Report: Wind turbines don’t cause health problems

Source: David Abel • Boston Globe • Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2012

 There is little to no evidence that wind turbines pose a risk to the health of residents living near them, a panel of independent scientists and doctors found in a report commissioned by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The panel concluded that there is no rigorous research showing that churning turbines or the resulting flickering light and vibrations produce dizziness, nausea, depression, or anxiety – a set of symptoms that critics call “wind turbine syndrome.’’

But the 164-page report released yesterday found “limited evidence’’ that the noise from wind turbines can result in sleep disruption and annoyance.

“It is extremely important that we have the best science available to us as we make decisions on wind energy,’’ Kenneth Kimmell, state environmental protection commissioner, said in an interview.

But critics argued that the report failed to address complaints by those living close to turbines.

State officials said they formed the panel last spring to address questions about the potential health risks of wind power. The Patrick administration wants turbines to produce 2,000 megawatts of wind power – three-quarters of it from offshore sources – by 2020, up from nearly 45 megawatts available today.

The panel did not do original research, nor did it investigate reports of health problems among residents living near any particular turbine installation. Instead it reviewed existing studies.

It said the available scientific literature on the health effects of wind power remain limited, and that the studies that have been done had shortcomings, including that people self-reported their symptoms and that researchers were unable to control adequately for other possible factors that could have affected the health of people living near turbines.

“The study that accounted most extensively for other factors that could affect reported symptoms had a very low response rate,’’ the report said.

As the state and federal governments promote wind power, opponents have raised questions about the health impact of placing large turbines in residential areas.

Dr. Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician in Malone, N.Y., and author of a book called “Wind Turbine Syndrome,’’ said she has interviewed families throughout the United States, Canada, and elsewhere that have complained about the adverse impact of living less than a mile from a large turbine.

Pierpont, who became interested in the effects of turbines after a wind farm was planned near her home, said her research found evidence that certain people are more likely to be affected by the whirring of turbines than others. She noted that in the same families, some members exhibited symptoms ranging from vertigo to an excruciating buzzing in their ears while others were fine.

She said she found that those who were 50 years or older and had migraine disorders, motion sensitivity, and inner-ear damage were more likely to experience “wind turbine syndrome.’’

“This is serious stuff; it’s not annoyance,’’ she said, arguing that wind farms should be built far from residential areas. “There are real symptoms that are so debilitating to people that some have abandoned their homes, regular working people who cannot afford to do that.’’

Among those Pierpont interviewed was John Ford, 64, a retired salesman who said he lives about a half-mile from three wind turbines in Falmouth.

In a telephone interview, Ford said he has had trouble sleeping ever since the turbines became active in 2010. He said he has installed special windows to try to dampen the “low-frequency thumping sound,’’ but is still awakened nearly every night. He said he has also experienced earaches, headaches, anxiety, and high blood pressure, which he attributes to the proximity of the turbines.

“I used to sleep like a baby, and now it’s terrible,’’ he said. “I wish I could afford to move, but who would want to live under these conditions?’’

In the report, the authors said limited evidence showed that a “very loud wind turbine could cause disrupted sleep, particularly in vulnerable populations, at a certain distance, while a very quiet wind turbine would not likely disrupt even the lightest of sleepers at that same distance.’’

They added: “But there is not enough evidence to provide particular sound-pressure thresholds at which wind turbines cause sleep disruption.’’

The scientists found no evidence that “shadow flicker’’ – the shadows cast as a turbine operates in sunlight – poses a risk for eliciting seizures.

Proponents of wind energy said the report should make it easier for wind projects to get the go-ahead in Massachusetts.

“The report shows that some of the most common arguments about wind turbine health impacts are not supported by the science, and it should serve as a helpful tool to inform sitting decisions by public officials,’’ Sue Reid, director of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement. “The report should be considered together with the overwhelming evidence of the known health benefits of wind energy, including benefits associated with avoided greenhouse gases and other harmful pollution that is commonly caused by traditional power plants.’’

Opponents of some high-profile wind projects said the report shows the need for more studies on the health effects of turbines.

The state plans to host three meetings for the public to comment on the report next month in Boston, Bourne, and Lee. The Environmental Protection Agency will accept public comments until March 19.