Humans evolved with infrasound; is there any truth to health concerns about it?

Wind farms are fielding complaints about health impacts, almost entirely in the English-speaking world. There are literally over 200 unique symptoms in humans and animals that have been blamed on wind generation technology over the past decade or so, according to a list maintained by Professor Simon Chapman of the School of Public Health in the University of Sydney.[21] While 19 reviews to date world wide have reviewed the hundreds of pieces of research and the anecdotal claims of health impacts and universally agreed that wind farms don’t cause harm and that there is no mechanism for them to cause harm [7], a small number of vocal anti-wind campaigners believe that they have found the causative agent: infrasound generated by wind farms.

The infrasound hypothesis was put forward by Dr. Nina Pierpont, paediatrician, in her book Wind Turbine Syndrome, 294 pages of self-published, unpeer-reviewed material based on phone interviews with 23 self-selected people who claimed that their varied symptoms were caused by wind farms.[6]

Infrasound can’t be heard or felt except at much higher intensities than normal sound. The research shows clearly that it doesn’t cause harm to humans except at very high intensities, above that required for audible sound to cause harm. The human heart creates so much infrasound that it overwhelms all but the most intense external sources of infrasound.  This is public record and available to all with some simple research. Yet the myth persists.

This post pulls together all of the information on infrasound and wind energy into one accessible location. The intent is to give any reasonable layperson information that will allow them to judge the infrasound risks from wind turbines for themselves and come to the conclusion that the 17 expert, independent panels arrived at: infrasound from wind farms doesn’t and can’t harm human health in any way.

Short Answer:

The infrasound produced by wind turbines is too quiet to be heard, felt or to cause harm.

  • Infrasound measurements 75 meters from beaches measure higher levels of infrasound with otherwise very similar noise characteristics to wind turbines, yet hundreds of millions of coastal dwellers are not sick from it.
  • A child on a swing experiences infrasound at a level of around 110dB and frequency 0.5Hz.  This is much higher than wind turbines generate yet swings are not banned.
  • People driving cars are exposed to approximately 100 dB of infrasound, yet commuting isn’t being declared a significant threat to health.
  • The human heart produces more infrasound than wind turbines.
  • Research claiming impacts from infrasound due to wind farms is wild extrapolation from guinea pig studies or shows minimal infrasound in homes and no relationship between that infrasound and operating wind farms.

Long Answer:

First, the basics:

  • What is sound? Sound is vibrations in the air; energy in waves that reach our ears. It’s frequency is measured in waves per second or Hertz (Hz).  It’s volume or sound pressure is measured in decibels (dB). Humans can typically hear sound between 20 and 20,000 Hz, but volume makes a difference to human’s ability to hear sound too.
  • How much is a decibel? The decibel scale is a logarithmic scale, not a linear scale. That means that for every increase of ten decibels, the sound intensity increases by a factor of ten. Therefore a 20 dB range implies 100 times the sound intensity, while a 30 dB range implies 1000 times the sound intensity. A 60 dB range implies 1,000,000 times the sound intensity.
  • What is infrasound? Infrasound is very low-frequency sound, typically defined as being between 1-20 Hz. It is called infrasound because it is below what human ears can normally hear. Some differentiate 1-16 as infrasound and 10Hz to 200Hz as low frequency noise.  There is a gradual transition from the low frequency region into the infrasound region. [4]
  • What emits infrasound? Virtually every piece of mechanical equipment, traffic, air conditioners, refrigerators, surf, your heart and wind.[4] Surf infrasound  75 meters from the beach is about 75 dBG, yet tens of millions of seashore dwellers do not fall ill from it, but in fact are lulled to sleep by it. [1]  A child on a swing experiences infrasound at a level of around 110dB and frequency 0.5Hz, much higher than wind turbines emit, with no ill effect and no one suggests banning swings as a result.[9]
  • Can humans hear infrasound? Yes, humans can ‘hear’ infrasound if it is loud enough. The graph lists the frequencies and dB ranges. Basically, the closer the frequency is to normally audible ranges, the lower the decibels have to be but they are still well above decibels required for audibility above the 20 Hz level.[3], [14]Hearing threshold of infrasound
  • Can humans feel infrasound? At very high levels, yes, humans can feel infrasound. This requires sound intensities 20-25 dB above those where infrasound can be heard. [3],[14] Remember that the decibel scale is logarithmic and 20-26 dB represents 100 times or more the sound intensity; this is a very large difference in energy in the sound.
  • How do you detect infrasound outdoors? In order for infrasound to be heard above infrasound from wind, microphones are typically placed in holes dug in the ground.[1]
  • Does infrasound travel further than other sound? Yes, infrasound does propagate farther than higher-frequency sound, but it still diminishes as the distance increases. Like normal sound, the higher the infrasound level, the further away it will be detectable. The initial fall off is to diminish as the inverse of the distance squared (pressure reduction of 6dB per doubling of distance).  However, audible ranges of sound diminish more rapidly, mainly due to absorption in the air, while infrasound does not have this additional effect .[2] Interestingly, elephants use infrasound to communicate over longer distances and it took a while for humans to figure this out as no one could hear or feel it.[8]
  • How much infrasound are people exposed to daily? If they live in cities, typically they are exposed to 50-65 dBG of infrasound most of the time due to traffic, air conditioning, heating fans, subways and air traffic.  If they live near airports, more.
  • What are these dBLin, dBA and dBG things? dBLin is the actual sound if it were measured by a relatively perfect instrument.  dBA is a filter that is applied to the actual sound so that it most closely reflects what human ears can hear of the sound; we hear higher frequencies better than lower ones.  dBG is a filter that is applied to the actual sound to approximate how humans perceive infrasound and low-frequency sound, mostly between 10 Hz and 30 Hz.

