'Wind Turbine Syndrome' Blamed for Mysterious Symptoms in Cape Cod Town

Residents say low-frequency sound gives them headaches, ear popping, anxiety.

Oct. 21, 2013— -- Sue Hobart, a bridal florist from Massachusetts, couldn't understand why she suddenly developed headaches, ringing in her ears, insomnia and dizziness to the point of falling "flat on my face" in the driveway.

"I thought I was just getting older and tired," said the 57-year-old from Falmouth.

Months earlier, in the summer of 2010, three wind turbines had been erected in her town, one of which runs around the clock, 1,600 feet from her home.

"I didn't put anything to the turbines -- we heard it and didn't like the thump, thump, thump and didn't like seeing them, but we didn't put it together," she told ABCNews.com.

Hobart said her headaches only got worse, but at Christmas, when she went to San Diego, they disappeared. And she said the same thing happened on an overnight trip to Keene, N.H.

"Sometimes at night, especially in the winter, I wake up with a fluttering in the chest and think, 'What the hell is that,' and the only place it happens is at my house," she said. "That's how you know. When you go away, it doesn't happen."

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Hobart and dozens of others in this small Cape Cod town have filed lawsuits, claiming that three 400 feet tall, 1.63 megawatt turbines (two owned by the town and one owned by Notus Clean Energy) were responsible for an array of symptoms. A fourth, much smaller turbine, is owned by Woods Hole Research Center, but it receives fewer complaints.

The wind turbines have blown up a political storm in Falmouth that has resonated throughout the wind energy industry. Are these plaintiffs just "whiners," or do they have a legitimate illness?

In 2011, a doctor at Harvard Medical School diagnosed Hobart with wind turbine syndrome, which is not recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The name was coined by Nina Pierpont, a John Hopkins University-trained pediatrician, whose husband is an anti-wind activist, criticizing the economics and physics of wind power. Pierpont, who lives in upstate New York, calls wind turbine syndrome the green energy industry's "dirty little secret." She self-published "Wind Turbine Syndrome" in 2009, including case studies of people who lived within 1.25 miles of these "spinning giants" who reportedly got sick.

But her wind-turbine research has been criticized for improper peer review (Pierpont reportedly chose her reviewers), and for its methodology -- small sample size, no control group and the fact that she did not examine her subjects or their medical records but interviewed them by phone.

Neither Pierpont nor her husband, Calvin Luther Martin, responded to ABCNews.com's request for comment.

Hobart and her husband, Edward, filed a nuisance claim last Feb. 5 in Barnstable Superior Court against Notus Clean Energy and its owner, Dan Webb. According to the Hobarts' lawyer, Democratic State Rep. Brian Mannal, they are seeking between $150,000 and $300,000 in damages for loss of value of their home, and for medical bills.

They filed an earlier nuisance complaint against the town in July 2012, but the judge granted the defendants' motion to dismiss on Dec. 3, 2012.

"The heart of the issue is that they have been pushed off their land," said Mannal. "They have erected these enormous industrial-scale turbines -- larger than a 747 -- in close proximity to residences. They have had to leave their house because they couldn't live there anymore."

Mannal, who took on the Hobarts' suit before running for public office, said he "had a feeling about this case since it first came to me that this is one of the most important things I will do in my professional life. These are people who have been put upon and are suffering under this thing with no avenue for escape.

"This is an industry that has pushed to make wind happen, and I am not against that, but you do it responsibly," Mannal said. "It goes all day and night. My initial take was that [she] was being a hypochondriac, but I went to their house two years ago with a little skepticism and within 10 minutes of being in the house, I could feel it and hear it. ... It acts like a drum and pounds on the house."

In its answer to the court on May 20, Webb's attorney, Michael J. O'Neill, denied all of Hobart's allegations, saying that Notus' application for an operating permit was "subject to rigorous review" by Falmouth's Zoning Board of Appeals. O'Neill also said that Notus had submitted a "thorough noise assessment by a qualified consultant in support of its application," and that the wind turbine project had complied with all applicable standards and regulations. "Scientific research and studies have shown that wind turbines such as Notus' do not cause a nuisance or adverse health effects," said O'Neill in the court filing.

