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Wind Turbines: Some Deeper Questions

By David Orton and Helga Hoffmann-Orton

Wind Turbine Syndrome cover

Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment

By Nina Pierpont MD PhD, K-Selected Books, Santa Fe, NM, 2009
292 pages, paperback, ISBN-13: 978-0-9841827-0-1

“Symptoms include sleep disturbance, headache, tinnitus, ear pressure, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, visual blurring, tachycardia, irritability, problems with concentration and memory, and panic episodes associated with sensations of internal pulsation or quivering that arise while awake or asleep.” (Health effects experienced by some people living near 1.5 to 3 MW wind turbines, built since 2004, p. 26)

“Keep wind turbines at least 2 km (1.25 miles) away on the flat, and 3.2 km (2 miles) in mountains…Second, all wind turbine ordinances should hold developers responsible for a full price (pre-turbine) buyout of any family whose lives are ruined by turbines – to prod developers to follow realistic health-based rules and prevent the extreme economic loss of home abandonment.”(p. 254)

Wind Turbine Syndrome

Wind turbines are sprouting up like industrial mushrooms in many rural dwellers’ backyards and regions. Nina Pierpont, a rural physician living in upstate New York, writes about health impacts suffered by people living close to wind turbines. The book is essentially about human health, and does not discuss ecosystem health, a more encompassing topic with wider dimensions. The reference to “natural experiment” in the subtitle, refers to “a circumstance wherein subjects are exposed to experimental conditions both inadvertently and ecologically (within their own homes and environments).” (p. 5)

Pierpont is a pioneer in critically assessing the effects of industrial wind turbines on the health of people living in close proximity to such turbines. Her study points out some of the health problems associated with the sound and vibrations created by the turbines. This makes her book quite remarkable and important to read. The author describes what she has called the “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” a name she first used in 2006 to depict the complex of symptoms displayed by her sample group of ten families (38 people, ranging in age from infant to 75), whom she interviewed by telephone. Eight out of the ten families interviewed eventually moved out of their residences — a compelling evidence of the harm from wind turbine exposure.

The newly emerging wind turbine industry, assisted by governments at all levels, heavily promotes the setting up of industrial wind turbines in hilly rural areas and on the coast and denies that there are any “significant” negative impacts on humans or the ecosystem resulting from the wind farms. Pierpont says that, on top of the direct financial gains from the turbines, the wind turbine industry can also sell carbon credits.

Obvious limitations

The author had no external funding for her research, just her own resources. This set obvious limitations to her work, which the author acknowledges: a non random and small sample; no control group; interviews conducted over the telephone; no money to follow up on leads for more research, etc., what she has found out is suggestive and is useful for people seeking critical information on the potential health effects of living close to wind turbines.

Despite the narrow focus, wind turbine activists seeking critical information should read this book, although this made difficult by its use of specialized vocabulary. The author discusses the topic with evident knowledge. She has a PhD from Princeton in behavioural ecology and an MD degree, which led her to becoming a pediatrician. Her research on the wind turbine syndrome is self-described as “the offspring of behavioural medicine married to behavioural ecology.” (p. 294) There is an eleven-page glossary and fifteen pages of references.

While the author’s erudition is not in question, there is an “overboard” feel to this book, as regards the parading of academic and medical credentials. The reader is left with the impression of someone who is obviously intelligent and well read in her fields of interest, but who still feels obliged to “prove” herself to others, in order to justify what she has to say. There is too much parading of her own credentials and of endorsements for her work by various alleged authorities, presumably to show how important the book is. Yet all this in unnecessary and somewhat vulgar, because this book is important in its own right.

‘Green’ energy projects?

The question of whether or not to generally support wind farms seems to fracture Greens and environmentalists. Those who live close by, as opposed to those living in urban centres, tend to have more critical concerns. To make matters more complicated, some authors opposing wind farms turn out to be climate change deniers and supporters of nuclear power! (See John Etherington, The Wind Farm Scam.)

There seems to be a sense of unreality about the apparent support for “green energy” projects in Canadian society. In many ways, society seems hell bent on ruining what is left of the natural world, caught up in various “green” projects (which often also have serious implications for human health), in the name of “saving” the existing society from the impact of climate change. Corporations, politicians and various economic opportunists, who have no past credentials as Earth warriors, become overnight environmentalists in their push for wind-generated energy. Also, many who claim the environmentalist label, positively evaluate the soft energy path. Yet usually they are eco capitalists in basic sentiment and are not willing to accept that the existing industrial capitalist society is ecologically doomed.