Second, the health-related aspects of infrasound:

  • Can infrasound harm humans? No, unless it’s part of a shockwave from an explosion. The canonical assessment of the potential for weaponizing sound found no evidence of any human harm from infrasound up to 170 dB.[25]
  • Is Vibro-Acoustic Disease (VAD) real?  No.  A Portuguese pathologist dealing with workers’ compensation claims made up this disease about 30 years ago. Dr. Castelo-Branco was ignorant of the normal thickness of heart vessel walls and mistook normal thicknesses for greater thickness. A house of cards made of tissue paper has been built on jello based on this mistake, and Dr. Castelo-Branco and his heir-apparent Prof Alves-Pereira, appear resistant to any attempts to point this out to them.Prof Alves-Pereira has apparently never seen a deformity or symptom that couldn’t be attributed to VAD, more recently from wind turbine infrasound, including horse leg problems, and linked VAD to wind turbines based on a case study of one 12 year old boy. VAD is not recognized by any medical authority or database, and has been thoroughly debunked by Norwegian biomarker and CT scan studies specifically assessing VAD.  The only people using the term VAD are the 3-4 researchers in Portugal who write about it and anti-wind groups. The following analysis of the research on VAD is highly telling:

    Of the 35 papers on VAD, 34 had a first author from a single Portuguese research group. Seventy four per cent of citations to these papers were self-citations by the group. [13]

    As the average level of self-citation is 7% in science, this is a strong indication that this is not taken seriously by other scientists, and the handful of researchers working on it take themselves too seriously.

  • Can infrasound have other impacts on humans? Yes, there is some evidence that some people feel anxiety when exposed to sufficient volumes of infrasound.  The experiment masked volumes of infrasound above 85 dBG in loud music and assessed the reactions of the audience of 700.  Some 22% reported anxiety and other mild stress reactions.  Other physiological impacts are asserted in terms of resonance frequency of various body parts such as seeing ghosts, but these are also experienced at high-volumes of infrasound.[4]

Now for wind turbines:

  • Do wind turbines emit infrasound? Yes, like virtually every other piece of moving equipment, wind turbines emit infrasound.
  • How much infrasound do wind turbines emit? Modern wind turbines emit an average of 60-63 dBG next to the wind turbine.  This means that humans can’t hear or feel the infrasound when they are standing next to the wind turbine.  It also means the infrasound is far below the levels at which other impacts above were noted. [1]
  • Is infrasound the same as the regular sounds caused by the blades passing the tower? No, this is regular noise that occurs a bit more than once a second, but it is different than infrasound. It is often confused with infrasound because of the coincidence of low numbers per second of something related to noise. This is best described in the same way as your heart-rate or music, as beats per minute.
  • How low is the infrasound at dwellings near wind turbines? Measurements with good methodology and approaches detected infrasound at 200 and 360 meters at less than 60 dBG outdoors, and showed that indoors with the windows closed infrasound was even lower. [1]
  • Does wind energy cause unusual amounts of infrasound at dwellings?  No.  A well-structured comparative study sponsored by the South Australia Environment Protection Authority concluded that wind energy generated infrasound was below the levels experienced by urban and rural dwellers from other sources, and could not be separately identified.

