A review of existing scientific literature by a state-appointed panel has found no evidence that noise and shadow flicker from wind turbines directly harm people living near the machines.
Opponents of wind energy projects on Cape Cod and elsewhere in Massachusetts immediately blasted the panel’s 164-page report, released Tuesday, saying the agencies that organized the review failed the residents of the state.
The group Windwise Massachusetts, which has fought wind energy projects across the state, called for an epidemiological study of the health effects of wind turbines rather than a review of the literature as was done by the state panel.
“It’s inconclusive to me,” said Mark Cool, of Falmouth, one of dozens of outspoken residents who live near two turbines at that town’s wastewater treatment facility.
The panel’s findings indicate a lack of evidence, but that doesn’t prove that there is no connection between the operation of wind turbines and health problems, Cool said.
“There’s evidence that our health is being affected, but what we need to do is find out what causes that,” he said.
Proponents of wind energy, meanwhile, praised the panel’s findings.
“This advances the ball and it helps provide some form of a road map for local officials navigating the body of information out there,” said Sue Reid, vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation Massachusetts. While there is room for more analysis, the report rules out some of the basic claims made by wind energy opponents, such as detrimental effects on human health attributed to low-frequency infrasound produced by turbines, Reid said.
No scientific evidence
The seven-member panel was convened in June 2011 by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Department of Public Health in response to concerns raised by opponents of locating large turbines near residential neighborhoods, including on Cape Cod, where wind energy projects in various towns have sparked contentious debates about the technology.
The epicenter for the debate is in Falmouth, where the first turbine erected at the wastewater treatment facility is blamed by residents for a variety of health issues, including anxiety, high blood pressure and nausea.
During a teleconference Tuesday to announce the report’s findings, panel member Sheryl Grace, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Boston University, said it was interesting that the turbine in Falmouth was stall regulated – a technology that has been known to have issues with noise – versus pitch regulated, a design where the turbine blades are constantly adjusted to capture the wind’s energy.
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell deflected the idea that the pro-wind energy policy of Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration influenced the content of the report.
“The findings and recommendations that are in this report are those of the panel members only,” he said. “We are not concerned that there will be a claim that the panel had a bias.”
The panel included health professionals and academics from Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston University, the University of Massachusetts and the Harvard School of Public Health.
In the report they found that, while it is possible that noise from some turbines could cause annoyance and sleep disruption, there is not enough evidence to say the noise directly causes health problems or disease.
The passage of wind turbine blades in front of the sun, known as flicker, does not pose a risk for eliciting seizures, according to the report.
At least one area where the report finds a potential danger is if ice is flung into the air after accumulating on a turbine’s blades.
“There is sufficient evidence that falling ice is physically harmful and measures should be taken to ensure that the public is not likely to encounter such ice,” according to the report.
‘Syndrome’ not found
In addition, the report’s authors called into question a contention by opponents of wind energy projects that there is a group of symptoms associated with living near turbines.
“There is no evidence for a set of health effects from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome,'” according to the report.
The phrase “wind turbine syndrome” was coined by Nina Pierpont, a New York pediatrician who wrote a book on the subject that opponents of wind energy often cite in their arguments.
Reached Tuesday, Pierpont said the Massachusetts panel cherry-picked in deciding what literature to review and should have spoken to people in Falmouth to find out what they were experiencing.
The state should sponsor a epidemiological study, she said.
“For them to choose only to review journal literature is an easy out but it’s irresponsible,” she said.
During Tuesday’s teleconference the report’s authors defended their work.
The report points to some areas where more study is required, said Mark Weisskopf, assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health and Epidemiology.
“As scientists we always want to study things more,” Weisskopf said, adding, however, that most of the report’s conclusions are “firm.”
The panel accepted public comment on its work until July 22 and received 25 peer-reviewed articles, 20 government reports, 35 white papers prepared by nonprofit or business organizations as well as hundreds of emails, news reports and blog postings, according to the DEP’s website.
Patrick has made wind energy a primary piece of his administration’s energy policy, including a goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind energy in the state by 2020.
At the end of 2011 the administration suffered a major setback when several powerful lawmakers who had previously backed legislation to streamline permitting for large wind turbines withdrew their support.
A public comment period on the report will run through March 19, according to the DEP. Comments may be sent to MassDEP Wind Turbine Docket, 1 Winter St., Fourth Floor, Boston 02108 or to WindTurbineDocket.MassDEP@MassMail.State.MA.US.
There will also be three public meetings to accept comment on the report, including one from 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 16 at Bourne High School.
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