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Infrasound – Noise We Can’t Hear

(Germany, 28 min.)

“Infrasound occurs where large masses are in motion. This happens in nature - with avalanches and earthquakes, for instance. But infrasound also arises through technology and industry. It’s caused by large machines and blasting. Even wind turbines ...” This documentary (“Infraschall – Unerhörter Lärm”) by the science program “planet e” of the German television channel ZDF was first broadcast on November 4, 2018. [links: English, Deutsch]



Transcriptby courtesy of Stop These Things

Narrator: Infrasound occurs where large masses are in motion. This happens in nature with avalanches and earthquakes, for instance. But infrasound also arises through technology and industry. It’s caused by large machines and blasting. Even wind turbines generate infrasound whenever their blades rotate. In a densely populated country like Germany, where wind farms border on residential areas, many people are robbed of their sleep.

Insa Bock: It’s worse when I lie in bed at night. After five or 10 minutes, I feel kind of dizzy. My heart starts to race and I get this massive ringing in my ears. To some extent, I also feel claustrophobic and stressed.

Narrator: Insa Bock and Hermann Oldewurtel live in East Frisia near the town of Esens. Located scarcely 700 metres from their home, is a wind farm with a few dozen wind turbines. Since they function even at low wind speeds, the wind park is in operation virtually 24-7.

Hermann Oldewurtel: If you sleep here for four or five days, you feel like you’ve been out drinking for a whole week. It’s that bad. You get those total mental blank outs. It’s even happened to me on the phone. I couldn’t believe it, but if I’m out and about, or if I go away for a few days, I’m as right as rain again.

Narrator: At first, it wasn’t certain what was causing the health issues. Wind farms have existed here for more than 20 years, so they didn’t seem to be the problem.

Narrator: It took a while for us to realise that our health problems were being caused by wind power. Even we didn’t believe it at first. We’d always had a small wind farm on our doorstep, with 52 units.

Insa Bock: We found them annoying. Sometimes, they were so loud, that we could hear them very clearly. But it’s not as if the noise made us feel ill.

Narrator: Similar to other people living next to wind farms, problems were the result of re-powering. That’s when small wind turbines are replaced with bigger, more efficient models. It’s a development welcomed by the German Environment Agency, as part of energy transition. Officials here are not overly concerned at the infrasound from wind farms. They refer to tests carried out in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg.

Thomas Myck: These tests show that when a wind farm is situated around 700 metres from a residential area, the infrasound from it, is drowned out by background noise. In other words, a perfectly normal noise level arises, from which it is no longer possible to filter out the specific features of infrasound.

Narrator: This is what the situation looks like in chart form. From a distance of 700 metres, the infrasound from wind farms, shown here in red, can no longer be distinguished from the infrasound of the background noise, shown in green. The red graph has no peaks, no upward deflections. Infrasound is also measured in Bavaria, however in order to identify possible explosions from nuclear weapons. Here, the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, the BGR, operates a measuring station, the I26DE, on behalf of the German government.

Narrator: The I26DE is part of an international monitoring network designed to ensure that the terms of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty are observed. The BGR achieves this with ultra sensitive measuring systems. Looking more like shower heads than high tech equipment, the inlets for the infrasound are located close to the ground, where the rushing of the wind is least noticeable. Wind noise would affect the readings. The heart of the system is located a few metres underground. Garden hoses conduct the infrasound signals from the various inlets to a microbaromter. It measures minute pressure differences, the infrasound.

Lars Ceranna: The measuring systems we have, can determine the difference in air pressure between the upper and lower surfaces of a sheet of paper, even down to one 40th of its thickness. That’s how accurate our measuring systems are.

Narrator: Extremely precise and thus also sensitive to infrasound signals generated by technical sources.

Narrator: The lake Mohne hydroelectric power station is located nearby. When a lot of water is released, that’s also a factor. Wind farms are another source we know about.

Narrator: So the infrasound from wind farms could affect the measurements taken by the I26DE Station. Because of this, back in 2004, the BGR examined the infrasound emissions from a single wind turbine. The scientists were mainly interested in assessing how far from the wind turbine, it would still be possible to register infrasound emissions. Their measurements were analysed at the BGR’s National Data Centre. Lars Ceranna comments on the frequency spectrum.

