It seems like people have been complaining about industrial wind farms since forever. One of the most common objections is the harmful noise that wind turbines supposedly make. There's even a name for the made-up phenomenon: wind turbine syndrome.
But the science here is clear. There is no conclusive, peer-reviewed research to support the idea that wind turbines are bad for public health. In fact, a review of the scientific literature found no direct causation "between people living in proximity to modern wind turbines, the noise they emit and resulting physiological health effects."
Nevertheless, in the state of Vermont, the debate continues to rage.
Some residents are in full support of Vermont's industrial wind turbine projects, which are helping the state meet their pledge of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.
Others maintain wind turbine noise is adversely affecting their health. One couple even claims noise from the wind turbines is so bad they were forced to build a soundproof bedroom with 12-inch walls just so they could sleep.
Now that's dramatic.
But the complete lack of scientific evidence hasn't stopped the Vermont Public Utilities Commission from setting a new rule for wind turbine noise. Now, during the day wind turbine noise is limited to 42 decibels and at night it can only reach 39 decibels.
The reduction in activity could make it much more difficult for Vermont to reach their renewable energy goals. Maybe even impossible.
Despite this, some residents do not think the rule goes far enough.
So what does 42 decibels actually sound like?
In general, wind farms in residential areas are placed no closer than 300 meters to the nearest home. And as we all know, the volume of sound decreases with distance. Therefore, under Vermont's new rules, by the time the noise from a wind turbine reaches residential areas it will, of course, be less than 42 decibels.
But even if we assume residents are hearing 42 decibels of noise, how loud is that really?
It turns out, it's pretty darn quiet. In fact, a common library or a quiet office is usually around 40 decibels. And no one has ever had any trouble sleeping in either of those places.
To put it all in perspective, here are five common household noises and their respective volumes:
1. Rainfall = 40 decibels
2. A refrigerator = 50 decibels
3. A washing machine = 50 to 75 decibels
4. An air conditioner = 50 to 75 decibels
5. A dish washer = 55 to 70 decibels
So, are residents that complain about wind turbines hoplessly neurotic? Or are they seriously unable to sleep because of the noise?
There are several studies that might explain what is going on here.
The power of suggestion
Scientific misinformation is never good. And this time, it may be the culprit behind why some residents are physically affected by wind farms.
The theory goes that misleading information about wind turbines and alarmist rumours have primed residents for wind turbine syndrome. In fact, some studies have demonstrated that the power of suggestion can induce symptoms associated with wind turbine syndrome, like headaches, insomnia and ringing in the ears.
This is a classic example of the nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect. When we are warned about adverse side effects, our minds have the power to trick our bodies into exhibiting those very symptoms.
In other words, false scientific information could actually be harming Vermont residents.
If the theory is true, researchers would expect more wind turbine symptoms in areas with high rates of misinformation.
A study from the University of Sydney confirms just this. Researchers discovered most of the wind turbine health complaints in Australia arose from an area that was home to an organized anti-wind movement. The movement had been publicizing health concerns about wind turbines since 2009. Previous to that, there were very few complaints.
"Health complaints were as rare as proverbial rocking horse droppings until the scare-mongering groups began megaphoning their apocalyptic, scary messages to rural residents," says study author Simon Chapman. Chapman says that if wind turbines were truly unhealthy, cases would be far more evenly distributed.
The theory certainly helps explain why some Vermont residents are soundproofing their bedrooms for a noise that is roughly equivalent to the sound of rainfall.
The moral of the story? Never underestimate the power of false scientific information.