The most frequently read article in the February 5 issue of Seven Days was a story of a long-simmering neighborhood battle. On one side is instrument maker Adam Buchwald, who crafts mandolins and guitars in his Burlington home studio. On the other is one of his neighbors, Barbara Headrick, who claims the noise from his workshop is affecting her quality of life and property value. Three points argue against her:
— No other neighbors are bothered.
— One neighbor admits she sometimes plays really loud rock music with the windows open, and Headrick has never complained.
— The neighborhood is near the UVM campus, and a lot of noise and litter is generated by “drunk and screaming college kids” who are “a regular feature of life there.”
But still, Headrick believes the noise of Buchwald’s power tools is uniquely impactful. And who are we to doubt her?
Well, in this case she seems a far less sympathetic figure than her woodgrained neighbor. But how is her case any different than those of, say, the Therriens or the Nelsons, the two most renowned victims of “Wind Turbine Syndrome”?
I put it in quotes because there is no scientific evidence for such a syndrome.
The Nelsons and the Therriens appear frequently as spokespeople for the anti-wind movement, telling their harrowing tales of turbine noise inside their homes. Somehow, though, the noise is never apparent whenever a reporter visits either home. And the wind farm near the Nelsons’ home passed its most recent noise tests with room to spare.
And, like Barbara Headrick not minding a blast of Led Zeppelin or a puking frat boy, the Therriens live near Interstate 91 but the freeway noise doesn’t bother them. Not even the notorious Jake brakes on big semis. That’s no problem, but the turbines threaten to drive them from their home.
I can’t explain the targeted sensitivities of the Nelsons or Therriens. But, as on Prospect Street, they seem to be uniquely afflicted; we haven’t heard similar stories from any of their neighbors.
What I do know is that whenever scientists look for evidence of an actual Syndrome caused by the somehow singular noise from wind turbines, they find no evidence.
Wind Turbine Syndrome has been identified by a single doctor, Nina Pierpont. She happens to be a pediatrician who claims to have discovered an adult illness. She happens to be married to a prominent anti-wind activist. And the study “proving” Wind Turbine Syndrome, according to Popular Science Magazine, “had a small sample size of phone interviews with no control group or proper peer review.” The sample size: 38 people from a whopping ten families.
Pierpont’s selection process was flawed; she included only families that had at least one member with symptoms who lived near a recently built turbine. This, as any scientist would tell you, guarantees an association between turbines and illness. An association created by the study’s inherent bias, not by actual evidence.
Okay, I can hear the Windies saying “Hardy har har, why should we believe a popular magazine, even if it has the word ‘science’ in its title?”
Well, there have been at least ten independent scientific reviews of the available evidence on the subject. Each of the ten has concluded that noise complaints have “far more to do with social and psychological factors in those complaining than any direct effect from sound or inaudible infrasound emanating from wind turbines.”
Some passages from the tenth review, conducted by the British Acoustics Bulletin: “the degree of annoyance is only slightly related to noise level”; “the fact that someone was complaining was mainly determined by the personality of the individual”; “fear of the noise source can increase annoyance”; and “adverse feelings . . . were influenced by feelings of lacking control, being subjected to injustice, lacking influence, and not being believed”.
The review found two factors that tended to enhance the likelihood of a person claiming to be a sufferer: Being able to see turbines and not liking them; and whether the person derives any financial benefit from the turbines.
And then there’s a 2013 study by Simon Chapman, a public health professor from Sydney University. He found a curious geographical quirk about claims of Wind Turbine Syndrome:
The report… found that 63% [of Australian windfarms] had never been subject to noise or health complaints. In the state of Western Australia, where there are 13 windfarms, there have been no complaints.
The study shows that the majority of complaints (68%) have come from residents near five windfarms that have been heavily targeted by opponent groups.
In other words, when anti-wind activists start spreading tales of Wind Turbine Syndrome, people start feeling its effects. Without the tales, the Syndrome is amazingly absent or ineffectual.
Many of the wind-noise studies, having been written by notoriously cautious scientists, conclude that “there is insufficient evidence” that turbine noise causes health problems. Wind opponents seize on this wording — just as creationists bray about the “theory” of evolution — and say that more research will find new evidence. However:
Chapman said that if wind farms did genuinely make people ill there would by now be a large body of medical evidence that would preclude putting them near inhabited areas. Eighteen reviews of the research literature on wind turbines and health published since 2003 had all reached the broad conclusion that there was very little evidence they were directly harmful to health.
A panel of independent experts, assembled by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Public Health, conducted a study of the scientific literature on the health impacts of wind turbines. Its report was released in January 2012. One of its conclusions:
There is no evidence for a set of health effects, from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a “Wind Turbine Syndrome.”
No evidence. That’s the conclusion reached over and over again, whenever experts examine the issue. It’s just like the “debate” over climate change: a huge quantity of evidence and the vast majority of experts all on one side, and a tiny minority of both on the other.
I don’t doubt that Don Nelson is truly bothered by the nearby wind turbines, just as Barbara Headrick is bothered by her neighbor’s woodshop. But all the evidence suggests that the culprit isn’t the turbines or the power tools; it’s the immense power of the human mind. And just as I believe Adam Buchwald should go on making guitars, I believe Vermont should continue to approve and construct wind farms.