Scientists agree that harnessing energy from renewable sources to power our lights, ACs, phones, stoves, and cars will be necessary to slow global warming. But wind farms across the world have increasingly been subject to protest by communities whose land they’ve encroached on. People in small towns across the US have raised concerns at zoning meetings about health issues and depressed property values. An Indigenous group in Norway says a wind farm will affect their ability to herd reindeer, a concern supported by climate activist Greta Thunberg.
One of the most common concerns raised by protestors worldwide is how these turbines will affect their health. People say wind projects near their homes, different from the off-shore wind farms at sea, have caused a range of harmful effects on their bodies, including migraines, chronic pain, increased blood pressure, and difficulty sleeping.
When wind turbines are properly regulated, these problems don’t quite reach the point of a public health concern, says Chris Ollson, an environmental health consultant in Canada who has worked for on minimizing fallout from wind projects for more than a decade. He points to more than a hundred studies that measure the impacts of wind turbines on sleep and other biological responses.
When wind turbines are properly regulated, problems don’t quite reach the point of a public health concern.
Chris Ollson, environmental health consultant
But regulations don’t always consider important local context. Take the Golan Heights for example, where one of the world’s more contentious wind projects led thousands of Druze farmers to protest in the streets in June. The Golan has been occupied by Israel since 1967 and was annexed in 1981, although international law and every country except the US recognizes it as Syrian land. The state’s relations with the Druze community, most of whom consider themselves Syrian, have been tense—Israeli police responded to the recent demonstrations with force, using teargas, water cannons, and rubber-coated metal bullets.
The chief concern of the protestors is how the wind farm, proposed by the multinational company Energix, would further entrench Israeli occupation over the Golan. But another main concern is how the turbines will affect their health. In the region, regulations must consider context and the circumstances in which the new site would be built, Druze leaders say.
Noise pollution and shadow flicker
The two primary health concerns with wind farms include the level of noise they emit and the flickering lights they create, called “shadow flicker,” Ollson says. Disruptions are created when the three-pronged turbines spin, emulating a slow, giant fan. Typically, governments don’t allow wind farms to send more than 50 decibels of sound to nearby houses, which is about as loud as the hum from a household refrigerator.
The noise pollution could prevent those living nearby from sleeping properly. When people can’t rest well for a prolonged period of time, it can reduce their quality of life. They might feel both tired and sick, which could lead to trouble eating and exercising, among other problems, Ollson explains. However, research shows that turbines that hum at less than 45 to 50 decibels don’t have any statistical effect on sleep quality, he adds.
Ollson points to one 2016 study from Canada that he says is considered the gold standard around the world. The government studied the sleep quality of 720 people who lived between 820 feet to about 7 miles away from a wind farm emitting a range of 20 to 46 decibels of noise. The researchers used actimeters, which are similar to fitbits, to track participants’ sleep quality. The study found no statistical difference between those living near the wind farm and those living a few miles away. “There's some indication when we go over 55 or 60 decibels that it's probably too close. But ultimately, we aren't seeing that in jurisdictions that are [regulated] properly,” Ollson says.
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It’s unclear exactly how many decibels of sound the Energix wind project would wreak on Majd Al Shams, one of the few remaining Druze towns in the Golan. The farm is expected to be about 3,280 feet away from the neighborhoods, meaning the residents should be safe from noise. But farmers who work near the project would still be exposed—and there are more than 1,800 cottages that people visit regularly on the farming properties a few hundred feet away from the designated site, Wael Tarabieh, a project manager for Al Marsad, says.
Other major health concerns from living or working around turbines are epileptic seizures, headaches, nausea, and general disturbance from shadow flicker, which occurs when the sun shines through the turbine’s spinning prongs, causing a shadowing effect that can sometimes be seen in homes and buildings. People can simulate shadow flicker by pointing a flashlight at a ceiling or desk fan: The dark shapes created on the wall are similar to what people living near a wind farm might experience, though at a significantly lower rate, given that the fan blades move much faster than a turbine’s does. A near universal standard across the world is limiting shadow flicker to 30 hours per year, Ollson says. This can be done by using computer programs to model conditions and choosing spots for turbines accordingly.
