On May 4, 2012, at around 8:30 a.m., air-traffic controller Mark J. Cool put two planes on a collision course over Cape Cod. “Runway 14” is what Cool heard the Coast Guard controller say when he okayed a Falcon jet for takeoff from the airport. “Runway 23” is what the controller actually said. That set the jet directly in the flight path of a twin-prop Cool had just released from another airport. On his radar display, two green splats lurched ever closer as he made a series of frantic radio contacts to set them on a corrected course. Cool’s supervisor and colleagues crowded behind him in a crescent of worry. The planes came within two thirds of a mile and 500 feet of altitude of one another. A few seconds later, they would have crashed.
Cool was immediately taken off duty, and before he could return to the boards, his supervisors flew in a guy from California to counsel him in sleep and stress management.
The cause of his near-fatal mistake, Cool insists, was the 40-story wind turbine a third of a mile behind his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts. For two years, he had been suffering from insomnia and headaches, which left him fatigued, distracted, and stressed out. It wasn’t the turbine’s noise that woke him or made his head hurt; he believes some intangible mechanism was at work, an invisible and inaudible wind turbulence. And it was all he could talk about.
“Everybody at work was like, ‘Ah, jeez’—ya know, every time I walk in, ‘Cool is talking about wind turbines,’ ” he says. “So it had pretty much captured my life.”
A 55-year-old former Navy man, Cool says his annual flight physicals, which include an EKG and a vision test, have always shown him to be “healthy as a horse.” But he started getting mysterious headaches in April 2010, almost two weeks after the turbine was turned on behind the sprawling Colonial he shares with his wife, Annie, who began battling sleep loss around the same time. He was out tending his garden when his ears started popping as though he were gaining altitude in an airplane. That turned into head congestion, which became a relentlessly painful pressure behind his ears, at the base of his head. “Not like put-your-finger-in-a-socket pain, just a dull constant,” he says. The headache didn’t go away until he left home four hours later on an errand.
For the next few weeks, the headaches hit when he was in the yard working. Cool went to see his doctor, who prescribed allergy medicine, but that didn’t help. And then he heard from a couple of neighbors who were suffering from ear popping and headaches, too, and had trouble sleeping. “It was kind of a relief,” he says, to realize he was not the only one. “I came back and started talking to my wife about it: ‘What’s new in the neighborhood? The wind turbine.’ ” It was a quick-and-dirty calculus.
Then his symptoms got worse. In June, he began waking up in the middle of the night and could only get back to sleep if he took refuge in the basement. When his headaches became more painful, he resorted to doing “all these weird scientific verifications,” touring the neighborhood and gauging how the severity of the pressure in his head correlated with his distance from a wind tower. He also kept track of how his symptoms were affected by wind direction and logged all of his data into a spreadsheet. The result: He only gets headaches and has trouble sleeping when he’s within a third of a mile of a turbine and the winds are blowing from the north or northwest. “I’ve done a lot of legwork on this,” he says. “I’m not a medical guy, but I know what I’ve experienced.”
Though wind turbines have long dotted mountain ridges like California’s Altamont Pass and wide-open spaces like the Great Plains of central Texas, as wind power has taken off (in 2012, it became the No. 1 source of new energy in the U.S.), many are now being placed in residential areas like Falmouth to save on transmission costs and land use. For the first time, people can see them from their lawns, driveways, and bedrooms, to the frustration of many who find them disturbing—their hulking visual presence, the threat they pose to birds and bats and other wildlife, and their purported effects on human health.
In the past decade, hundreds of people who live near wind turbines in places like Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, and Japan have reported that the windmills are giving them a litany of ailments. The first complaints were recorded in 2003, when a British physician wrote an unpublished report about 36 people in the U.K. who said the turbines made them sick. Then, in 2004, a physician in Victoria, Australia, distributed questionnaires to 25 people living near local turbines, and three of them wrote back about severe stress, insomnia, and dizziness. Even some Scottish Buddhist monks have complained of symptoms, including dry retching and crying. Last summer, Tharpaland International Retreat Centre sold its land to Scottish Power after its monks found they were approximately 70 percent less able to meditate.