It’s the million-dollar (or five million, as the case may be) question in the debate about wind turbines:
What constitutes a health impact?
It is undeniable that some nearby neighbors of large wind turbines – be it in Falmouth or Maine, or Europe or New Zealand – report serious quality of life impacts that they attribute to wind turbine noise. At the heart of the debate about how to handle such complaints is the issue of whether those impacts constitute what medical professionals would define as adverse health effects or whether some people are “just annoyed” by the sound.
But in the comments on Sean’s second story, MJ points out that the word “annoyed” could be part of the problem:
The word annoyance is often misinterpreted by the general public, and apparently Ms. Goldstone, as a feeling brought about by the presence of a minor irritant. Ms. Goldstone seems unaware that in the medical usage it exists as a precise technical term and deﬁnes annoyance as a mental state capable of degrading health.
Suter (1991) presents a formal deﬁnition of annoyance:
“Annoyance has been the term used to describe the community’s collective feelings about noise ever since the early noise surveys in the 1950s and 1960s, although some have suggested that this term tends to minimize the impact. While “aversion” or “distress” might be more appropriate descriptors, their use would make comparisons to previous research difﬁcult. It should be clear, however, that annoyance can connote more than a slight irritation; it can mean a signiﬁcant degradation in the quality of life. This represents a degradation of health in accordance with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) deﬁnition of health, meaning total physical and mental well-being, as well as the absence of disease.”
This is a point that was also made to me by Dr. Michael Nissenbaum – a radiologist who has conducted a soon-to-be-published survey of residents living at varying distances from two wind energy installations in Maine (extended interview post in the works). The disparate uses of “annoyance” in common parlance and technical language is precisely why Sean and I chose to use the word “disturbing” rather than “annoying” when discussing wind turbine noise.
What I believe triggered MJ’s comment (correct me if I’m wrong) was my quote:
Many scientists and wind-energy advocates say that while people may become annoyed by turbine noise, annoyance is not considered a health impact from a clinical perspective. That said, chronic annoyance can build into stress, and stress could cause many of the symptoms people are complaining about.
This is essentially the stance of the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations (AWEA and CanWEA), as articulated in a review of available science conducted by an expert panel they convened. While they lay out this chain connecting annoyance to stress, and stress to the symptoms being reported by nearby neighbors of turbines, they maintain that annoyance is not a health impact and, thus, “the body of accumulated knowledge provides no evidence that the audible or subaudible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.” The word “direct” seems to be a key part of the argument.
I spoke with Dr. Robert McCunney – an MIT researcher and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who was a member of AWEA’s review panel and has provided expert testimony in court to the effect that wind turbines do not directly cause health effects. He argues that another key issue is the difficulty of pinning down the source of annoyance.
… [annoyance] is a really nonspecific finding in that it can’t be specifically related to one or two causes. It has to be evaluated in its context in terms of the other potential causes of annoyance… Clearly there a lot of individual variations in how people respond to any particular stressor, whatever that may be, in terms of reporting annoyance and in terms of health effects.
Of course, to focus on annoyance (clinical or otherwise) ignores another commonly reported symptom – sleep disruption and deprivation – which is an adverse health impact in itself, as well as a trigger for other medical problems.
In either case, McCunney argues that, in order to establish a rigorous connection between wind turbines and health impacts, studies need to document sound levels, as well as health status, both before and after wind turbines are installed. And they should be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. There are a growing number of case studies and surveys documenting self-reported symptoms after a wind turbine or wind farm has gone into operation, but studies that meet McCunney’s standards are currently lacking.