“We can't find a correlation in these larger epidemiological studies” between shadow flicker and headaches or nausea, Ollson notes. And the turbines move too slowly to cause epileptic seizures, he adds. “What the majority of my colleagues in the field would say, is that shadow flicker isn't a health concern, but it is an annoyance or nuisance. Imagine you're sitting in your place tonight, and if I was standing at the wall and turning your lights on and off, in a slow fashion, for 20 minutes at a time. You would not enjoy that.”
But in the Golan, some residents could experience up to one hour of shadow flicker per day during certain times of the year. This is because of the wind farm’s location and use of larger turbine blades, Israeli doctor Ofer Megged told Al Marsad for their 2018 report on the wind farm. The project has been modified several times since then—it’s unclear how many hours of shadow flicker the latest plan would produce.
All forms of energy have their drawbacks, Ollson adds. Oil refineries and coal plants, the main way the world has generated power for the past century, churn out air pollution, which has been linked to a much wider range of health problems, including increased risk of asthma, cancers, and heart disease.
Winds of change in the Golan Heights
New construction needs to take native people, their history, and their current situation into context, explains Munir Fakher Eldin, an assistant professor and dean of the faculty of arts at Birzeit University in Palestine who writes about land rights. He calls the new wind farm in the Golan, where he is from, a form of greenwashing.
The Golan is known for its wealth of natural resources, such as water, wind, and potentially petroleum. The area is attractive for renewables because of an estimated wind speed almost double that of Israel’s coastal plane, vast open areas, and low population density, according to the Syria Report. Wind energy is a major component of Israel’s net zero goal, and the country plans for nearly half of it to come from the Golan.
The Golan is already home to two wind farms, which are both near Israeli settlements. (Some settlers have also opposed the turbines, according to Tarabieh.) Israel also has plans to build a dozen more wind projects in the Golan to serve locals, both native and non-native. But the Energix project, first proposed in 2018, has received scrutiny from the Druze and become the subject of both protests and lawsuits for the past five years.
After Israel began to occupy the Golan in 1967, they expelled around 131,000 Syrians, which was about 95 percent of the population in the area, according to Al Marsad. Since then, the 1,800 cottages near the wind farm have served as a place for many to escape. “Our agricultural lands are not simply a place to cultivate the land. Actually, they are a kind of extension to our everyday life,” Tarabieh says. “Most of the people escape from [overcrowding in Majd Al-Shams] to the agricultural lands to spend the time with their family. People sleep in these cottages all the time ... That's why in our case, it's really very dangerous. It's not that people are afraid of or imagining something. It's real, and we are all close to it.”
The new project would also subsume a quarter of agricultural land left to farmers, who were already stripped of most of their land more than 50 years ago. Settlements, military facilities, and national park acquisition put 95 percent of the Golan under Israeli control, according to Tarabieh. The wind farm would also limit how much Majd Al-Shams could grow. Mountains in the north, a ceasefire line in the east, and settlements in the west mean that the agricultural land to the south, where the farm is planned, is the only place the town could expand. A new residential zoning code also allows houses to be built much closer to the turbines, which could increase health risks from the wind farm, Tarabieh says.
In our case, it's really very dangerous. It's real, and we are all close to it.
Wael Tarabieh, a project manager for Al Marsad
Fakher Eldin and Tarabieh also think the development would affect residents' psychological health. In a complaint echoed by those living near wind farms around the world, the turbines, which stand at about 680 feet tall, would ruin their land’s pastoral beauty. What’s different in the Golan though, they say, is the wind farm could serve as yet another reminder of how little control the native Syrian communities have over their home. “The land is part of people's identity and sense of security, belonging, and communal safety,” says Fakher Eldin. “Basically we're defending our right for reasonable existence on our land … The wind farm will feel like a suffocating presence.”
Update (July 28, 2023): The headline of this story has been changed from "Are wind farms low-key harming people's health." The article focuses on health concerns in some communities living around turbines, mainly in the Israel-annexed region the Golan Heights. Scientific reports and experts stress that most of the issues, which are far less severe than health effects stemming from oil refineries and coal plants, can be managed through proper siting and safety regulations. The political context in the Golan Heights, however, makes new wind farms more fraught for native residents.