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.”