BROWNSVILLE, Wis. -- Not long after the wind turbines began to spin in March near Gerry Meyer's home, his son Robert, 13, and wife, Cheryl, complained of headaches.
They have trouble sleeping, and Cheryl Meyer, 55, sometimes feels a fluttering in her chest. Gerry is sometimes nauseated and hears crackling.
The culprit, they say, is the whooshing sound from the five industrial wind turbines near the 6-acre spread where they have lived for 37 years. "I don't think anyone should have to put up with this," says Gerry Meyer, who compares the sound to a helicopter or a jet taking off.
As more turbines are built, the noise they create is stirring debate. Industry groups such as the American Wind Energy Association say there's no proof they make people sick, but complaints of nausea, insomnia and other problems have surfaced near wind farms across the USA.
Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician in Malone, N.Y., calls the ailments Wind Turbine Syndrome and is writing a book on them. In the preface, which she shared with USA TODAY, she says the syndrome "is an industrial plague. It is man-made and easily fixed. Proper setbacks are the best cure."
Laurie Jodziewicz, siting manager for the American Wind Energy Association, says there are almost 15,000 wind turbines in the USA, and most people live near them "without incident. … We would have heard if this was a widespread issue."
The nearest turbine is 1,560 feet from Meyer's house. His dismay over an energy source he once thought was benign has made the retired mailman, 59, an activist. He travels the state warning communities considering wind farms to be wary.
Studies have mixed results
One of the nation's first nuisance lawsuits against a wind farm ended with rulings in 2006 in favor of the company that developed it after landowners near the Abilene, Texas, project objected to turbine noise.
Objections to wind farms continue to be raised:
• Pierpont's website, www.windturbinesyndrome.com, includes reports of illness from Union, Ore.; Mars Hill, Maine; Saginaw, Texas; King City, Mo.; and elsewhere.
Wendy Todd, who lives 2,500 feet from a turbine in Mars Hill, says she suffers sleep deprivation, and her neighbors have headaches and dizziness. "You just can't get used to it," she says of the noise.
• British physician Amanda Harry said in a 2007 study that people living near turbines can experience anxiety, depression, vertigo and tinnitus.
• Mariana Alves-Pereira, a Portuguese acoustical engineer, said in a 2007 study that turbines can cause vibroacoustic disease, which can lead to strokes and epilepsy.
A 2008 study funded by the European Union, however, found that the sound annoys many people, but it doesn't affect health "except for the interruption of sleep."
Some of Meyer's neighbors don't understand the fuss. People who say the noise makes them ill are exaggerating, says Rudy Jaeger, 67, who has a turbine on his farm. "It's no worse than traffic driving by." Francis Ferguson, chairman of the Byron Town Board, which voted to approve the project here, has heard talk that the sound makes people sick, but says, "I haven't seen any documentation."
The American Wind Energy Association would like to see "a credible, third-party" scientific study, Jodziewicz says. Setbacks are settled between developers and communities, and there's no industry standard, she says.
Susan Dennison, spokeswoman for Invenergy, the Chicago company that built the 86-turbine wind farm here, says it hasn't received any complaints about health problems in the area.
The turbines here, which are 389 feet tall including blades, must be 440 feet from property lines and at least 1,000 feet from homes, she says.
Concerns over home values
Eric Rosenbloom of National Wind Watch, an information clearinghouse, says noise and health concerns are the top issues in communities considering them. The group recommends 1-mile setbacks from homes.
Rick James, an acoustical engineer from Okemos, Mich., suggests keeping turbines 1¼ miles from homes.
That makes sense to Larry Wunch, a firefighter who lives a few miles from the Meyers. Turbines encircle his property, and when the wind tops 15 mph, he says, they "just scream." The closest is 1,100 feet from his house.
Wunch says he and his wife, Sharon, "have lost sleep and are irritated." He worries his home's value has declined and says the wind farm has created tension between opponents and those who have them on their property in exchange for annual payments that Dennison says are about $5,000 a year. "It's really turned our township upside down," Wunch says.
"If it's affecting your health," Meyer says, "it's hard to ignore."