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

Mysterious symptoms divide town, elicits anger and suspicion.

ByABC News
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.

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."