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.
This hodgepodge of maladies has an unofficial name: wind-turbine syndrome, coined in 2006 by Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician, whose husband, it should be noted, is an anti-wind activist. Those who believe in the syndrome say it’s caused by sound waves released when the giant turbine blades collide with the wind—not just the audible whooshing noise, but the rumbling vibrations created by a low-frequency sound, or infrasound. Nonbelievers, including most scientists and doctors, say it doesn’t exist, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not recognize it as a legitimate syndrome.
Four wind turbines tower over the coastal hills of Falmouth, two of which belong to the town and two of which are privately owned. At about 400 feet tall, the Falmouth-owned turbines are taller than the Statue of Liberty and, a sore point for many residents, twice as large as the ones initially proposed and vetted with the community. Together, the turbines were supposed to supply cheap, clean energy and power to about one third of town-owned facilities. But that was before the Falmouth Board of Selectmen voted to shut them down at night to address complaints of sleep loss.
Brent Putnam, chair of the Falmouth board, says he was originally skeptical that the turbines could have any harmful effects. But then he visited some of the homes of those who have complained. On one particularly blustery day, the turbine’s whoosh, he says, sounded like a low-flying jet. He even experienced vertigo. “I’m not sure what’s going on there,” he tells me. “But the nature of the sound is not something like road traffic, and it’s not something that you can get away from or is going to stop.”
One of the homes he visited belongs to Neil Andersen, a 60-year-old green builder, who says he never had any health problems until the turbines arrived in Falmouth. He has since suffered from tinnitus, heart palpitations, and panic attacks so severe that he once drove himself to the emergency room. Andersen says his wife, Betsy, got sick first and he didn’t believe her until she began banging her head against the wall of their house. At a local Falmouth diner one morning, he pulled out a small paper calendar on which he and his wife had recorded their symptoms. A binder overflowing with papers related to the town turbines sat to his left. Andersen turned to October 2011, when Betsy had written on one date, “Never stops, never stops. Headache. HELP.” The force of her pen had ripped the page.
His neighbor Sue Hobart, a wedding florist in her fifties, picked up and left her home last summer. Hobart still owns the old house, which is near one of the private turbines, but moved into a fixer-upper across town with her husband because she couldn’t take the migraines, nausea, dizziness, and depression she says she experienced after the turbine began operating. On August 31, 2012, having waited to get an appointment for many months, Hobart traveled to Boston to see Dr. Steven Rauch, a vestibular, or balance, specialist at Harvard’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (she had been referred to Rauch by Nina Pierpont’s husband). Rauch gave her a written diagnosis of wind-turbine syndrome—what she had long suspected—following an interview and a battery of tests. “I was relieved that he would actually acknowledge that [wind-turbine syndrome] was something that existed,” Hobart says. “It felt like I finally had a little validation for not being insane.”
Rauch, who met Nina Pierpont at a medical conference a few years ago, is pro–wind energy and insists he has nothing to gain from supporting the syndrome. But “there is a body of information that has accumulated from people who live by wind turbines,” he says. “We owe them the benefit of the doubt.”
The office of Milton Garces, the director of the Infrasound Lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is an aluminum hangar in the middle of a lava field in Keahole Point on Hawaii’s Big Island. It essentially serves as an infrasonic chamber. He designed the space himself with a powerful three-foot subwoofer that he uses to calibrate instruments that measure infrasound. Garces studies the infrasonic emissions of volcanoes, hurricanes, and “giant fireballs from the heavens,” he says, like the meteor that hit Russia in February. He also happens to know what a powerful blast of infrasound feels like, because he has been using himself as a test subject. If he cranks the power on the subwoofer in his office, he starts to feel as though he were at sea in a raging storm. “I can flick a switch on and make myself sick,” he says. “If it’s really loud and you’re right next to it, you can have heart palpitations.”
How a person reacts to infrasound ultimately comes down to the dose, which diminishes over distance. The U.S. has no guidelines for where turbine companies can build, but in Denmark, which has the highest wind-energy capacity per capita, the recommended distance between turbines and homes and buildings is at least four times the total height of the turbine. For a 400-foot turbine, that’s 1,600 feet, or about a third of a mile. According to Danish regulations, Mark Cool’s home is right on the border of the comfort zone.
Until very recently, Garces didn’t think turbines could possibly generate the kind of infrasound dose capable of harming people. But then, in August, he read the work of Alec Salt, an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose, and throat researcher, at Washington University in St. Louis, whose work even skeptics find plausible. Salt argues that the level of infrasound generated by a wind turbine at a distance of about a mile is enough to potentially be harmful, perhaps resulting in some of the same symptoms Garces feels when he flips his switch. “It’s very possible that some people are very sensitive to the nature of [wind-turbine] sound,” Garces says. The trick is figuring out who is, and whether that sensitivity is biological or psychological.