Some basic societal assumptions influence the wind farm discussion. Yet, such assumptions are rarely called into question. For example, Pierpont’s book does not address the vitally important question of the impact of turbines on wildlife, both at the turbine site and in the surrounding area. She does note in a couple of passing comments from the case histories of the ten families studied, how the behaviour of their domestic animals was also impacted by wind turbines. We do know from other studies that birds (in particular raptors) and bats are affected and killed by the turbines. Yet more research is required to assess the various effects of a wind farm on the ecosystem.

Arne Naess, the late Norwegian founder of deep ecology, in 1972 made a crucial distinction about the difference between “shallow” and “deep” ecology. Shallow ecology, meaning that the existing industrial capitalist system based on continual economic growth and consumerism, Nature seen as private property to serve humans, etc. are taken as a given. Within this, efforts are made to address various environmental problems, like today”s concern with climate change. Deep ecology, on the other hand, says that we have to move from a human-centred to an Earth-centred society. It says that the problems we humans face, like climate change, require fundamental institutional changes to end our overconsumption of the bounty of the natural world. This is necessary, so that a new societal formation, rooted in a nonhuman-centred ecology, with equality between species and social justice for humans, can come into being.

Deep ecology perspective

Naess famously stated that: “the Earth does not belong to humans,” so for deep ecology supporters, energy plans must include a population reduction strategy. We are talking about scaling back the Earth”s overall human population to one to two billion persons, if the Earth’s ecosystems are to start on the recovery path. As regards the placement of wind turbines, human or corporate interests cannot be paramount, over the interests of nonhuman animals and plant life. At the present time, corporate interests with government support, prevail in industrial wind farm placements. And, as Nina Pierpont shows in her book, these corporate interests also prevail over the human health consideration of those living in close proximity to wind farms. Furthermore, they prevail over those who value the viewscape of the natural world against the placement of industrial technology structures like wind turbines.

From a deep ecology perspective, the high energy consumption of existing society must be drastically reduced. Yet the Dalhousie Mountain wind farm uses, in its human centred environmental assessment, as one its justifications, “a 5% annual increase in demand by Nova Scotians.”

What we overwhelmingly see, with the promotion of industrial wind farms, is that the existing industrial capitalist society is taken as a given. Not only is it assumed that renewable energy can maintain a growing industrial capitalist society (Ted Trainer’s 2007 Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society presents a convincing case against this position), but it is also assumed that fossil fuel extraction can continue, notwithstanding that reductions in greenhouse gases of the order of 80-90 percent are needed in the industrial economies like Canada. However, we all know that the emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, continue to increase year by year. Whatever wind energy is generated should be used locally and not exported to the United States. We should choose the placement of wind turbines on an ecocentric basis, not one which only suits some human and corporate interests. A transition to a very different kind of society must be part of a renewable energy strategy for it to enjoy our support.

[NOTE: This is an edited version of a review and commentary first published in May, 2010 as a a PDF by Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO E-mail: greenweb@ca.inter.net]

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1 Phil Henshaw { 05.14.10 at 7:16 pm }

It’s disturbing to hear about this, however complete the picture is. I’ve been watching closely for years as the wind discussion has progressed without a whisper of there being side effects to speak of. If you feel the vibrations from them from a long way away, that’s significant. It’s particularly significant because of the apparent hiding of the problem, and reminding us of the green washing of green energy and green technology in general.

The biggest flaw we’ve not been able to discuss, of course, is in the basic purpose of green energy as a substitute for fossil fuels. What we’ve been wittingly or unwittingly proposing it for is providing a cheap and ever multiplying source of energy for economic growth. That’s been in the “code phrases” and investment planning all along, though marketed in other terms. It’s purpose is to let us continue multiplying all our other impacts on the earth until the earth stops us, somehow.

Our society has already banked on and committed to success in that resource substitution effort, too. That’s the problem I noticed back in the 70’s as I was trying to make sense of the total plan for things. That was when I realized that the real consequence of making ever bigger plans for success when fighting against natural limits to growth was a series of ever bigger natural crises as ever smaller glitches had ever bigger consequence.

Maybe the health consequences for living near wind turbines does or does not spell serious problems for the technology. It would be just the kind of unexpected complication and “spoiler” we would naturally run into in using technology to exploit naturally diminishing opportunities for multiplying returns. You get committed to having things work smoothly, and then they don’t.

It demonstrates the dangerous position we have put ourselves in, now using up declining oil supplies ever more rapidly and having bet that ever larger supplies of “something else” will materialize to keep the world growth economy solvent. That’s the meaning of the rough hand drawn curves of escalating resource substitution crises in that old paper of mine.


2 Wind Turbines: Some Deeper Questions — Время одуванчика { 06.10.10 at 2:06 pm }

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