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Study finds physical, mental health effects from wind turbines

FAIRHAVEN – A recently released study of industrial wind turbines in Northern Maine has found they can cause sleep disturbances that result in physical and mental health issues in humans living as far as 4,500 feet away.

The study, published in the September-October issue of Noise and Health, is the first of its kind to be scientifically vetted and approved through the peer-review process.

“Industrial wind turbine noise is a further source of environmental noise, with the potential to harm human health,” concludes the study, which was written and conducted by three doctors from Maine, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The study conducted surveys of 38 people (50 percent of residents) living within 5,000 feet of 1.5-megawatt industrial wind turbines in Mars Hill and Vinalhaven, Maine.

Mars Hill is located near a 28-turbine wind farm on a mountain ridge, while Vinalhaven is home to a cluster of three turbines sited on a tree-covered island.

In conducting their surveys, the researchers used measurement scales, which are widely used in similar studies of public health patterns.

The study found that those living within 4,500 feet of the turbines had worse sleep and worse mental health than residents living farther away. Nine participants had been diagnosed with either depression or anxiety since the start of turbine operations, and nine others had been prescribed new psychotropic medications since the start of turbine operations.

“It didn’t matter how many turbines they were near, or how people felt about the turbines before they went out, they still exhibited these symptoms,” said chief researcher Dr. Michael Nissenbaum of the Northern Maine Medical Center. Nissenbaum said the study’s most convincing evidence was the “dose-response relationship” between how sound decreases over distance and the severity of symptoms felt.

“If you graph how sound decreases, it’s not a straight line, it’s a curve. If you plot the severity of symptoms based on people’s distance from these turbines, it follows the same curve,” he said. “The correlation is incredible.”

Nissenbaum also said he believes the effects felt from turbines are underestimated by the general public and noise ordinances, which “fail to take into account the complex nature of turbine noise.”

“It’s more disturbing than other sounds,” he said. “The resulting health effects are largely due to its pulsing nature.”

Sumul Shah, developer of Fairhaven’s two 1.5-megawatt wind turbines, declined to comment on the specifics of the study, as he had not read it, but said “This would be the first peer-reviewed one that has a direct link between turbines and health effects.”

Brian Bowcock, chairman of the Fairhaven Board of Selectmen, also had not heard of the study but said that “4,500 feet is quite a long way away.”

“The common-sense factor would tell you that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” he said.

Before going through the peer review process, the study was reviewed by other acousticians, including Robert Rand, author of the McPherson Study. That study concluded that infrasound (waves inaudible to humans) produced by Falmouth’s wind turbines caused significant health problems, known as “wind turbine syndrome,” that included disorientation, high blood pressure and migraines.

Nissenbaum sought to address controversies connected to Rand’s study on infrasound; he said Rand only read his study after it was completed, adding “I don’t believe in a wind turbine syndrome.”

“Infrasound might be a component of what’s going on here but it is by far not the whole of it and not even the most important part of it,” he said. “This is about sleep and mental health, and it’s real.”