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Personality a clue to 'wind turbine syndrome'

26 March, 2013

Public concern about new technology infrastructure like mobile phone masts has been shown to trigger reports of ill health, and recently even the new 'green' technology of wind turbines has been blamed for medically unexplained non-specific symptoms.

But now, for the first time, a study by psychologists, engineers and built environment experts at The University of Nottingham, has found no link between the 'measured' level of noise from small and micro wind turbines and reports of ill health.

The research could be helpful in prompting pre-emptive action in future planning applications for small and medium sized wind turbines to help reassure those concerned about the impact of small and micro wind turbines on their wellbeing.

This collaborative study involved researchers from the Faculty of Engineering as well as Social Sciences and was funded by the UK Energy Research Centre.

It is the first project to examine how personality, and specifically 'negative orientated personality' (NOP), affects reported levels of non-specific symptoms like headache, sleeplessness, stomach upsets and general malaise.

It was carried out as a public survey of 1270 households within 500 metres of eight 0.6kW micro-turbines and within 1 km of four 5kW wind turbines in two Midlands cities.

"We measured the actual noise from the turbines and used environmental noise modelling software that helped us to predict how much sound is actually heard by those living in the vicinity," Dr Claire Lawrence from the University's School of Psychology, said.

"We found there was no relationship between the 'real' level of noise and reports of ill health. "

The personality traits measured from the 138 returned questionnaires were neuroticism (propensity to be more anxious, to take longer to revert to an equilibrium), negative affectivity (the propensity to feel negative emotions), and also frustration intolerance (sensitivity towards frustrations, discomforts and annoyances).

The research involved extensive fieldwork to gather data to create a series of geographical sound maps using state of the art computer software.

Ten sound types were selected based on previous published research into wind turbine noise. The sounds were: swooshing, screeching, whistling, humming, throbbing, thumping, scratching, high frequency, low frequency and buzzing.

For each, participants were asked to rate how often they had heard each sound from the micro or small turbine near their home, and how loud each sound was to them on a scale of 0 (never noticed) to 4 (extremely loud). A mean score was calculated for both the occurrence and loudness for each participant.

To take into account people's attitude to wind power the survey asked them about their attitude to it using a scale of 1 to 7, from very positive to very negative. The participants also reported their experience of 12 common symptoms such as headache and fatigue over the preceding six months.

The researchers concluded the people who live near a turbine and can hear some noise, did not suffer more non-specific health symptoms than people who could not in reality hear the same sound.

The study indicated generally it is not the turbine noise per se that is causing the symptoms. Indeed, for those individuals who did not score highly on these negative orientated personality traits, reporting hearing the sound was not associated with symptoms. This association was only evident for those higher in these traits.  

While there is general public support for renewable energy, and indeed the majority of respondents in the reported study were positive about wind energy in general, it is acknowledged individuals are often more negative when faced with the prospect of having wind turbines near their homes.

This research is the first study ever carried out to show the relationship between personality and perception of wind turbine noise in relation to a so-called 'green technology'.

The results could be significant in informing local authority decision-making on the increasing number of planning applications for wind turbines across the UK.  

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Ken Goldsmith | Friday, March 29, 2013, 12:43 PM
Interesting. One word not mentioned in the article is "infrasound". Possibly/probably just poor reportage, but it leaves us non the wiser. It is infrasound that is thought to be the problem with wind turbines. We can not consciously "hear" infrasound, but it can harm health. The US tried to use it as a weapon in Vietnam, it did not seem to work, but the idea must have been based on something. Google "infrasound weapon" for more info. Also note that the UK has fairly recently announced that they are abandoning wind power for many reasons, most of them economic.
Ben Ferguson-Walker | Thursday, May 16, 2013, 8:23 AM
This is an interesting and useful piece of research, with a reasonable sample size, into an issue that is a real problem for humans confronted by change in a developing world. The implications go much farther than wind turbines alone and I'd like to see more work done on this. Including the issue of "infrasound", which at present has credentials painfully obvious in the comment "the idea must have been based on something" (come on, Ken, you need to do a bit better than that if you are going to talk about poor reportage). Let's keep terms like "infrasound" in context with others like "invisibility cloak" until the evidence is a bit stronger. Also fairly shakey on the fact about UK position on wind. The wind industries and other parts of the green economy have been consistently in growth since 2008 - the duration of our current recession. Over the same period, the gas market has seen consistent price increases that dwarf investment into carbon reducing subsidies. The real problem with UK govt energy policy and renewables is political will, fear of the unrepresentatively vocal anti wind lobby (that makes my ears hurt!), and UK MPs in bed with the fossil fuel (it's going to run out, folks), and nuclear (the actual cost is secret, people) industries.
Mike Parker | Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 6:15 PM
Don't you just luuuv Ken G's comment "it did not seem to work, but the idea must have been based on something." Yes - Error. Mike