Over two-thirds of study participants report chronic sleep deprivation and breathing disorders
By Billie Jo Jannen
A special report for East County Magazine
March 5, 2013 (San Diego’s East County)--A university research team that specializes in studying health and social challenges of minority populations is now focusing on quantification of reported illness among Manzanita tribal members who live along the row of wind turbines erected five years ago by the neighboring Campo tribe.
Lead researcher Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, Ph.D., of the National Latino Research Center said the numbers, so far “…show some trends that I think deserve more attention.” Preliminary numbers in the small population being studied show that 68 percent of the households are suffering from chronic sleep disorders – an oft-mentioned complaint of people who live near turbines – and the same percentage reported respiratory problems.
By comparison, respiratory illness in Imperial Valley – well known for its poor air quality, due to agricultural burning, spraying and dust -- showed up in 30 percent of households, Nuñez-Alvarez said.
The NRLC team just completed a January 2012 report on the effects of water pollution on Imperial Valley residents, entitled “Water Quality & Environmental Health Community Study.” Its project page includes air- and water-related studies in both urban and rural communities in San Diego and Imperial counties and is a contributor to various local projects, such as the 2008 asthma report card by the San Diego Regional Asthma Coalition.
The team started work on the project last year at the invitation of the Manzanita tribe after tribal members began to notice a host of illnesses including asthma, cancer, heart problems, inability to sleep and concentrate, and an increase in behavior problems among children. These match reports of turbine neighbors from around the world in a set of problems that have come to be informally dubbed “turbine syndrome.”
Worried about the unusual severity of health problems, Manzanita Chairman Leroy Elliott wrote a letter to the county last year, asking that approval of the Tule Wind turbine array be delayed until the study is completed: “We are experiencing an inordinate level of health challenges,” he wrote. “Any prior approval of the Tule Wind project will be placing our residents in an unreasonable and increased foreseeable health risk.”
Despite requests from the tribe and others, the BOS approved the county’s portion of the Tule Wind project, which will place up to 123 turbines on over 15,000 acres of public and private land in McCain Valley.
Wind turbine proponents, including SDG&E and San Diego County Department of Health, shrug off health complaints from turbine neighbors -- despite noticeable consistency in the health complaints coming from people in other countries that have built them -- saying there is no proof that the health problems of turbine neighbors came from the turbines.
Wind turbine proponents offer no alternative explanation for those complaints.
The research team, which operates under CSU San Marcos, is currently conducting additional interviews with families who live along the border of the Manzanita and Campo reservations, where the turbines are located, Nuñez-Alvarez said. The next step is to test air, water and soil to identify any factors other than the turbines that could cause or contribute to the kinds of illnesses being reported.
A growing body of complaints worldwide points to two possible sources for turbine syndrome: infasound – subsonic sound waves, which have been studied in both the U.S. and Russia as potential weapons of mass destruction – and stray voltage – electromagnetic emissions associated with high voltage installations like power lines and electricity generation plants.
According to Dave Stetzer -- co-creator of an electrical filter billed as a way to reduce stray voltage in homes and businesses -- the U.S. government has been aware of the dangers of electromagnetic emissions since the development of radar and its burgeoning use by the military. User manuals even warned radar operators that if they began to feel symptoms of “radiowave sickness,” they should inspect their equipment for malfunctioning parts.
The symptoms of radiowave sickness range from inability to concentrate and stomach pains, up to heart arrhythmia, chest pain and difficulty breathing.
The military also continues to conduct research on infasound, both as a tactical weapon and as a weapon to be defended against. Subjective symptoms of infrasound include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, headache, lack of ability to concentrate, and loss of equilibrium
In November 2013, a tribal member, who asked not to be named, attended a Boulevard Planning Group meeting to alert the community to those problems. She said a series of cancers – four stomach cancers and one brain cancer – have cropped up in people who live in a direct line along the Kumeyaay Wind array. Many people in the neighborhood are unable to work due to lethargy and “brain fog,” she said. She, herself, suffers from stomach pain, sleep deprivation and a constant headache that can be relieved only by leaving her home for a protracted period.
Study participant Ginger Thompson, a tribal member and employee of Southern Indian Health, said she was treated for a rare kidney cancer and suffers from chronic sleep problems. Her granddaughter, who lives with her, has developed chronic, deep stomach pain that doctors can find no specific cause for. “A lot of the people here have some sort of stomach problem,” Thompson said.
Thompson, herself, is unable to sleep the night through since the turbines started operating, and wakes up three to four times a night. Her symptoms, and those of her granddaughter, disappear completely when they take their annual two-week trip to visit out-of-state relatives.
Thompson said she lives within a quarter of a mile from the Campo’s Kumeyaay Wind project, erected in 2005, and has no family history of cancer and no indication that she would be susceptible to it. “It was a fluke that they even found it,” she said.
Thompson said that high levels of stray voltage were measured at her home when Dr. Sam Milham -- a career epidemiologist who has focused on studying the effects of high voltage on human health -- measured emissions on and around the Manzanita reservation last year. At that time, Milham reported that the tribe is being subjected to transient voltages a thousand times higher than normal in air and soil.
“We really need answers,” Thompson said. “We were told these turbines would be safe … I don’t think we’re being told everything.”
So far, those answers have not been forthcoming, and multiple large projects, including Shu’luuk Wind, the Campo Band’s proposed several hundred-acre wind energy expansion, are moving forward apace. The draft EIS for Shu’luuk was issued in January and the comment period closed at the end of February. The final draft is due to be released later this year.
Alvarez said that it is unlikely that the Manzanita health study will be considered conclusive proof that turbines menace public health, but it does add to a growing body of evidence that should warrant concern. She said the research center is seeking money to conduct follow-up studies on a larger population than the 16 households currently participating in the Manzanita study.
“So far, we haven’t had a lot of luck,” Alvarez said, attributing the lack of interest by funders to a general refusal to see anything wrong with the turbines. That trend, she opined, is the result of a general enthusiasm for technologies perceived to be “green.”
Indeed, large swathes of environmental law and conservation planning have been waved away by federal land management officials to allow thousands of acres of energy development, including Tule Wind and Sunrise Powerlink. The County is assessing an industrial overlay on Boulevard and Jacumba that would negate most of the local land use regulations adopted as the result of the County’s long, expensive and hard-fought general plan update.
The overlay would greatly simplify the permitting process for energy projects, which also receive a hefty tax benefit from the federal government and a pass on some state and federal environmental requirements.
“We’re forgetting to do our due diligence,” Alvarez said of environmental project review on turbine arrays. “They’re skipping a lot of steps. We’re essentially sacrificing entire communities for these massive projects.”
While the size of the current study is small, she added, “It still points to a problem that can’t be reversed.”