Does the noise from wind turbines make you sick? Can the infrasound from the systems cause damage? We do a fact check about wind turbines and noise pollution.

Germany wants to invest more in renewable energies. Wind turbines could make a decisive contribution to this. But the systems are also controversial. One concern that many people have when building wind turbines is noise pollution.

What kind of noise do wind turbines produce?

Wind turbines produce both audible noise from the rotor blades and infrasound, which is no longer audible to us humans. Both types of noise are said to be harmful to health. But there is no scientific evidence for this.

Wind turbines and noise pollution caused by audible rotor noises

In Germany, the upper noise limit for wind turbines is 55 decibels. This is roughly in the range of a normal conversation, a sewing machine or a television at room volume. Anything above this value is considered “loud” – with corresponding negative consequences for our health such as hearing damage, circulatory diseases or stress.

Since wind turbines do not reach these harmful levels, they are no more disruptive to us humans than the typical ambient noise we hear in everyday life. The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) says in connection with wind turbines:

According to the technical instructions for protection against noise, protection against harmful environmental effects caused by noise is ensured if the total pollution at the relevant immission point does not exceed the immission guide values ​​contained in this regulation.

This means: Since wind turbines do not exceed the noise level that is classified as “harmless”, the noise from the systems does not cause any harm to people or the environment. International studies confirm this.

In a Canadian meta-study, for example, a team of scientists undertook several studies on this topic. The result: No scientific study has been able to prove a connection between wind turbine noise and damage to health.

Infrasound and wind turbines

But what does it look like with infrasound? Infrasound in wind turbines is caused by wind passing the rotor blades. Infrasound is below the audible limit of 15 hearts for humans.

Our body also consciously blocks out this noise. Otherwise we would constantly hear our heart rate, for example. And that would do us much more harm than a distant wind turbine. Accordingly, researchers cannot demonstrate any harmful effects on health from infrasound from wind turbines.

Why do residents still notice symptoms? This has less to do with the actual noise and more to do with the subconscious.

Psychological connection between wind turbines and noise pollution

It seems much more likely that fear of health problems caused by wind turbines and their noise pollution is causing them. Here the psyche plays a much larger role than the noise itself.

A study by the University of Auckland looked at the question in great detail and found that the more worried residents were and the more negatively the issue was presented in the media and discussed in the community, the higher the number of health complaints.

Fear and stress lead to health problems

According to the study, concerns about the harmful effects of wind turbines themselves often lead to people developing stress-related symptoms. Reports from neighbors can also lead to residents suddenly noticing symptoms themselves.

This effect is also called “wind turbine syndrome”. The scientific term for the psychological phenomenon is Nocebo Effect. Analogous to the placebo effect, with the nocebo effect negative expectations lead to our health and well-being being negatively affected.

It may also be that there are completely different causes for certain symptoms (e.g. that we sleep worse because we don't do enough exercise), but these are incorrectly attributed to wind turbines.

Media reports on wind turbines and noise pollution as amplifiers

The study also shows that negative public debate about noise from wind turbines can influence health status.

For example, in a region full of wind turbines in Australia, where there was no negative press on the subject, there were no health complaints. In another region of the country, where the topic was discussed negatively in public, many residents complained about symptoms. And this despite the fact that there were far fewer wind turbines there.

In addition, the scientists were able to determine that until 2009 there were almost no health complaints about wind turbines in Australia. From 2009 onwards, the topic was taken up in public and (unsubstantiated) theories about noise pollution were put forward. Since then there have been more complaints.

That doesn't mean people don't have real symptoms. However, these are not caused by wind turbines and noise pollution per se, but are due to psychological causes.

Measures to reduce noise from wind turbines

Even if the noise from wind turbines is demonstrably not harmful to health, that does not mean that there are or should be no efforts to improve this.

For example, the World Health Organization stipulated in a report that wind turbines should not exceed a noise limit of 45 decibels during the day. Noise above this value is definitely associated with harmful health effects.

This contradicts the assessments in Germany that maximum values ​​of up to 55 decibels are unproblematic. If you take this WHO value as a guideline, there is definitely room for improvement.

And the first companies are already working on solutions.

The Kiel start-up Compose Technologies is working on making the gearboxes of wind turbines quieter. Switzerland's Agile Windpower AG has developed vertical rotors that can reduce noise by 15 decibels. And the Spanish Siemens subsidiary Gamesa is also working on quieter wind turbines (even if production is currently not going well economically).

It's not just our health that will benefit from these efforts in the long term. Quieter wind turbines are also more efficient. This means that four percent more energy can be generated for every decibel of noise reduction.

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