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No, Mr. President, wind turbines do not cause cancer

Health concerns about wind turbines stem from a decades-old misunderstanding about inaudible noise, or “infrasound,” writer Philip Jaekl points out.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaking at the National Republican Congressional Committee Annual Spring Dinner on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

In a speech Tuesday night at a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser dinner, President Trump seemed to promote yet another conspiracy theory, this time about wind turbines.

“They say the noise causes cancer,” he told the audience.

No, Mr. President, it doesn’t. No noise causes cancer.

So where did this bizarre idea come from? It’s perhaps impossible to know how Trump came to embrace it (although he has a personal history of despising and denigrating wind turbines). It is possible, however, to trace this weird and wacky conspiracy theory back to the pseudoscientific and totally debunked “research” on which it’s based.

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Freelance writer Philip Jaekl did just that in a fascinating article published a couple of years ago in the Atlantic.

A sensationalistic study

As Jaekl points out, health concerns about wind turbines stem from a decades-old misunderstanding about inaudible noise, or “infrasound.”

“Sensationalistic reports on the dangers of low-frequency sound originate from the unscientific research of the Russian-born French scientist Vladimir Gavreau in the 1960s,” he writes.

Gavreau claimed his research proved infrasound harmed health. But that was far from what the research actually showed, as Jaekl explains:

While Gavreau’s research did indeed show some of the harmful effects of sound, what accounts of his research have overlooked is the difference between volume, which is perceived as loudness, and frequency, which relates to our perception of pitch. The notion that infrasonic frequencies are inaudible is actually a myth, because sounds within this range can be heard if presented at high enough volumes. Based on the numbers in his publication, Gavreau’s exploits involved dangerously high volumes, causing the reported “infrasonic” frequencies to be incredibly loud — levels that would be considered outrageously unethical by today’s standards. They were very likely to have been harmful, regardless of frequency.

Gavreau also exaggerated his findings, claiming that infrasound is “certainly one of the many causes of allergies, nervous breakdowns and other ‘unpleasant phenomena of modern life.’”

The creation of a ‘syndrome’

Since then, writes Jaekl, “infrasound has been blamed as a source of everything from gag sensations, mental disturbances, and automobile accidents to absenteeism of school children and brain tumors.”

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It’s even been used to explain (without any evidence) the “anxiety and eyeball vibration” that people experience when they believe a building is haunted.

By the 1990s, when the construction of wind turbines began to take off, people opposed to the large, rotating structures glommed on to the discovery that they emitted weak levels of infrasound.

And, as always seems to happen with health concerns based in pseudoscience, the list of symptoms reportedly caused by the turbines grew exponentially to include such things as panic, sleep disturbances, headache, tinnitus, dizziness, nausea and visual problems.

The anti-wind protesters even coined a name for this collection of symptoms: wind turbine syndrome.

All around us

Yet, the infrasound emitted by wind turbines is no different from that caused by other common sources.

“Everyone is surrounded by infrasound every day. It’s emitted by natural sources like the surf, storms, wind itself, our own heartbeat and respiration. We also are exposed to it in cars, from ceiling fans, motors, and urban noise,” Simon Chapman, a professor emeritus at the University of Sydney, told Jaekl.

“If wind turbines were harmful to nearby residents, entire cities and small nations would be stricken across much of Europe, where we see the highest density,” he added. “Copenhagen is surrounded by turbines but my Danish colleagues are not seeing queues of sick people.”

So, no, Mr. President, the noise from wind turbines does not cause cancer — or any other health problems.

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But, as New York magazine reporter Jonathan Chait points out, “a power source that does cause many health problems, including cancer, is coal, an extremely dirty fuel Trump loves and has attempted to bolster, with almost no success. Aside from costing more to produce energy than other sources of power, and in addition to enormous air pollution side effects, coal also emits greenhouse gases in large amounts.”

“Though this of course is another aspect of science Trump rejects,” Chait adds.

FMI: You can read Jaekl’s article on the Atlantic’s website.