A review of noise caused by onshore wind turbines carried out for the UK government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) has been torn apart by the International Acoustics Research Organization (IARO) and by the Independent Noise Working Group (INWG). Noise is not a devolved subject and is dealt with by the UK government. In a far-reaching scientific review by IARO, and a detailed analysis by INWG, who have both been involved in a wide number of public inquiries into wind farms in Scotland, government advice on turbine noise was described as “technically flawed and biased throughout in support of the wind industry.” The IARO and INWG established that the UK government was ignoring infrasound and low frequency noise, which they claim are the main cause of nuisance and ill health to humans, pets and livestock living close to windfarms.

People who live next to industrial wind turbines frequently complain about the constant noise levels that sound like high flying jets passing overhead, together with the endless thump, thump, thump of the turbine blades. Combined with the flicker-effect, when the sun is behind the rotating blades, or even the moon-flicker at night which can disturb sleep, the impacts of wind turbines on human health are well documented. Less well known are the dangerous effects of infrasound and low-frequency noise emitted by turbines, caused by the movement of their blades through the air, by the blades passing the turbine tower and, depending on the construction of the turbine, by the gearbox. These relentless levels of infrasound can cause headaches, difficulty concentrating, irritability, fatigue, dizziness, tinnitus, aural pain, sleep disturbances, and annoyance. It has also been found that constant exposure to low frequency noise can trigger epilepsy, cardiovascular effects, and coronary artery disease. 

Despite these serious impacts on the health of people who neighbour industrial wind turbines, renewable energy companies are not required to limit or even monitor their infrasound emissions. There are currently no planning requirements in the UK for infrasound to be monitored near wind farms because it occurs at a very low level and is not expected to be heard by most people. Indeed, the ‘expert’ acoustic report produced for the Westminster government, entitled: ‘A review of noise guidance for onshore wind turbines’ by the global engineering consultancy - Williams Sale Partnership – (WSP), claimed that “infrasound from wind turbines at typical exposure levels has no direct adverse effects on physical or mental health, and reported symptoms of ill-health are more likely to be psychogenic.” In other words, WSP assert the adverse health impacts reported by hundreds of people must have a psychological origin, rather than a physical one. 

Now, as wind power is being expanded around the world in the bid to achieve net zero by 2050, and the next phase of onshore wind power development will involve much larger turbines with higher noise emissions and reduced separation distances from homes, the implications for human health are ominous. Already, in Scotland, turbines have been granted planning approval where blade tip heights have increased from under 50 metres to up to 250 metres plus, and the commensurate generating power output from under 1MW to more than 7 MW, without any notable review of wind turbine noise environmental health impacts. 

Current regulations introduced in 1997, when turbines were up to six times smaller and six times less powerful, are utterly useless. Even NASA, the American space and aeronautics agency, has stated that established wind turbines can generate “surprisingly high levels of infrasound and low frequency noise,” while the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that “Special attention should also be given to noise sources in an environment with low background sound levels; to combinations of noise and vibrations; and to noise sources with low frequency components.” 

Scientific evidence is accumulating from around the world showing how inaudible low frequency noise and vibration is contributing to the misery being experienced by affected residents. These residents, often being a rural based minority, are least able to mount the expensive legal challenges to the acoustic intrusions that have blighted their lives. Affected communities in Scotland, like the South Ayrshire villages of Straiton, Barr and Dailly, are now fighting applications which would surround them by giant 200-metre-high industrial turbines, forming a 25- mile barrier of steel from Girvan to Dalmellington. Acoustic sound is funnelled along the valleys towards these villages from the surrounding wind farms which are sited in the hills where the natural river valleys of the River Girvan and the River Stinchar and their tributaries form gorges with steep sides. However, frequent complaints and objections from the beleaguered residents meet with little sympathy from the renewable energy companies or the local council.

It is time the Scottish and Westminster governments listened. According to the INWG, the concept that “what you can’t hear can’t hurt you” is dangerously outdated and delusional. The impacts on well-being after long exposure to low-level noise, the effects on sleep and the role of moderating factors, must be considered along with noise generation and propagation effects, to properly understand why so many people are complaining of health problems near wind farms. The INWG recommends the introduction of a system of licensing and regulation of wind power generation by a national agency such as the Environment Agency, to include continuous monitoring and recording of noise and turbine data. The IARO sayswhat is needed is new multi-disciplinary research linking engineers with medical and health scientists, where noise data and health information are recorded simultaneously for people living close to and far from wind farms. Only such detailed research can help provide an answer to this challenging and perplexing problem.