not true. –

    Wind and solar energy are not replacements for fossil fuel. They are add-ons with a capacity value close to zero. The addition of wind energy into our system of power generation only serves to decrease the efficiency of our fossil fuel power plants while increasing operating costs destroying the integrity of levelized cost comparisons. Little or no fuel is saved. –

    http://breakingenergy.com/2012/03/13/renewable-energy-will-cost-grid-more-mit/

    Forcing wind on the power grid is forcing coal to be replaced by natural gas, because wind needs the firming support of natural gas on the grid. While that may result in a less polluting system, the cost will skyrocket and the coal will be exported to China, India, and elsewhere, where it will be burned without scrubbers increasing pollution worldwide. We will become solely dependent on natural gas for heat and electricity (So much for diversifying the fuel supply). Currently there is no way to avoid natural gas.

    The Chinese will use our cheap coal to make wind turbines and solar panels, using “slave” labor. These will be exported to us so we can satisfy the artificial market created by the many mandates like the Massachusetts Green Communities Act for renewable energy. –

    China wins. We lose, and Global Warming continues!

  • Marie_Jane123

    The Comedy of the Stupids!

    China’s, quick moving, coal polluted air makes up 10% of California’s smog.

    Keystone is dragging on and soon Canada will make a smart move and make a deal with the rest of the world. (We will forever be importing oil for our needs.)

    We are wasting our natural gas to fire up unnatural wind (natural wind is not a 50 story machine comprised of toxic chemicals built in China with our exported coal which comes back to this country in the form of smog).

    Whether the wind blows or not, we will be sitting in the dark, no coal, no oil, no gas, no nuclear………with those rotting 50 story machines sitting in our bag yards reminding us that when the great greenwashing occurred, our common sense left.

    This Boston Magazine story tells all but the behind the scenes truth. There is no place in the State of Massachusetts for the industrial wind turbine.

    And, if you ever want “the living bejesus” scared out of you, attend any of the meetings that Mark Beaton attends!

    xxx

    • clarity

      There is no place for industrial turbines near ridiculously huge homes worried that the tiniest view of a turbine blade will take away from the beauty of their golf course….

    • clarity

      There is no place for a turbine in the minds of people who choose to deny climate change which is fact…science.

    • clarity

      There is no place for turbines to those who have stock in big oil.

    • clarity

      No place for turbines for those who have been sucked in by propaganda circulated by special interest groups designed especially to convince people that oil is THE only way to go.

    • clarity

      Shame on the greed.

  • http://www.vce.org Annette Smith

    Jim Cummings of Acoustic Ecology has published a thorough review of the Chapman study about the claim of campaigners influencing property values, and also about the other study regarding the alleged “nocebo effect”. Cummings is trying to find the middle ground, and his evaluation of these two studies that have been picked up by media all over the world is worth reading http://acousticecology.org/wind/winddocs/health/AEI_ExpectationsAndHealthEffects.pdf

  • Richard Mann

    I am very happy to see these issues brought to the main stream.
    But NOCEBO is junk science. What kind of society blames the victimes for their illness? Yes, the sickness is real: British Medial Journal: http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e1527
    Canadian Family Physician: http://www.cfp.ca/content/59/5/473.full

    Evidence is mounting. When do we admit we made a mistake?

    http://Soundmann.com.

    • clarity

      We live right near a huge turbine and there is no noise 90% of the time. And when you can hear it, it is barely noticeable. One would have to WANT to be bothered by it. One would have to be looking for a problem.

  • Liberty

    Wind energy is only clean if you ignore what had to happen to construct the windmills in the first place, and if you ignore what has to happen when the wind isn’t blowing. Calling the project “No Fossil Fuel” is just silly. There has to be a fossil fuel generator ready to go online immediately when the wind stops blowing (in fact I believe it has to be idling in order to so), otherwise they don’t work at all. The kind of electricity used in homes has be generated in real time. Also silly is the claim that it has generated revenue. The only way a wind turbine can generate enough revenue to operate is to have a generous amount of direct government subsidy and an additional government mandate that the electric companies buy the power at higher cost than market rates. Without that, nobody would buy the electricity that a wind turbine generates, because it is so costly. Any claims of these things being economically worthwhile are hogwash that the proponents keep putting out because so few people have any clue how to measure the economic costs. If you don’t subtract the costs from the benefits then you cannot say a project has any value whatsoever. Wind turbines operate at a loss that is made up by taxpayers and ratepayers. Now of course proponents can say, “that is OK, it is a cost we are willing to impose on society to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” but they have to be honest and quit presenting a bogus balance sheet, which is the equivalent of saying 1 + 1 = 5.

