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Wind Energy and Public Health: Research, Discussion, and the Future

Wind Energy and Public Health: Research, Discussion, and the Future

Date: 1/14/2013

Location: MA

As wind energy has become more prevalent throughout New England, one of the issues attracting the most attention as new projects are built in the region is wind turbines' impact on public health. The intersection of valuable wind resources and large population centers has resulted in the siting of some turbines in closer proximity to residences, spurring the study of whether such projects trigger health effects for nearby residents.

The rapid growth in community wind projects in Massachusetts has brought many of the issues around health impacts to the forefront. As a result, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) convened a panel of independent experts to review the existing literature and identify any known or potential health risks associated with exposure to wind turbines. The panel consisted of eight members from three major fields:

Medicine: Jeffrey M. Ellenbogen, MD, MMSc; Dora Anne Mills, MD, MPH, FAAP

Engineering: Sheryl Grace, PhD, MS Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering; James F. Manwell, PhD Mechanical Engineering

Public/Environmental Health: Wendy J. Heiger-Bernays, PhD; Kimberly A. Sullivan, PhD; Marc G. Weisskopf, ScD Epidemiology, PhD Neuroscience; Susan L. Santos, PhD.

The MassDEP and MDPH announced the formation of the independent expert panel along with its five goals:

  • Identify and characterize attributes of concern and identify any scientifically documented or potential connection between health impacts associated with wind turbines
  • Evaluate and discuss information from peer-reviewed scientific studies, other reports, popular media, and public comments received by the MassDEP and/or the MDPH on health complaints commonly reported by individuals who reside near wind farms
  • Assess the magnitude and frequency of any potential impacts and risks to human health associated with the design and operation of wind energy turbines based on existing data
  • For the attributes of concern, identify documented best practices that could reduce potential human health impacts
  • Issue a report within 3 months of the evaluation, summarizing the findings.

The independent expert panel published its report on January 17, 2012. Although the report left significant room for future discussion and research, it did reach some important conclusions. In terms of health impacts, the panel concluded that:

  • There is no evidence for a set of health effects from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a "Wind Turbine Syndrome."
  • Claims that infrasound (sometimes referred to as low-frequency sound below the normal limit of human hearing) from wind turbines directly impacts the vestibular system (the sensory system that provides a sense of balance) have not been demonstrated scientifically. Available evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the vestibular system.
  • The weight of the evidence suggests no association between sound from wind turbines and measures of psychological distress or mental health problems.
  • None of the limited epidemiological evidence reviewed suggests an association between sound from wind turbines and pain and stiffness, diabetes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease, and headache/migraine.

The panel examined evidence of associations between health impacts and exposure to wind turbines based on reviews of data and studies that supported or refuted an association. The panel presented its finding in terms of whether evidence did not exist, was weak, limited, or suggestive of whether such associations exist.

The study did identify two potential impacts, concluding that limited scientific evidence exists that suggests: 1) an association between turbine sound and sleep disruption, which may lead to adverse health impacts; and 2) prolonged exposure to shadow flicker (more than 30 minutes per day) can trigger annoyance, leading to potential transitory cognitive and physical health effects.

The process of developing the study included public participation in the form of submitting reference materials for the panel's consideration, comments on the report, and a series of public meetings. However, some critics of the report expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of stakeholder input in the development of the scope of work, selection of panel members, and the closed panel deliberations.

The MassDEP and MDPH are in the process of reviewing comments submitted by the public, as well as the suggestions for best practices offered by the panel. The agencies will then identify areas that will receive follow-up action and create a work plan for additional tasks. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the MassDEP have initiated a process of identifying a consultant to perform a research study on wind turbine acoustics.

Two municipal turbines in Falmouth, Massachusetts, have been at the center of the heath impacts discussion. Nearby residents have long claimed that the turbines are negatively impacting their health. The MassDEP released a study on May 15, 2012, finding the town's Wind I turbine in violation of state noise standards. MassDEP recommended that the turbine be restricted from operating at night, but the town chose to shut it down before recently resuming partial operations. In addition, the Falmouth Board of Health held a hearing in the spring to listen to testimony on the turbine's health impacts, which was then presented to the State Board of Health. As discussed elsewhere in this newsletter, an advisory panel that includes selectmen, abutters, and other stakeholders has been convened to discuss turbine operations, with the goal of reaching a consensus around the range of long-term options for the future of the turbines. Some of the options under consideration include mechanical or operational changes, as well as relocation and removal.

Massachusetts is not the only state that is actively debating health impacts or related turbine siting standards. In Maine, a citizen-initiated rulemaking proceeding conducted through the Board of Environmental Protection resulted in new, more restrictive night-time noise limits for future projects. The Connecticut Siting Council finalized its wind siting regulations and forwarded them to the legislature for approval in October 2012. In addition, Rhode Island developed a Summary Report and Siting Guidelines through the Renewable Energy Siting Partnership in response to the requirements of the Comprehensive Energy Conservation Efficiency and Affordability Act of 2006 (RIGL 42-11-10-f.7). The report and guidelines provide guidance regarding best practices for wind siting and public health. They were released for public comment in July 2012, and a final version of the products is expected in the late fall. Each of these efforts is detailed in the "State Regulatory and Legislative Updates" article.

Concerns over health impacts are cited in virtually every siting process or appeal in the region and remain a major hurdle for determining the appropriate siting of wind projects. Further epidemiological study, clear and comprehensive siting guidelines, and public education efforts will be critical to determining any consensus around what constitutes appropriately sited wind power in the region.

This information was last updated on January 14, 2013