Hearing and Sound Waves

Photograph taken by Josh Gow at the Macarthur Wind Farm

Last week we learnt how the human eye can only detect a narrow band within the electromagnetic spectrum – what we know as visible light. Higher frequency waves are known as ultraviolet waves, X-rays and gamma rays, while lower frequency wavelengths are known as infrared waves, micro-waves and radio waves.

In a similar way, our ears can only detect part of the sound spectrum. Sound is composed of frequency expressed as hertz (Hz) and pressure expressed as  decibels (dB). This site has a simple description of what sound waves look like. Why is understanding about how sound works important? A local example is the controversy surrounding the potential health impacts of the Macarthur Wind Farm.

Since the introduction of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act in 2000 and the Renewable Energy Target Scheme in 2009, wind farms have become more prominent in Victoria. However, this has not been without controversy as some people claim that wind turbines can adversely impact the health of individuals living in close proximity. Concerns focus on infrasound noise, electromagnetic interference, shadow flicker and blade glint produced by wind turbines. “Infrasound noise” or “low frequency noise” refers to sound waves inaudible to the human ear (although this varies between individuals). ‘Low frequency noise’ is the term used to describe sound energy in the region below about 200Hz. The rumble of thunder and the throb of a diesel engine are both examples of sounds with most of their energy in this low frequency range.

‘Infrasound’ is also often used to describe sound energy in the region below 20Hz. Almost all noise in the environment has components in this region although they are of such a low level that they are not significant. Noise which has most of its energy in the ‘infrasound’ range is only significant if it is at a very high level, far above normal environmental levels.

Wind Turbine Syndrome(“WTS”) is an alleged condition proposed by pediatrician Dr Nina Pierpoint. She cites a range of physical sensations and effects (including sleep disturbance, headache, tinnitus, ear pressure, vertigo, nausea, visual blurring, tachycardia, irritability, loss of concentration, lack of memory, panic attacks, internal pulsation, and quivering) reported by people living close to wind turbines. Dr Pierpont’s assertions are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and have been heavily criticised by acoustic specialists. This article by the Drum on ABC claims that “this phenomenon has disturbing hallmarks of mass hysteria or psychogenic illness being whipped up by interests groups connected with climate change denial interests, some of whom have personal financial interests in fossil fuels.”

From the Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council report – “Wind Turbines and Health” (July, 2012)

  • ‘There is no reliable evidence that infrasounds below the hearing threshold produce physiological or psychological effects’ (Berglund & Lindvall 1995).
  • Infrasound associated with modern wind turbines is not a source which will result in noise levels which may be injurious to the health of a wind farm neighbour (DTI, 2006).
  • Findings clearly show that there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence indicating that wind turbines have an adverse impact on human health (CanWEA, 2009).
  • Sound from wind turbines does not pose a risk of hearing loss or any other adverse health effects in humans. Subaudible, low frequency sounds and infrasound from wind turbines do not present a risk to human health (Colby, et al 2009).
  • The Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit (Ontario, Canada) reviewed the current literature regarding the known health impacts of wind turbines in order to make an evidence-based decision. Their report concluded that current evidence failed to demonstrate a health concern associated with wind turbines. ‘In summary, as long as the Ministry of Environment Guidelines for location criteria of wind farms are followed … there will be negligible adverse health impacts on Chatham-Kent citizens. Although opposition to wind farms on aesthetic grounds is a legitimate point of view, opposition to wind farms on the basis of potential adverse health consequences is not justified by the evidence’ (Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit, 2008).
  • Wind energy is associated with fewer health effects than other forms of traditional energy generation and in fact will have positive health benefits (WHO, 2004).
  • ‘There are, at present, very few published and scientifically-validated cases of an SACs of wind farm noise emission being problematic … the extent of reliable published material does not, at this stage, warrant inclusion of SACs … into the noise impact assessment planning stage (EPHC, 2009).
  • While a great deal of discussion about infrasound in connection with wind turbine generators exists in the media there is no verifiable evidence for infrasound and production by modern turbines (HGC Engineering, 2007).
  • There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines. (NHMRC, 2010)

National Health and Medical Research Council Public Statement

“Infrasound from Wind Turbines: Fact, Fiction or Deception?” Geoff Leventhall

What do you think the scientific evidence shows? What are the ‘placebo’ and ‘nocebo’ effects?

Welcome Back – Term 3!

This is the link to our Elluminate session on Tuesday 19th July during periods 5 and 6:

You will need headphones, a microphone and an Internet connection. Please observe the appropriate online protocols and enjoy this session.

This week I will be away from school, attending the 6th World Environmental Education Congress in Brisbane. I attended the same conference four years ago in Durban, South Africa, but this time I will be presenting a workshop with researchers from RMIT University, about the Education for Sustainability work we do here at Hawkesdale P12 College. While I am away Mr Becker will be taking my classes.

Year 7 students will be doing some practial experriments with light and sound – you may like to make a musical instrument at home, bring it into school and explain how it works.

Year 8 students will be starting a unit of work on Electricity. You will learn about conductors, resistors and insulators, series and parallel circuits, volts and amps and circuit diagrams. When I get back you will be able to make a torch from common household materials – a cardboard tube, batteries, aluminium foil, globe, paper clip, wires and sticky tape.

Year 7 Transferring and Transforming Energy – Light and Heat


Image Source

Learning Intention: Students will understand the transfer and transformation of heat and light, including how energy is wasted.

Success Criteria: Students will be able to describe how different types of energy (chemical, electrical etc) can be transformed into heat and light. They will distinguish between conduction, convection, absorption, reflection, transmission and radiation.

  • What does luminous, incandescent and flourescent mean?
  • How do bio-luminescent organisms (glow-worms, some deep sea fish and phosphorescent algae) produce light?
  • What makes a rainbow?
  • What are polarised sunglasses?
  • Why can’t you see through tinted windows?
  • How do some animals see in the dark?
  • Why can’t anyone hear you scream in space?
  • What is a wave?
  • Why can’t humans hear sounds that some animals can? (a dog whistle for example)