Webb did not comment on the Hobarts' lawsuit but defended wind energy in an email to ABCNews.com, saying that its wind turbine generates approximately 5 million kWh of electricity annually.

"In three years of operation, it has prevented emissions of more than 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide from conventional generation plants," he wrote. "The nearest home to the Notus turbine is approximately 1,700 feet from the turbine. The minimum setback distance recommended by a state model bylaw is three times tip height, or a distance of 1,197 feet. So our setback distance to homes is substantially greater than specified in the state model bylaw."

Neil Andersen and his wife, Betsy, were big fans of alternative energy, but when two town-owned turbines arrived within 1,320 and 2,320 feet of their house, they, too, said they developed symptoms.

Andersen, 60, said that within a week and half, he developed a "very uncomfortable feeling."

"First, it was pressure in my ears -- they were just popping as I was standing out in the front yard doing landscaping," he told ABCNews.com. "Within two months, my ears started ringing with tinnitus, and now I have clenching of my teeth -- bruxism."

He said he had headaches, shortness of breath, sensitivity to sounds and heart palpitations.

"At times, I even have confusion over what is the pulse of the turbine and which is my heartbeat," he said.

He said his wife had suffered migraines so severe that she wrote in a journal she keeps on her symptoms and the wind turbine operations "Never stops, never stops. Headache. HELP."

More than 45 Falmouth residents have complained to the town's Board of Selectmen, which curtailed the hours of its two turbines at night. The board said it's the pressure of infrasound -- sounds with frequencies below 20 Hz -- which are on the low end of audible for humans.

But others say many who live near the wind turbines suffer no ill effects, and there's research that suggests these unexplainable symptoms could be psychogenic, or "contagious." In a phenomenon known as the nocebo effect -- the opposite of the placebo effect -- people can convince themselves that something is producing harm.

One 2013 study on the wind turbine effect published in the journal Health Psychology examined the power of suggestion and concluded it may have caused the reported health problems.

In the study, researchers exposed 60 participants to 10 minutes of infrasound and then silence. Beforehand, half the group was shown television footage of people who lived near wind farms and were recounting the harmful effects. Within this group, the people who scored high for anxiety developed symptoms, even if they were exposed to sham infrasound.

"Some people are more suggestible," said Dr. Elizabeth Bowman, a psychiatrist and adjunct professor at Indiana University, who is not familiar with the Falmouth cases. "This is not conscious, it's unconscious.

"What can happen across time is people think maybe this is real, my neighbor's got it," said Bowman. "They start to tune in more to their bodies and amplify and misinterpret normal body sensations."

Andersen, however, said he had no idea his neighbors were suffering when his symptoms began.

"Just come in to my house and feel the walls shaking," he said. "They say it's the nocebo effect, but people who sit on my front porch have to leave within a half hour -- they felt it. Early on, I had a financial adviser sit in my kitchen and within five minutes he was complaining about ear popping.

"Something is going on here, and it's affecting a lot of us physically and mentally," explained Andersen, who said he could no longer work in construction.

"They don't believe us," he said. "It's a very sad situation."

ABCNews.com called the town of Falmouth several times and sent emails, but the calls were not returned and the emails were not answered. The town's lawyer, Frank K. Duffy, also did not return calls.

According to Kim Fish, who is Duffy's paralegal, there are "just so many lawsuits."

The clerk at Barnstable Superior Court confirmed there were numerous lawsuits against the town and its Board of Health.

The Andersens have filed three lawsuits. The one in Barnstable Superior Court alleges the town violated the zoning bylaw, did not go through the proper permitting process for installing the wind turbines and did not hold "one single public meeting."

The second is a nuisance complaint that was initially denied by the building commissioner, but that decision was later overturned by the zoning board of appeals. "We are in the middle of proceedings for an injunction to stop the turbines until the case is heard," Andersen said.

A third private nuisance lawsuit was filed in federal court in Boston.

