Wind turbines do not cause cancer
But other forms of energy aren't so clean.
At the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual spring dinner, President Donald Trump claimed that the noise wind turbines produce causes cancer. This isn’t true—just ask anyone with a lawn mower, which are about as loud as a wind turbine, and much closer to people’s ears. It’s also not the only wind turbine myth in the popular consciousness, or the president’s public speeches.
That’s not to say that noise can’t cause humans physical harm. It’s just that the kind of sonic blasts that can produce nausea and impair breathing and vision, start at around 150 decibels. Even if you sat directly beneath a wind turbine, the sound produced would be about 105 decibels. That level of sound may be annoying, but the noise would not cause cancer. Scores of studies back this up. Some have found that the mechanical sounds wind power plants produce can interrupt people’s sleep, but none have linked the energy source to cancer.
That sets wind power apart from many of its fellow energy sources. Coal, for example, has been widely been proven to cancer as well as heart and lung problems. According to the National Cancer Institute, people who work in coal manufacturing have a higher risk of developing skin, lung, bladder, kidney, and digestive tract cancer. Byproducts of the industry impact public health, too. Coal- and oil-burning power plants release pollutants like mercury into the air. The neurotoxin makes its way into public water sources, while air pollution causes health problems including asthma and yes, cancer.
Coal- and oil-burning plants also contribute to climate change, which has its own consequences for human health. Carbon dioxide accounts for 65 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuel use is the primary source of CO2 emissions, which heat the planet and exacerbate wildfires, rising sea levels, and hurricanes. Last year, the United States experienced 14 extreme weather events that each accrued $1 billion in losses. Together, these events killed 247 people. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
The president also claimed wind energy creates “a graveyard for birds.” Wind turbines in the United States do kill somewhere between 140,000 and 328,000 birds every year. But studies have shown that the number of birds wind energy kills relative to the amount of power it produces is relatively low. One study found that fossil fuel plants actually pose a far greater threat to airborne wildlife than wind turbines, killing 17 times more per gigawatt hour than wind power. Birds get caught in oil pits and ponds that store toxic waste leftover from oil extraction and processing. Leaky chemical holding tanks have been known to poison fowl, while U.S. power lines kill as many as 64 million birds annually.
Scientists are working to further reduce bird-turbine collisions. This acoustic lighthouse, for example, emits a high-pitched sound that causes birds to slow down and look up. Since birds don’t typically look straight ahead while flying, they don’t see obstacles like skyscrapers, cell towers, and wind turbines. The alert system helps birds change course before it’s too late.
And those aren’t the only inaccurate claims the president has made regarding the science of wind power. In a speech he gave last month in Michigan, the president also suggested that homes that use wind power will not have electricity on calm days. But that’s not how renewable energy works. “Typically it’s not accurate to say that if your home runs on renewable energy that you won’t have power when it’s calm or cloudy,” says Johnathan Lamontagne, a systems analyst in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University. Large-scale renewable energy usually provides supplemental energy to a grid that has several input sources, so if one fails, there’s a backup to take its place.
The energy sector is dirty and dangerous, but wind power is not the problem.