    Organised shutdowns of the wind farms adjacent to Location 8 and Location 9 indicate that there did not appear to be any noticeable contribution from the wind farm to the G-weighted infrasound level measured at either house.

    Screen Shot 2013-02-20 at 9.35.15 AM
  • Can the reported health impacts of infrasound from wind turbines be explained by the nocebo effect?  Yes. Researcher Fiona Crichton and her co-authors studied the nocebo effect on infrasound in a carefully designed trial. [22] They separated the study group and exposed one subset to internet literature claiming health impacts from infrasound. The control group did not read the infrasound literature. They exposed both groups to both infrasound and no infrasound while telling them that they were being exposed to infrasound.  Here is their conclusion:

    Conclusions: Healthy volunteers, when given information about the expected physiological effect of infrasound, reported symptoms that aligned with that information, during exposure to both infrasound and sham infrasound. Symptom expectations were created by viewing information readily available on the Internet, indicating the potential for symptom expectations to be created outside of the laboratory, in real world settings. Results suggest psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints.

  • Do wind turbines cause ground vibration? Yes, there are minute amounts of ground vibration measurable very close to wind turbines. Measurements show that they are less than vibration from people walking or cars idling.  The vibration is undetectable by humans.  Very sensitive seismographs were used to record it. It’s not the same as infrasound.[2]
  • Is Alec Salt — the only researcher who seems to think this — correct that infrasound specifically from wind turbines affects the ear at much lower levels than previously thought? [16]  Peter Seligman, PHD, DEng, and director of seven generations of cochlear implant sound processors doesn’t think so. [15]

    The level of infrasound picked up from the body by this microphone was a major problem and far exceeded all infrasound from external sources. In fact it was some ten times greater.

    and

    Another argument that has been put up (Dr Alec Salt) is that infrasound stimulates the outer hair cells of the cochlea. These cells are said to be inhibitory and thus do not create any perceivable sensation. It is held that because wind turbine infrasound is air‐borne rather than conducted through the body, it has different effects on the auditory system and also the vestibular system. The explanation given is that these systems have not evolved to deal with air‐borne noise. Even if that is the case, the former point stands; that beyond a few hundred metres, airborne infrasound is below the level of natural and other man‐made noise.

    Other researchers do not appear to be replicating or citing Mr. Salt’s work except in the process of debunking it.[17] It is worthy of note that Mr. Salt’s work is not based on human studies, but a significant extrapolation from studies on guinea pigs.  In the absence of significant other work by others in this area, it is gross speculation that infrasound above 60 dBG poses a threat to humans.

    As has been pointed out, Salt and other researchers making these claims are taking measurements very close to wind turbines and measuring levels of low-frequency sound far above that at dwellings:

    Two articles (Jung and Cheung 2008 and Sugimoto et al 2008) have been cited as arguments that wind turbines generate high levels of infrasound and LFN (Salt and Hullar 2010). However, the measurements reported in those articles were made in close proximity to wind turbines and are uncharacteristic of exposure in residential buildings. Jung and Cheung (2008) measured at 10 and 98 m from a 1.5 MW turbine with levels exceeding 80 dB in the frequency range 1–10 Hz. Sugimoto et al (2008) report levels of up to 80 dB in the frequency range 1–20 Hz inside a small shed 20 m from the wind turbine. [17]

    From the same paper, Bolin et al rather thoroughly dismiss Salt’s wildly speculative claims:

    Salt and Hullar (2010) hypothesized from previous research that the outer hair cells are particularly sensitive to infrasound even at levels below the threshold of perception. In their article, the last paragraph mentions that wind turbines generate high levels of infrasound, with reference to three articles, two of which are not relevant to exposure in residential environments (Jung and Cheung 2008, and Sugimoto et al 2008). No references were made to published compilations of knowledge that indicates that the infrasound to which humans are exposed to by wind turbines is moderate and not higher than what many people are exposed to daily, in the subway and buses or at the workplace (e.g. Leventhall 2007, Jakobsen 2005). It is therefore hard to see that Salt and Hullars’ results are relevant for risk assessment of wind turbine noise in particular.