The Massachusetts Departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health recently commissioned a panel of experts to analyze existing research on the effects of noise, vibration and flicker of wind turbines on health. They concluded that wind turbines present little more than an "annoyance" to residents, and that limited evidence exists to support claims of devastating health impacts.

Earlier this year, the selectmen voted unanimously to take down the wind turbines as "the right thing to do," but when the town put the measure to a vote in April, it didn't pass, according to the Cape Cod Times.

Many Falmouth residents said they're baffled by the complaints.

"My neighborhood is 4,000 feet from the big ones, and we have zero effect," said Tom Stone, who spoke on behalf of the Woods Hole Research Center, where he is a scientist emeritus. Woods Hold Research Center owns the smaller turbine, which has not been the subject of lawsuits. "Houses are being sold on my street, and new houses are being built. It's not an issue.

"My son has been house-sitting one of the families who complained, and it doesn't bother their children but bothers their parents. I don't know what to make of it. Is it one of these things that bothers you if you are sensitive to it, or is it a stress reaction?"

One woman complained about the turbine at the research center, said Stone, but the turbine was not even in operation at the times she logged her symptoms.

Wind turbines are the most popular form of new energy in the United States and are seen widely not only in coastal Massachusetts but throughout California, Texas and Wisconsin.

The American Wind Energy Association, which represents the industry, said that wind power was "an inexhaustible resource," which did not harm the environment and provided a "direct health benefit by reducing air pollution and related health impacts, including asthma."

Spokeswoman Lindsay North, who did not comment on the Falmouth cases, said health complaints were "rare."

A 2010 study by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council found no negative effects from wind turbines.

But Dr. Steven Rauch, director of the Balance and Vestibular Center at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the doctor who diagnosed Sue Hobart, said he was "unwilling" to rule out wind turbine syndrome as a real medical condition.

Rauch said he had diagnosed only one other patient besides Hobart, but he believed infrasound was a "plausible" explanation for their complaints.

"We don't know enough about it to totally accept it or blow it off," he told ABCNews.com. "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."

Hobart, who was referred to Rauch by Pierpont, said she saw him in July 2011, after she had left her house and was living with a friend.

He did a full otology exam and checked on her gait and hearing, she said, and recommended physical therapy for her gait problems but prescribed no medication.

"He said I was recovering well and to just stay away from the wind turbine," she said. "It was a huge relief to have a doctor of his caliber affirm my situation."

Rauch said he consulted with Pierpont and Alec Salt, an otolaryngology specialist at the Cochlear Fluids Research Laboratory at Washington University in Louis who suggests the level of infrasound generated by a wind turbine one mile away could be harmful.

"He tried to lay out the scientific basis for low-frequency pressure affecting the inner ear," said Rauch. "It seems to do something to other parts of the body, and it persuaded me, that at least in animal research, there is proof. We know that animals are pretty good models of differential susceptibility to noise exposure."

The big question is why some live near wind turbines with no ill effects, and others are crippled by symptoms, such as debilitating migraines.

"Migraines alter the way the brain processes sensory information -- light, stimulation, sound touch, bellyaches and sleep disturbances," said Rauch. "If you put someone with migraine disturbances in an environment with throbbing low-pressure pulse, that affects the autonomic nervous system or inner ear balance organs. It may be likely that those patients, because of general susceptibility, have intensified distorted reactions."

Rauch also cautions against those who say complaints are psychological in nature.

"That's a slippery slope, blaming the patient in medicine," he said. "I am not a wind industry businessman or a policy maker. I am a doctor, and I take care of my patients."

As for Sue Hobart, she has had to give up her floral work and now lives miles away from Falmouth's wind turbine towers in neighboring Bourne. Her house by the wind turbines is up for sale, she said, but because she disclosed her health problems to potential buyers, its value has dropped by half.."We tried to keep our house -- we built it ourselves," she said. I had six acres, planted trees and flowers and bought a bobcat and a backhoe and built the rock walls myself. It was my pride and joy. Every time I think about it I cry."

Hobart's headaches are gone, but depression has set in.

"I didn't know anything about wind turbine syndrome," she said. "It made me abandon my house. I had everything I ever wanted and I can't live there."

ABC News' Karin Halperin contributed to this story.