Lars Ceranna: At low frequencies, our infrasound sensors picked up very clear signals from the wind turbine. Every time the blade passes the tower, large air volumes are compressed and sheared. This signal produces an infrasound signature which we refer to as blade pass harmonics.

Narrator: The blade pass harmonics of the wind turbine are individual frequencies. They emerge from the background noise, with a distinctly higher acoustic pressure level. In other words, with more energy. Las Ceranna explains.

Lars Ceranna: If we follow the blue line with the mouse, that is the background noise. The distinctive elements of it here, represent the contribution from the wind energy plant. The blade passing harmonics, when the blade passes the tower, and generates an infrasound signal

Narrator: The wind turbine studied in 2004 was very small, barely 0.2 megawatts. For bigger wind farms, the scientists made a model calculation.

Lars Ceranna: It takes us to a dimension, where we can say that a five megawatt wind turbine, would possibly generate a detectable infrasound signal, even from a distance of 20 kilometres.

Narrator: 20 kilometres. But didn’t they claim that the German Environment Agency, that the infrasound emissions from wind energy plants, are already lost in the background noise, from a distance of 700 metres? So how can this huge difference be explained?

Lars Ceranna: It’s customary in acoustics to focus on bands. In other words, on groups of frequencies and not on the individual frequencies.

Narrator: Just how this affects the data, can be explained with different curves. The blue line represents the unembellished data, and shows clear peaks.

Lars Ceranna: If I focused on bands, I’d have a red curve here, with the peaks quite clearly evened out.

Narrator: Thus a graph flattened to such a degree, provided the German Environment Agency with the argument that infrasound from wind farms, is swallowed up by the background noise. Back to East Frisia. The house where Insa Bock and Hermann Oldewurtel live, is both their home and their workplace. So selling it, is out of the question. After initially promising to carry out measurements, the authorities responsible then declined.

Hermann Oldewurtel: We were informed that it would not be possible to carry out the tests at the time, because the wind direction and wind strength were not right.

Narrator: Left in the lurch by the authorities, the couple commissioned the measurements themselves. They were carried out by expert Sven Johannsen. Amongst other things, he used a vibration sensor, because wind power plants also generate structure-borne sound. In other words, vibrations. Johannsen compared the structure-borne sound pattern of the wind farm with that of the house.

Sven Johannsen: It’s like comparing fingerprints. You can prove which source something was triggered off by. In this case, we suspected the wind turbine.

Narrator: Microphones measure the interior and outside areas. A microbarometer records minute air pressure fluctuations. All the appliances are synchronised to register infrasound and structure-borne sound simultaneously.

Sven Johannsen: When powerful vibrations occur, as a rule, even minimal acoustic pressure in the air-borne noise range is sufficient to cause discomfort. If there were no vibrations, the acoustic pressure could be a bit higher before it’d have this effect. So here, we have interaction between structure-borne sound and normal air-borne noise. That’s why it’s important to look at both at the same time.

Narrator: Vibrations, then, increase sensitivity to infrasound, an additional burden for residents.

Insa Bock: When I was lying in bed, I actually noticed the vibrations on the mattress. I had this strange feeling that something was wrong. Then in the half-light, I clearly saw the mattress move several centimetres.

Insa Bock: When the buzzing starts, it’s like you are in a beehive. You just need to put your hand on the wall of the house, and feel the vibrations.

Insa Bock: When it’s really windy, the dog also feels the vibrations. It becomes restless, then it’s favourite sleeping spot is in the wardrobe. Even if the door is closed, the dog will open it and climb in. That way, I think, it is no longer lying directly on the vibrations.

Narrator: Sven Johannsen also experienced the occurrence of vibrations.

Sven Johannsen: The measurements showed a clear load in the form of powerful vibrations. We even noticed this ourselves when we were standing next to the house. To a certain extent, our technical measuring equipment also detected these vibrations inside the house.

Narrator: Along with the vibrations, Johannsen also registered a distinct infrasound load.

Sven Johannsen: Extremely high infrasound levels were also detectable inside the house. To some extent, the acoustic pressure levels were even higher than in the outdoor area.

Narrator: A survey by the authorities would have produced a different result, because it would have been performed according to DIN 45680 (German Standard). So the infrasound range would have been largely ignored, and individual frequencies combined, thus smoothing off any peaks. The basic problem with this DIN, is it’s simple assumption that anything below 20 hertz, is imperceptible to the human ear. But there are justified doubts as to whether this is true.