Of the nearly 200 or so households located within a half-mile of a turbine in Falmouth, only about 24 complain of symptoms. On the whole, the unaffected neighbors say the turbines are hardly audible above the sound of the wind except on days with powerful gusts. “We support the operation of all of these turbines 100 percent and do not want them turned off (or even moved),” wrote Debra Cookson, who lives 1,400 feet from one of the turbines, in a May 28, 2012, letter to the local board of health. “You must ensure for all Falmouth residents that science is used in interpreting any presumed and reported ‘health effects’ from these turbines … Just because someone states that the turbines caused their problems does not mean that they did!”
And the American Wind Energy Association, a lobbying group for the industry, says that wind turbines don’t make people sick at all. “Independent, credible studies from around the world have consistently found that sound from wind farms has no direct impact on human physical health,” says John Anderson, AWEA’s director of siting policy. Wind farms have been developed in 89 countries, he says, and hundreds of thousands of people live and work nearby without any fuss. He cites the many experts who think the symptoms are in the sufferers’ heads.
Which, for some people, might be the case. Large-scale population surveys conducted by scientists in Sweden and the Netherlands have found that stress and sleep disturbances were more likely if the turbines were visible and less likely if the individuals benefitted economically from them. Other studies found that having a bad attitude about the turbines and subjective sensitivity to noise were more likely to lead to annoyance and negative health effects than actual exposure to audible sound or infrasound. (Back in 2007, three years before the Falmouth turbines were even built, a handful of residents expressed concern about the potential for illness after reading about symptoms online, and those health effects were even written up in the local newspaper.) And in recent lab tests, subjects who were told to expect side effects from infrasound ahead of time felt some of those symptoms even when they were exposed to sham infrasound.
Simon Chapman, an Australian professor of public health at the University of Sydney, believes wind-turbine syndrome is just the latest in a series of 21st-century technophobias (think of the well-publicized fears about microwave ovens, cell phones, cell towers, and Wi-Fi). “If wind farms genuinely did pose a problem to people who lived near them, you would expect to see a relationship which was fairly consistent from country to country, wind farm to wind farm,” Chapman says, “and that’s far from the case.” In Australia, the majority of complaints come from just six of the country’s 51 wind farms, according to his research. “The six wind farms where people have been getting sick are the ones where the anti-wind folks have been most active, with high-profile media attention amplifying the word-of-mouth stuff,” he says.
Sometimes health anxieties can actually make people sick, especially if a person sees neighbors or friends get sick first. These psychogenic illnesses, as they’re called, are often characterized by nonspecific symptoms like headaches, nausea, dizziness, itching—symptoms that occur in all human populations at a relatively high rate. They also tend to be communicated through tightly knit social groups. (Psychogenic illnesses may travel by way of the nocebo effect, the evil twin of the placebo effect. Nocebo means “I will harm” in Latin.)
Last year, in Le Roy, New York, a group of eighteen high-school girls, one boy, and one adult came down with a case of uncontrollable tics. Many blamed a chemical spill that took place in the town in 1970, but doctors told parents it was mass psychogenic illness. All the students have since recovered, though a girl from another town who got the same tics after driving through Le Roy around the time of the outbreak now blames chronic Lyme disease.
In Windsor, Ontario, people are losing sleep over a low-frequency “hum”—a combination of audible deep bass sounds and inaudible vibrations some have compared to the crooning of Barry White. Residents of the town say the hum, which began in 2011, vibrates their beds, knocks objects off shelves, makes babies cranky, disturbs cats and dogs, upsets goldfish, and causes illness. Federally funded scientists have traced the hum to Zug Island, on the U.S. side of the Detroit River, but have yet to identify a specific source, and people in Michigan say they hear nothing. Two decades ago, residents of Taos, New Mexico, began to complain about a hum that remains unresolved to this day.
On the other hand, the suffering Falmouth residents claim they’d never heard of wind-turbine syndrome before they began feeling sick—that their symptoms only appeared after the turbines themselves did. Many also point out that they felt symptoms before hearing similar stories from their neighbors. But, according to Ted Kaptchuk, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the program in placebo studies at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, conscious awareness of an illness is not a requirement for the nocebo effect. Apparently, if we really want to, we can feel just about anything. “We’re always a little dizzy. We’re always a little bit nauseous,” he says. “But selective attention attends to those things … and the attention cascades into more of that thing.” It becomes a kind of feedback loop.
