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Wind chill: Winds of fear over turbine plan

A small but vocal group of backyard activists, fearful of nausea, vertigo, headaches and other potential health effects of wind turbines’ low-pitched whines, has won an agreement from the state to review the scientific record on the industrial-strength green energy machines’ impact on humans.

But the state stopped short of agreeing to demands from Wind Wise~Massachusetts— a group including people who live near existing or proposed windmills – to put a six-month moratorium on the high-tech windmills until more is known.

“There is so much evidence from around the world now on the adverse health effects of living near wind turbines that we believe the state should act responsibly to protect its citizens,” said Eleanor Tillinghast, a Wind Wise board member who noted several small studies suggest the humming, vibrating turbines can throw off people’s balance and disrupt their overall well-being.

Turbine-induced health concerns are not just another Not In My Backyard straw argument, said one top Boston ear doc. Dr. Steven Rauch, a Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary otologist, said yesterday the state should take the issue seriously.

“We know that in the animal kingdom, low frequency sound can cause harm, so it is not unreasonable to consider that same consequence in humans,” Rauch said. “You have to give them the benefit of doubt, and not dismiss them as cranks.”

Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Joe Ferson countered, “There are tens of thousands of turbines across the country, including 40 in Massachusetts, and to date, there is no peer-reviewed science that appropriately cites that turbines cause health problems.”

The Wind Wise push comes as Bay State officials mull legislation that could allow as many as 1,000 new wind turbines statewide over the next 10 years. The windmills are already common sights – one of the most visible is in Dorchester on the Southeast Expressway, but has not been specifically targeted by the campaign, which is largely focused on residential and seashore areas.

The group submitted its petition, signed by about 400 people in 106 communities, demanding a six-month moratorium on windmill permits last week. Monday, the state quietly announced a panel of state officials will review data on turbines’ health effects. Wind Wise wants independent scientists added.

New York pediatrician Dr. Nina Pierpont first coined the term “wind-turbine syndrome” in 2006, describing an ailment she suggested was caused by the constant, low-frequency vibrations windmills emit. Over time, Pierpont and others argue, the nonstop pulsation can disrupt the delicate part of the inner ear that provides balance, triggering a constant “seasick” feeling. Neighbors add the whooshing disrupts sleep and light flickering off the blades makes it hard to relax.

But the American Wind Energy Association’s acoustic researchers found “no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.”

Daniel Mendelsohn of Applied Science Associates hired by the Trustees of the Reservation to support a turbine on Cohasset’s Turkey Hill, said, “I can understand when people who live too close to the turbines say they are annoying, but this group is going too far.” But he added, “With good siting rules, we can all benefit.”