Narrator: Professor Alec Salt works at the Washington School of Medicine, in St Louis, in the United States. He is an internationally recognised expert on the physiology of the inner ear, and for some time now, on the fact that the ear reacts to infrasound. It’s an observation Salt and his team made more by chance in carrying out research into a disease of the inner ear. The doctors used infrasound to test how the diseased ear reacts to external stimuli.

Alec Salt: We discovered that if you went down to very, very low frequencies, your results got better. So instead of having a sound you can hear like 30, 40 hertz, we went down and down and down. And we discovered even 5 hertz was getting lovely results.

Narrator: The researchers wanted to get to the bottom of this surprising discovery. Why did the ear react to the signal even though it was inaudible? The answer lies in the complex anatomy of our ear, which amongst other things, is equipped with two different types of sensory ear cells.

Alec Salt: When a human is exposed to infrasound, that sound is going to go into their ear. It’s going to stimulate their outer ear cells. It’s not going to stimulate their inner ear cells, which are the ones they’re hearing through. So they’re not ... They don’t hear the sound at all, but there’s still electrical responses in the ear, to the sound. And that is still stimulating another pathway.

Narrator: Based on his own observations and on an intensive study of specialised literature, Salt’s findings are regarded by colleagues as undisputed, but that is not the case outside the world of science.

Alec Salt: Lawyers who have gone beyond the advisors to the wind turbine people, are extremely against this paper. They have given us a hard time for many years. I mean, we get trashed in law suits of how this is not possible and all this sort of thing. But somehow the sciences disagree with this. I think if you want to biassed, it’s all to do with bias and money, I’m afraid.

Narrator: For Professor Salt, the scientific questions concerning infrasound and human perception, have by no means, been fully answered. That’s why considers it important for more research to be carried out in this field. And that is precisely what is happening at Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf. Does infrasound affect the sleep and the mental capacity of human beings? An experiment, it is hoped, will provide answers. Clinical psychologist, Dr Leonie Ascone is installing loudspeakers in the rooms where test persons will be sleeping.

Narrator: The volunteers in the infrasound test group will be exposed to low frequency sound for four weeks. The exposure will take place at night, with 90 decibels of relatively high intensity. Before and after each test phase, the volunteers will be subjected to complex examinations, like a hearing test and their action times recorded.

Narrator: The aim is to show what effect four weeks of exposure to infrasound has on the test persons.

Narrator: This study is the continuation of an earlier experiments. Scientists, Professor Simone Kühn and her colleagues had exposed test persons to brief infrasound signals below the auditory threshold. In other words, sound they couldn’t hear. The researchers then took a look at what happened in the brain.

Simone Kühn: What was interesting to note was that conditions with infrasound exposure, close to the auditory threshold are somehow special. Intense activity took place in the anterior cingulum, a region of the brain which deals primarily with conflict situations, and also in the right amygdala, the region which is linked to stress management.

Narrator: So of all things, infrasound activates regions of the brain which normally manage stress. But it’s not quite clear why.

Simone Kühn: We’ve also speculated that if you consciously hear something and realise there is something, you might block it out and say, “I’m going to ignore that.” But with things that are semi-perceptible, you don’t have the ability to say, “I’m going to ignore it.” That’s our theory.

Narrator: So what we consciously hear can be assessed and if necessary, ignored. But things that are only perceived subliminally, in other words, subconsciously, generate stress and perhaps even fear. Someone who knows all about this, is John B Alexander, a former US Army Colonel. He fought in Vietnam, became a member of the US Special Forces, and later, he headed a department which focused on the development of unorthodox weapons.

Narrator: After the 1980’s at the latest, they included infrasound.

John B. Alexander: The first question was, are the effects that we’re reading about real? And what you found is, yes. There were some people who were physiologically affected. They were nauseous. They would get dizzy. There were some who had psychological issues, fear factors, inability to think, kinds of things.

Narrator: Effects that the US Military thought that could be used well against an enemy. Prototype infrasound weapons of monstrous dimensions were then developed, along with infrasound test chambers for animal experiments using rhesus monkeys. Other powers also expected great things from infrasound as a weapon.

