Wind Turbine Noise and Human Health

I have been over-researching an article on wind energy that will supposedly be published soon, though I have yet to hear back on the edits. It’s a problem of mine, this need to make every argument impervious to nuclear attack, as if it is possible to construct an argument that will convince everyone–especially in 1,200 words.

On the plus side, I now have a couple hundred pages worth of research that, for obvious reasons, is not going to make it into the published piece, or very likely any published piece. It’s all background. Lucky you, I thought it might make for interesting blog fodder.

Today: wind turbine noise, human health, access to science and how to dupe the public.

First, some background:

Wind Turbine Noise

Wind turbines make noise. How much noise and how annoying that noise is depends on who you ask. Dr. Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician from New York, will soon self-publish a book called Wind Turbine Syndrome, about the terrible effects that the noise from windfarms can have on human health. Understandably, it’s been snatched up by anti-wind energy groups internationally. She claims it’s peer-reviewed, but it’s not. Peer-review refers to a specific process where an academic journal asks a panel of experts in a particular field to comment on a text and offer suggestions for revision and critical feedback. What Dr. Pierpont refers to as “peer-review” on her website is really testimonial–fan feedback. You don’t get to choose peers in a real peer-review process.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that her information is wrong, although the arguments I’ve read criticizing her work I find at least as convincing as her work itself. It does mean that it lacks credibility. As she herself says on her website, academics publishing in peer-reviewed journals are the gold-standard in unbiased information. Dr. Nina Pierpont is not an academic, her work is not peer-reviewed, and her book does not count as an academic peer-reviewed publication.

A search of an academic database of articles in peer-reviewed journals (PubMed) turned up only two relevant studies, both by the same set of academics (there is a mountain of work on sound from wind turbines, but it is otherwise by acoustic engineers and other techy sorts who work with models and dBa estimates and theories about what should be bothersome, rather than measuring the effects of actual turbines on actual people. That’s not a flaw. We need that research. It’s just not what I was investigating). Here’s one:

The Study

Pederson, Eja & Kerstin Waye, Gotegorg University, Sweden. “Wind-turbine noise,
annoyance and self-reported health and well-being in different living
environments.” Occupational and
Environmental Medicine
, 2007 64 p. 480-486.

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Chances are you can’t read it. The problem with a lot of academic research in those vaunted peer-reviewed journals is that they’re available by subscription only, you can’t buy them at Chapters, and subscriptions are pricey. As a result, generally speaking, only other academics and students have access. Here’s a link to the abstract, and if you choose, you can buy yourself a copy of the individual article from their website.

The sample size is fairly large and the study design is, if anything, likely to overestimate the actual impact on human health. Pederson and Waye surveyed about 750 residents (out of a local population of 3,471) of Sweden living on average 780 metres from a wind turbine, and asked them about noise, annoyance and health impacts.

In other words, it’s based on self-reports. Self-reports are considered potentially less objective because people might not accurately assess what is going on with their own health (consider the number of people who get a cold confused with the flu every year). According to their study, respondents were more likely to be annoyed by wind turbine noise when they could see at least one turbine from a window in their home. The study seems more likely to overestimate the effects of such noise on respondents, then, than underestimate it. (Respondents were also more likely to be annoyed by turbine noise if they had a negative view of wind energy, but as the researchers did not examine whether the attitude came before the noise or vice versa–that is, whether the respondents were predisposed to dislike the noise before the turbines were built, or if they learned to dislike them after being bothered by the noise–it’s impossible to say in what way this information is significant.)

Even so–even though it is likely to overestimate the number of people truly bothered by noise from turbines–the total number of people reporting annoyance was quite low, only 31 out of 754. Think about this: they were only asked for their opinion. No doctor screened their responses. Out of the 31 who reported annoyance, just over a third reported that it disturbed their sleep.

All the usual caveats apply: just one study, needs to be replicated, rather small sample size, and so on. In the meantime, there appears to be little support for halting the construction of new wind turbines on the basis of “Wind Turbine Syndrome.”

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