  • In Australia, anti-wind advocates such as Sarah Laurie* are referring to a report by The Acoustic Group Pty Ltd [18] as evidence that infrasound is dangerous to humans near wind turbines. Is this true?
    This is the conclusion of Steven Cooper, Principal of the firm and an acoustical consulting engineer for 34 years.  He bases a conclusion of danger on Alec Salt’s work, which as has been shown sounds impressive until people who know what they are talking about look at it.
    The dB(A) measurements in the Cooper report, by the way, showed a peak noise in the bedroom with the window open of 33 dB(A) which is quieter than a library, much quieter than bird calls; it’s slightly noisier than a quiet rural area according to industry standards.[19] As this house was likely the closest to the most wind turbines, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which very simple noise mitigations such as occasionally closing the window wouldn’t have eliminated any noise annoyance.
  • Are the authors, undergraduate student Hsuan-hsiu Annie Chen and Professor Peter Narins correct in the April 2012 issue of Acoustics Today, in raising questions about the health risks of low frequency sound in their article “Wind Turbines and Ghost Stories: The Effects of Infrasound on the Human Auditory System.” (Chen and Narins 2012 (April)). Not according to Geoff Leventhall, an acoustician who for decades has been working and publishing in this area, and who is often misquoted by anti-wind campaigners who take statements he has made in papers completely out of context.  His clear statements on the Chen / Narins paper (bolding mine):

    The association of the levels of infrasound from wind turbines, as experienced at residences, with the effects of high levels of infrasound used in controlled laboratory experiments is also very weak. Effects at a level of, say, 60dB should not be compared with those at 120dB. The paper bases its opinions on false information on the levels of infrasound from wind turbines as experienced at residences. Consequently, its references to wind turbines are largely invalid.
    There is also the important matter of the social responsibility of scientists, who should present balanced and clear material to the wider public. Chen and Narins may not have been aware of the confusion, misconceptions and distortions which envelop the topic of infrasound from wind turbines. This is partly due to Pierpont’s unproven claims of direct pathophysiological effects (Wind Turbine Syndrome), consequent upon exposure to low levels of infrasound, and which have been picked up by all objector web pages. Care should be taken to ensure that these web pages are not supplied with incorrect and unsustainable material.

  • A Wisconsin, USA report is attracting attention since it’s submission to a wind farm siting review group in December 2012.  Colloquially known as the Shirley Report, based on the name of the wind farm where measurements were done, it is being used broadly by anti-wind advocates as proof of the health concerns related to wind energy. An analysis of it shows it to be interesting, but of low evidentiary value compared to other information available. Key problems include that it accepted at face value attribution of health effects to wind turbines for only subsets of three families who claimed impacts, that it found only inaudible levels of infrasound and that it appears to have ignored the extensive reviews of high evidentiary value showing that wind farms do not harm health and that infrasound is not an issue or concern. Once again, Geoff Leventhall‘s opinion is important to note, as he is likely the most cited and referenced acoustician working in wind energy and health:

    The Shirley Report did not produce much new. We know that WTs radiate infrasound, but that levels are too low to be a problem. But we also know that some people are upset /made ill by WTs in their neighbourhood and prefer to move away. The Shirley report did go down to lower frequencies than most of the earlier measurements, but did not reveal anything important. I have been pointing out for years that the body is a very noisy place at low and infrasound frequencies – for example see my critique of wind turbine syndrome for the Glacier Hills (Wisconsin) hearing in 2009. http://www.primationdesign.com/everpower/Allegany%20DEIS/3%20Appendices/O%20Health/2009-10-20_Wisconsin%20PSC_Dr%20Leventhall%20Syndrome%20Appraisal.pdf

    Paul Schomer’s attempt to relate vibration induced motion sickness to infrasound from WTs will surely fail, if only because the inner ear picks up lots of body sounds at low frequencies.

    The Shirley report is a consultancy report, dated 24 December, and probably finished off in a hurry. You cannot expect it to have the same standard as a journal publication.

To summarize, while infrasound can cause impacts on humans when it’s very intense and with very prolonged exposure, wind turbines generate too little of it to have any impact near or far. The evidence remains the same: some people near wind turbines find the noise annoying, some of them find it stressful, some of them lose sleep due to stress.[6],[7]

* Sarah Laurie refers to herself as Dr. Laurie, however she has been unregistered and non-practicing for longer than she was practicing medicine. While sincere, she is actively causing harm by spreading disinformation about health impacts of wind energy and appears to be both giving medical advice and conducting (poorly structured) medical research without oversight, accountability or legal right to do so.  While she is not prevented from claiming the title Doctor as it is an unprotected title, it is not incumbent upon others to refer to her according to how she wishes to be known.

Thanks:

Many thanks to Geoffrey Leventhall, Christophe Delaire and David Osmond for the comments, suggestions and content improvements.