John B. Alexander: Remember, when we started, we’re talking 1980’s, we’re talking the bad old days. So we’re talking the Soviet Union still exists. Getting data out of Soviet resources was extremely difficult. But there were reports, like controlled defensive behaviour the DIA had, that suggested that they were looking in that area. My experience with the Chinese had been the same. They looked across a wide, wide range of technologies.

Narrator: In the mid 2000’s, at the latest, the idea of putting infrasound to military use, was abandoned. The problem was the technology and the fact that infrasound does not affect everyone in the same way. For military commanders, that is unacceptable.

John B. Alexander: We found that some people are affected dramatically. Some people are affected a little bit, and others not at all. From a weapons perspective, I shoot a bullet, I know what it’s going to do to your body. As a commander, if you’re going to have a weapon, you want something that when I pull the trigger, I know exactly what the effects are going to be, or can have a pretty close approximation.

Narrator: The military has lost interest in infrasound, but medicine hasn’t. Inaudible sound is attracting more and more research. Professor Christian-Freidrich Vahl is Director of Cardiac, Thoracic and Vascular Surgery at Mainz University Medical Centre. Over the last two years, he and his team have devoted their research to the subject of infrasound. The focus is on the acute effects. The researchers are studying human heart muscle fibres. For this experiment, two fibres from the same patient are isolated. Only a few millimetres in size, the specimens are still alive.

Narrator: They are secured into identical pieces of equipment. One will serve as a control, the other will be exposed to infrasound in the form of a 16 hertz frequency for one hour. The aim is to measure how the strength of the heart muscle fibre changes under the influence of infrasound. This is already the third series of tests, carried out by the work group. Two earlier series have already been concluded.

Christian-Friedrich Vahl: We can definitely say that under these acute conditions, infrasound really does have a distinct effect on heart muscle tissue. Both series of tests have revealed a clear reduction in heart muscle strength.

Narrator: Here in the laboratory too, the low frequency sound cannot be heard, at least not consciously. It becomes visible when Dr Ryan Shabban holds a sheet of paper in front of the loudspeaker. It is not yet clear just how infrasound manages to reduce the strength of the heart muscle, but one theory has already been put forward.

Christian-Friedrich Vahl: Think of a rowing boat with rowers in it. They are the cross-bridges of the muscle. If this rowing boat is now exposed to an infrasound signal and suddenly starts to shake, if it were an eight maybe, four of the crew would continue rowing. But the four others would get out of step, and in a jiffy, the boat would lose speed.

Narrator: What causes the rowing boat, or to be more accurate, the heart muscle, to get out of step, is the energy of the infrasound.

Christian-Friedrich Vahl: Whether we hear it or not, every form of energy has physical effects, and infrasound is particularly dangerous, because we don’t hear it.

Narrator: It is the duty of the federal government to protect its citizens from harmful environmental influences. The Federal Emissions Control Act stipulates how this has to happen, and to what extent. First and foremost, the Act refers to significant influences.

Thomas Myck: The Act does not claim to cover every type of negative influence. So there can most certainly be cases where for instance, someone feels affected by a source of noise in a way or to a degree, that the Act does not cover. When a law is made, the legislature always leaves a small area which the law does not cover. And this is something citizens simply have to accept.

Narrator: Simply to accept, is no option for Insa Bock and Hermann Oldewurtel. They feel left in the lurch by politicians, betrayed, in fact.

Insa Bock: They show absolutely no consideration for nearby residents. They just make sure that wind park operators are fine, that their wind farms are approved, and they can build them and make profit, with taxpayers money, of course. Because we also contribute to all this subsidised electricity.

Narrator: The two seek respite on a camping site far enough away from their house and the wind farm. This is where they spend their evenings, but especially the nights, in order to get some sleep.

Christian-Friedrich Vahl: When I reflect on everything we have read so far, I believe that if we are not careful, we could turn into a land of insomnia, full of tired citizens who are exposed to signals they cannot hear, thus cannot protect themselves against.

Narrator: Insomnia, heart problems, perception disorders, dizziness. These are just a few of the disease symptoms that can be caused by infrasound. Doctors believe that between 10 and 30% of people react to it. And that means, several million in Germany alone. Nevertheless, the mass experiment with wind power continues unabated.

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