“I know people I admire and respect who are convinced that they have symptoms that they attribute to the turbine,” says Eric Davidson, adjunct senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center.* The center, a nonprofit research group with a focus on climate change and environmental science, owns one of the town’s four turbines. People often picnic beneath it at a bench set up for that purpose, but a couple of neighbors have complained about noise, vibrations, and shadows thrown by the blades as they rotate through the sun’s glare. One woman who complained of vibrations recorded feeling them at times when the turbine wasn’t even running. “It’s hard to separate all the noise, so to speak,” says Davidson, “to infer cause and effect.”
On July 9, in a well-lit basement room of the Massachusetts statehouse in Boston, a crowd gathered for a hearing on a couple of proposed bills before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Health, including one that would mandate a study on the health effects of wind turbines. Academics, doctors, and politicians sat jammed into benches next to anti-wind activists and syndrome sufferers from various towns around the Cape.
“It’s critical that we acknowledge wind-turbine syndrome,” said Roxanne Zak, head of the energy committee for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, an unlikely supporter, in her testimony that morning. “We’re derailing large wind projects, preventing wind legislation from being passed. We can’t dismiss the evidence that people are having problems.” Turbines are very effective in wide-open spaces, she said, but Massachusetts is not one of those places.
State Representative Cleon H. Turner told Zak he sympathized with her mission. “I appreciate your confidence that wind-turbine syndrome will be verified,” he said, leaning forward with urgency. “During the ten years I have been on this committee, it has looked at the issue of Lyme disease and chronic Lyme disease, and that has not been resolved, so keep the faith.”
That afternoon, residents from all over the state took to the microphone, including Mark Cool, Neil Andersen, and Sue Hobart. Symptom-sufferer after symptom-sufferer approached the podium, often shedding tears. Some resorted to shouting and table pounding. One person became so loud and agitated as he slammed his fist into the table that it sounded as though he might break it. A few of the committee members couldn’t help but express a twinge of sympathy.
But the mood shifted when David Moriarty came forward and began his testimony. The 50-year-old contractor and real-estate agent told the room that the wind industry and the Department of Environmental Protection have known about wind-turbine syndrome since 1979, when the first cases appeared in Boone, North Carolina. “This was 1979, ladies and gentlemen,” said Moriarty, who is also president of the Falmouth Committee on Human Rights. “I want you to know that nothing has changed. The agencies, they didn’t do their job!” he said, taking on a preacher’s oratory and cadence. As he spoke, some committee members began furrowing their brows in skepticism. “I’m David Moriarty. Now, please stop the suffering in Falmouth, Massachusetts. They knew. It’s no accident. It was intentional.” And in one—albeit uncharacteristically extreme—speech, the divide in the room reestablished itself. There again were the people who believed in the syndrome and the ones who simply didn’t.
*This article has been corrected to show that Eric Davidson is an adjunct senior scientist at the Woods Hold Research Center, not the president and executive director.
Six months before that hearing, Sue Hobart took me on a tour of her former home on Blacksmith Shop Road, what she now calls her “toxic house.” The front door opened onto a nearly empty living room, with the exception of a wooden armoire in one corner and a ladder leaning against the wall. A large bay window looked out onto a scrub-oak forest that sweeps around the property, and through the branches we could just make out the flickering of the turbine.
Hobart led me through the house, pointing out items and rooms that sparked particularly fond memories of her life here—the ribbons that her border collies had won for sheepherding, the basement where she used to assemble flower arrangements. But after about a half-hour, Hobart suddenly flattened herself against the wall.
“See,” she said with an uneasy laugh, “this place is already getting to me.” She immediately wanted to leave.
As we exited onto the front porch and into the driveway, I looked up to see the turbine’s long arms; from this distance, I could hear a faint whooshing that reminded me of a ceiling fan. Whomp, whomp, whomp, in steady increments. It was barely audible, and I didn’t find its rhythm disturbing, but it clearly was for Hobart. However much I wanted to understand what she was feeling as she hurried over to her car, I felt nothing—at least nothing that I could describe as an ache or discomfort.
What I felt instead was a kind of wonder at the gap in experience between myself and Hobart. I tried again to focus my attention, to see if I could detect any inner disturbance—the barest intimation of dizziness or nausea or anxiety—but again, nothing. Not even a vibration on the air. Of course, I had spent less than an hour near the turbine. And though I continued to feel nothing, I was a little relieved to drive away.