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.)