References:

  1. http://www.goyder.sa.gov.au/webdata/resources/files/Attachment_5.pdf
  2. http://www.macwind.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Wind-Vibration-Infrasound_Meridian_P-Botha_20121.pdf
  3. http://aeinews.org/archives/1711
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrasound
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17315094
  6. “Wind turbine syndrome” is more wind than syndrome
  7. Wind farms don’t make people sick, so why the complaints?
  8. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp/elephant/sections/dictionary/infrasound.html
  9. Infrasound from Wind Turbines – Fact, Fiction or Deception? by Geoff Leventhall in Vol.34 No.2 (2006) of the peer-reviewed journal Canadian Acoustics http://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/technologies/wind/turbinefactsheets/mainColumnParagraphs/0/text_files/file1/06-06Leventhall-Infras-WT-CanAcoustics2.pdf
  10. http://www.techenv.com/E-News/Enews1210.htm
  11. www.vvm.info/file.php?id=1858
  12. http://www.hpa.org.uk/webc/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1265028759369
  13. How the factoid of wind turbines causing ‘vibroacoustic disease’ came to be ‘irrefutably demonstrated’, Simon Chapman, Alexis St George, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Volume 37, Issue 3, pages 244–249, June 2013, DOI: 10.1111/1753-6405.12066, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1753-6405.12066/abstract
  14. http://www.lfu.bayern.de/umweltwissen/doc/uw_117_windkraftanlagen_infraschall_gesundheit.pdf
  15. Submission: The Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms, Peter Seligman, PhD, DEng, developer of Australian Cochlear Implant
  16. http://oto2.wustl.edu/cochlea/windmill.html
  17. http://m.iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/6/3/035103/fulltext/
  18. http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=YLfMeRzXkhs%3D&tabid=205&mid=1081&language=en-US
  19. http://www.chem.purdue.edu/chemsafety/Training/PPETrain/dblevels.htm
  20. http://www.epa.sa.gov.au/xstd_files/Noise/Report/infrasound.pdf
  21. http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/assets/pdfs/publications/WindfarmDiseases.pdf
  22. Can Expectations Produce Symptoms From Infrasound Associated With Wind Turbines? Crichton, Fiona; Dodd, George; Schmid, Gian; Gamble, Greg; Petrie, Keith J. Health Psychology, Mar 11 , 2013, No Pagination Specified. doi: 10.1037/a0031760http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2013-07740-001/
  23. Chen, H. H. A. and P. Narins (2012 (April)). Wind Turbines and Ghost Stories: The Effects of Infrasound on the Human Auditory System”Acoustics Today 8: 51-56. http://asadl.org/at/resource/1/atcodk/v8/i2/p51_s1?isAuthorized=no
  24. Leventhall, Geoff, Infrasound Rumbles On, Acoustics Bulletin March/April 2013, pp. 28-34
  25. Acoustic Weapons – A Prospective Assessment, Jürgen Altmann, Science & Global Security, Volume 9 pp 165-234, © 2001, http://scienceandglobalsecurity.org/archive/sgs09altmann.pdf

Other references which deal with infrasound from wind turbines:

  1. http://www.mass.gov/dep/energy/wind/turbine_impact_study.pdf
  2. http://www.acoustics.asn.au/joomla/australian-acoustics-journal-april-2012.html
  3. http://www.mlui.org/landwater/fullarticle.asp?fileid=17467

This material has been reproduced in the following places:

7 comments

  1. Will · · Reply

    Nice piece. Well done

    1. Much appreciated. I had a lot of reviewers and inputs from around the world to ensure accuracy.

  2. […] off of ultrasound – it’s actually used in therapy and diagnostic imaging constantly – and infrasound – it can’t harm you if you can’t hear it. However, claims of noise from wind turbines […]

  3. […] off of ultrasound – it’s actually used in therapy and diagnostic imaging constantly – and infrasound – it can’t harm you if you can’t hear it. However, claims of noise from wind turbines […]

  4. I have spoken to enough people personally impacted by the sound from the turbines to agree with them- i think people find data on both sides and the other side is real to those who experience it and it ruins and disrupts their lives and their children as well.

  5. Thr noise is like that of a washing and tumble dryer running the same time. It is high up in the air unlike other forms of sound and it rarely every stops.

    1. Not infrasound. And highly subjective.

      Please see http://barnardonwind.com/2013/02/17/wind-farms-dont-make-people-sick-so-why-the-complaints/ for discussion of relevant material on audible sound and noise annoyance.

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