  • truth

    some assume the people that are complaining are telling the truth–numerous studies are being done by independent entities– I don’t think the anti (wind wise) people are going to like the results–at the appropriate the rest of the story will be told–

  • ka1axy

    Those who are against wind and solar energy need to remember that fossil fuels are also a losing proposition…we’re going to lose them, and it would be prudent to know with what energy source we are going to replace them *before* they run out. We need to try wind, solar and tidal generation *now*, so we understand the issues, before we need them.

    Of course, there’s always nuclear. It’s clean and efficient…just ask the residents of Fukushima. Nuclear has its advantages, but it, too, depends on a scarce resource, one that “keeps on giving”, long after its generating potential is gone.

    • Alec Sevins

      I see you buy into the fantasy that things other than fossil fuels (esp. oil) can sustain a bloated economy that was almost entirely grown with them. Explain to the readers how heavy trucks, trains and ships will ever be powered by electricity alone. Too much torque over too much distance is required. And the combustion of fossil fuels may be the only thing that can produce enough heat for heavy industrial processes like smelting. A “100% renewable” dream doesn’t pass even a simple physics assessment, and the landscape destruction from wind turbines is quite bleak to aesthetic environmentalists who operate beyond the anthropocentric cult of sustainability.

      Nothing else this century (if ever) is having such a radical impact on scenery in far flung locations that don’t depend on geological formations. That’s why wind turbines are now visible to many more people than coal mines or even fracking. They are a growing intrusion on rural life and wild scenery we took for granted as permanent.

  • clarity

    Wind turbine syndrome is a suggestion planted in the minds of impressionable victims. Often these impressionable people are in need of attention or in need of something on which to blame their unhappy lives. It is very sad really. Removing a turbine will not end their pain and when their Don Quixote battle ends, they are left feeling empty.

    • Alec Sevins

      Sure, and have you ever spent time in the affected homes? There is no way to make a giant machine that doesn’t emit insidious noise with low frequency components. You can do a small scale experiment with a free-spinning desktop fan on a windy day, and mentally magnify its noise. Stand at different locations to simulate different effects on homes.

  • http://wslfconwaymausa.blogspot.com/ richardstafursky

    Amy Crawford seems to be using the straw-man argument. It is more than human health concerns. Windmill cause major harm to the natural landscape in all the ways landforms and species can be harmed. Sometimes wind farms are on government land set aside for native forests. Remember when recycling began in the US with collection igloos? There wasn’t zoning for them and then there was zoning and then they disappeared, because better curb-side collection was “invented.” We’re going to be decommissioning wind farms sooner than you think. Like biomass burning forest incinerators wind farms are faux green machines that some state governments pretend are green. Grants directed toward both of these energy “solutions” should be directed toward things that work or will work in the near future and which never harm the environment. I’d start with a proven technology. I’d start with insulation, conservation and hundred percent recycling to save energy. Wind turbines are always used to extend energy use into new territories. They do not to replace anything.

    • Alec Sevins

      Well put. Rooftop solar makes a lot more sense, with almost nil visual impact, but utilities don’t like decentralized power. If they really cared about the environment they’d lease solar panels to homeowners and monitor power use remotely. It’s already being done with smart-meters anyhow. Once in awhile, workers could visit the homes to make sure nobody’s cheating.

  • Danny Cummings

    For the love of God, quit f’ing whining. It’s all u Americans do for Christ’s sake; waa waa waa. We, and the rest of the families in our neighbourhood, have lived very close (within about 500 meters) to several wind turbines for years now and not a single one of us (out of 116 people) has had a complaint. No mysterious illnesses (how can 3 fibreglass blades spinning in the wind make u sick?), no noise complaints (they barely make any sound at all) and they’re certainly not “ugly” looking, nor have they decreased our property values. Since they were erected, our hydro bills have gone down 50% (for all residents of our city). Then of course there are the proven environmental benefits. So, I can’t figure out why you’re all moaning like a bunch of children, except that maybe Americans simply love to whine. Now, I don’t want to generalize here, but I do watch the news (except for ‘Faux News’, as I like to hear the truth) and you people are always carrying on about something. They’re just windmills! Find something actually important to be concerned about.

    • Alec Sevins

      You are posting the usual, devious response to these complaints, easily debunked with basic research. The noise doesn’t affect all locations equally and just because you got lucky doesn’t make the others whiners. The visual blight alone is an affront to nature and merely adds to other forms of man-made damage. There are already over a quarter million of these skyscrapers fouling the world’s landscapes and anyone with a shred of aesthetic values should seriously question more of them. It’s the biggest mass construction project I can think of, certainly the tallest.