Cape Cod Wind Turbine Syndrome: Are They 'Whiners' or Not?

Mysterious symptoms divide town, elicits anger and suspicion.

November 21, 2013, 2:07 PM

Nov. 21, 2013— -- I wander up Blacksmith Shop Road in East Falmouth, Mass., in my battered Honda Civic, looking for the "toxic" house Sue Hobart said she abandoned when headaches, insomnia and dizziness drove her to near madness.

A misplaced New Yorker, I had no idea there were two such roads with the same name in this twee Cape Cod town known for its shingled charm and ferry access to the islands.

"Take a right, then another right on Thomas Flanders Road, past the town dump and you can't miss them," said the kind man who directed me back down the hill.

"All the nuts live over they-ah -- by the wind turbines," he said in a flat, New England accent.

The "nuts" are about 45 residents who live near three 400-feet tall, 1.63 megawatt, utility-scale wind turbines that they say are causing a mysterious illness: complaints include pressure in the ears, a thumping sensation that causes fluttering heartbeats, migraine headaches and more.

Hobart, a 57-year-old bridal florist, and her husband said they'd built their "dream house" on Blacksmith Shop Road but were forced out of their home by what they believe are the effects of the air pressure created by the turbines. She and dozens of others have filed lawsuits, claiming these clean-energy giants are a nuisance and making them sick.

Learn more about the ongoing Falmouth lawsuits.

But is wind turbine syndrome real? Or are these people "crazy"? I decided to visit Falmouth to learn more.

I zigzagged past white-steepled churches, farm stands and centuries-old homes on a hunt for the right Blacksmith Shop Road. When I see a Sotheby's for sale sign -- a dead giveaway -- I know I'm there. At the bottom of what seems like an endless driveway, I find Hobart's house, a ranch-style structure with tired brown shingling and stenciled stars above the garage.

"Welcome" and "Enter With a Heart" say the signs on the side of the house. Over the front door a wooden placard reads "Enufadat."

Between the house and the tower are heavy woods and a sand pit. The wind turbine's propellers loom behind the trees on the approach but are invisible once I reach the house. But Hobart insists they are close enough to make her sick. One morning she said she collapsed in her driveway because her sense of balance was off.

"The town voted for the things. The whiners should accept the will of the majority. Full stop." -- William R. Funk, ecologist

In a blue state like Massachusetts, the first to legalize gay marriage and home to former Gov. Mitt Romney's universal health care plan, environmentally-friendly wind turbines are popular, as long as they are "not in my backyard."

The late Ted Kennedy opposed a huge wind farm off picturesque Nantucket Sound, insisting the turbines would obstruct views.

Many had hoped the turbines would make Falmouth energy self-sufficient and bring in revenue. But now, the clean-energy folks are suddenly wearing the black hats.

Hobart, who has talked at length to me about her health, by both phone and email, said she and other neighbors had been harassed for complaining about their symptoms.

Her doctor, Harvard University balance and vestibular expert Steven Rauch, diagnosed Hobart with wind turbine syndrome, a condition that is not recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We don't know enough about it to totally accept it or blow it off," he told me. "When these patients came to me I could not find any other abnormalities to explain their symptoms. I am trying to give them the benefit of the doubt."

He believes the symptoms may come from the pressure of infrasound -- sounds with frequencies below 20 Hz -- which are on the low end of audible for humans. Rauch suggests those with sensitive inner ears and a propensity for headaches could be sickened by the subtle air pressure created by the turbines.

"Infrasound hugs and flows to the ground and buffets around [the house]," said Hobart. "I have heard it described similar to flowing water over varied terrain. That's probably why our home gets hit so hard. We also have high ceilings and an open floor plan.

"I personally think the topography is a bigger issue than distance," she told me. "Some of our neighbors are not bothered at all. It's all a big science project that needs to be explored sooner rather than later."

But state environmental studies conclude that wind turbines present little more than an "annoyance" to residents, and that limited evidence exists to support claims of devastating health impacts.

The town voted to erect the turbines in 2010, but last year selectmen agreed to take them down -- at a cost of $15 million. Then, in April, the majority of the town voters said keep them up. But because so many residents had sleep complaints, the town cut back the turbines' operating hours at night.

Other residents, even those who live in the turbine neighborhoods and are not sick, said the debacle is costing the town money.

