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Dr Alun Evans, Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast, writes here about the health impacts of wind turbines.
A century ago, a Nobel Prize winner predicted: “One day man will have to fight noise as fiercely as cholera and plague.”
Since then the levels of environmental noise have doubled each decade.
This is now being exacerbated by the widespread introduction of wind farms, which produce unwanted sound, particularly at night in quiet rural areas.
Irish planning guidelines for wind energy development are based on the UK’s which are nearly two decades old and relate to the small turbines of that era.
Today’s wind turbines are massive and noisier so a 500 metre setback from dwellings is woefully inadequate.
Wind turbines generate noise we can hear, typically as a whoosh, and infrasound, which we cannot hear.
Infrasound is generated each time a rotor blade passes the supporting tower, creating very low frequency, high intensity pressure pulsations which travel long distances and can bend.
It may be inaudible but it can be registered by the brain, inducing distress in a sizeable minority of people. This may be due to sensitisation to it or a genetic susceptibility.
A recent systematic review of 18 wind turbine health studies concluded that all showed good evidence for an association with human distress eg, sleep disturbance, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, changes in mood, inability to concentrate.
In 2009 the World Health Organisation reported: “Many people have to adapt their lives to cope with the noise at night.”
The young and the old are particularly vulnerable: hearing in young people is more acute and, in older people, a loss of hearing of higher sound frequencies means that the low frequencies assume greater prominence.
Thanks to its impulsive, intrusive and incessant nature wind turbine noise causes sleep disturbance and deprivation.
Sleep-deprived children suffer memory impairment and a tendency to become overweight, leading to adult obesity and diabetes.
Adult sleep deprivation invites a host of problems: poor cognition, accidents, and an associated loss in brain volume.
Quite short periods of sleep deprivation alter the expression of hundreds of genes involved in many vital bodily systems, which might explain its role in adult cardiovascular disease (CVD) and even some cancers
CVDs include heart attacks, stroke and heart failure which could be induced through rises in blood pressure during periods of disturbed sleep.