"Sadly, this debate has left our community fractured and bewildered," writes Jason Cullinane, in a guest commentary on Wicked His wife, pregnant at the time, worked 400 meters, or 1,312 feet, from one of the turbines "with no noted adverse problems."

Debra Cookson, 60, and Chris Allen, 65, live near one of the town's turbines on Ambleside Drive and say it "sounds more like the light swish of a clothes drier," according to the Cape Cod Times.

"There are no health side effects in our family," Cookson said. "One could focus on the noise ... [but] it's just a sound."

But voices of reason ask why shouldn't the town, which voted to erect the turbines, continue to operate them. "Wind is free," said 67-year-old East Falmouth resident and ecologist William R. Funk. "Turbines are not."

"Complaints vary," he told me. "Negative reaction may have a biological basis, as some people are allergic to penicillin, some are not. The town should do something for those negatively affected. Options include: buy owners property, assist owners with purchase of soundproofing material, for example, more sturdy, sound-reducing windows, and negotiate with individual owners for individual solutions."

Still, Funk adds, "The town voted for the things. The whiners should accept the will of the majority. Full stop."

At least one town proposal to buy a home may soon be in the offing because of a lawsuit brought by one of Hobart's neighbors, Neil Andersen, 60. At a recent hearing in Barnstable Superior Court, the town agreed to make him an offer, but he is awaiting another court appearance before it is finalized by a judge.

But Andersen told me, "I have not agreed to sell it to them, and they have not offered to purchase it. There is a long way to go before we get to that point."

"Just come in to my house and feel the walls shaking," he said. "People who sit on my front porch have to leave within a half hour -- they felt it."

Since 2010, the wind turbines have provided much of the community's energy. Two are owned by the town of Falmouth and one, in an industrial park near four-lane Route 28, is privately owned by Notus Clean Energy.

The town had cut back its operations to 18 hours a day to appease complainants, and in a new offer to residents has tentatively agreed to run the turbines only 12 hours a day, according to a recent Superior Court hearing, which has cost the town an estimated $214,000 a year.

The Notus turbine sits atop a hill in remote Falmouth Technology Park. Its scissor-like propellers cut through the blue sky, emitting a whooshing noise that, when they hit the wind at a certain angle, sound like a jet taking off in the distance. On the partly sunny Monday I visited, the circular motion of its arms created a pulsating and mesmerizing shadow on the ground below.

That turbine runs 24 hours a day and, according to owner Dan Webb, generates 5 million kWh of electricity annually, preventing emissions of more than 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide from conventional generation plants.

Many say these residents have fallen victim to some kind of psychological contagion, just as some suggest in the case with the 19 teenagers from LeRoy, N.Y., who developed fluttering fingers, throat noises, fainting and seizures. Their mysterious Tourette's-like symptoms eventually disappeared. One girl, though, continues to insist her symptoms are caused by chronic Lyme disease.

At least one 2013 study on wind turbines shows a correlation between the power of suggestion and negative symptoms.

Hobart said once she left her house on Blacksmith Shop Road last year, her symptoms disappeared. Her Harvard doctor has said that some medical susceptibilities could trigger what's come to be called wind turbine syndrome, a mysterious illness he is not willing to rule out. And age, he said, could also figure in, as many of those who complain of symptoms are over 50.

I am no stranger to tinnitus or to migraines -- or to the power of suggestion.

So as I walk alone round Hobart's ranch like a sleuth, pushing away overgrown brush and ivy across a garden path, I am skeptical. The garage is empty except for an overturned cooler and the remnants of a project, perhaps a wedding trellis, made of white birch. I peer into the living room, which is devoid of furniture and seems ghostlike. Some of the shingling above a French door has begun to rot.

Settling on the front stoop, I know there is a giant wind turbine, whirling softly and silently at my back, but it is peaceful in this undisturbed spot -- near the dream house that Sue Hobart says she left out of fear that she would never get well again. It feels as if, with a little cleaning up, I could happily live here.

The self-described "townies" I met at Falmouth's Holiday Inn Express bar before I set out to view the turbines tell me they view people like Sue Hobart as complainers.

So far, Hobart said she has had few offers for her house and said she had been forced to drop the price. But many houses are still selling, even in these neighborhoods, say the Falmouth residents I spoke to.

And I begin to wonder if the man I encountered on the first Blacksmith Shop Road might be right. Are they "nuts"? Or is that a slight pressure I feel in my sinuses? Maybe it's time to go.

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