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Another week, another wind farm noise and health report

Human impacts, News, Science, Wind turbines Add comments

Driven by the rising public clamor about health effects reported by people living near wind farms, officials across the nation and around the world have been called on to assess the veracity of these claims.  This week’s contribution to the rapidly expanding genre of “wind farms and health” literature comes from the Massachusetts Departments of Health and of Environmental Protection.  In contrast to last week’s more comprehensive report from Oregon, the Massachusetts report follows in the pattern of the first two similar literature reviews (one funded by the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations, and another from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment), in that it focuses solely on direct impacts and previously published research papers.  It also addresses a few of the more recent studies, including those by Pierpont, Nissenbaum, and Rand and Ambrose, generally offering them some affirmations for providing new information worth building on, but finding their results not yet solid enough to base siting policy on.

Except for the sections on these recent papers, there is no place in this report for consideration of actual experiences of people living near wind turbines, despite the presence of a neighborhood full of folks in Falmouth who were no doubt ready and willing to share their stories.  From what I’ve heard from these folks, they would offer cogent, detailed, and level-headed testimony about their experiences.

While I can understand why an expert panel might choose to focus only on published material (to avoid the quagmire of trying to assess the veracity of individuals’ reports), and I give the Massachusetts panel due credit for not artificially limiting itself to papers published in peer-reviewed journals, they dropped a crucial ball in neglecting to even mention the word “indirect” in the course of their 164 page report on health effects, let alone provide any sort of acknowledgement or analysis of the ways that annoyance, anxiety, sleep disruption, and stress could be intermediary pathways that help us to understand some of the reports coming from Massachusetts residents who say their health has been affected by nearby turbines.

While the report’s conclusions

that sound levels near turbines are unlikely to directly affect neighbors’ physiology or trigger widespread health degradation is indeed largely supported by the literature, the report also affirms that there is evidence that annoyance and sleep disruption can occur in response to noise levels common around wind farms.  If the authors of the report took the logical and necessary next step, they would examine how these predictable impacts on neighbors may contribute to the health issues being reported.  By implying that those struggling with headaches, concentration issues, or sleep disruption are either making it up or psychosomatic, it only creates more hostility and animus, which will in turn foster increased anxiety and concern about future projects, continuing and perhaps deepening a cycle that may in fact be a key factor in spurring the indirect stress-related pathways that can create effects such as those being reported.

It’s worth stressing that even most of the more cautionary researchers are finding that while wind turbine noise can trigger annoyance and a reported decrease in quality of life for many residents, overall ratings of physical health generally do not differ between those near turbines and farther away.  Robert Thorne (Australia), Carl Phillips (IL), and Daniel Shepherd (NZ) have all estimated that somewhere between 5-15% of neighbors may be reporting health impacts, while Michael Nissenbaum’s cohort studies in Maine suggest that while those closer to turbines have lower sleep quality and some related mental health/concentration issues, they do not show overall worse physical health. This could suggest that those reporting health impacts are either among the relative few who are more sensitive in some way – to sound, air pressure fluctuations, or annoyance-induced stress.  It also may remind us of the need to separate the equally important, and more widespread, impacts on quality of life and sense of place from the more dramatic but apparently less widespread question of acute or chronic health impacts.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no “one dB limit fits all” solution that will settle wind farm siting controversies; it’s crucial that regulators take the next step, by learning from recent experience in order to better assess how likely it is that annoyance will be widespread in any given community. In communities where the new sound may be easily accommodated, higher noise limits and smaller setbacks work fine (as we find in ranching communities); in places where turbine sound is more likely to trigger negative reactions, the higher annoyance rates may lead to both more complaints as well as more stress and, perhaps, to health effects for some.

While most of the Massachusetts report is just another fairly diligent assessment of the previous literature, worth reading over if you haven’t read other similar documents, a couple things did stand out for me.  The first, and most worrisome, was a table of possible night time noise limits presented as a recommended example of the approach Massachusetts should take (based on a standard used in Denmark).  It’s striking that they propose that while residential areas should have limits of 37-39dBA, sparsely populated areas would be subject to higher noise limits of 42-44dBA.  If these means that a remote farmhouse or cabin would receive less protection from wind turbine noise than a rural or small-town area with small lots and more homes, then the thinking is backwards; it’s in the most remote, rural areas that even moderate wind turbine noise will most dramatically change the sense of place and quality of life; in those areas, a limit of 35dB or less may be necessary.  The other item that stood out was a simple sound contour map, which showed that for homes alongside a line of turbines on a ridge, a setback of at least 740m (just under a half mile) would be necessary to keep noise levels at 40dB; very few wind farms in the US are currently built with setbacks this large.

To download this report and supplementary materials, visit this DEP web page.

A recent Health Impact Assessment published by the state of Oregon covers similar territory, but expands the discussion into consideration of indirect health impacts caused by stress and annoyance, as well as stress-related health impacts triggered by community disruption and contention.  In the wake of the Ontario report mentioned above, some members of the review committee reported that a section on community impacts was omitted, and a local field officer recommended that noise limits below 35dB would be necessary to avoid widespread adverse effects in quiet rural areas.

6 Responses to “Another week, another wind farm noise and health report”

  1. Mike Hulme Says:

    Power restrictions to be removed from Fullabrook turbines
    Power restrictions are due to be removed from wind turbines at Fullabrook today.
    Work is set to be carried out by Western Power Distribution to remove a ‘50MW cap’ on power – a move which will allow the 22 turbines to generate up to their full 66MW capacity. However, the wind farm will not be considered fully operational until final testing has been carried out.

    North Devon Council is to set up 12 noise monitoring locations around the site. If the turbines come within the noise limits, the wind farm will be considered fully operational.
    The council’s environment health team will now contact residents to inform them of the 12 sites that have been selected. They will also seek permission from those residents whose land is selected as a location for the equipment.

    Mike Hulme
    Den Brook Judicial Review Group

    Please consider the environment before building a wind farm.

  2. Walter Jasniewski Says:

    Well of course Mass. D.E.P. would not consider the testamony of the people of Falmouth, as it has not been Published and Peer Reviewed. Now how many individuals would have the backing and financial support necessary to get published and Peer Reviewed a contrary(sic) report. Walter Jasniewski

  3. Joanne Levesque Says:

    The chairperson of our Alternative Energy committee wrote the following to our Board of Health in regards to the Mass DEP DPH joint study…the note was written prior to the report’s release and was intended to assure our Board of Health of the importance of the eagerly anticpated results:
    “The study is intended to assist municipalities with the evaluation of potential health risks”

    Question: Now that we have read the report, I ask how is it municipalities have been helped in any way…the report allowed the waters to remain muddy so the proliferation of turbines can continue without the proper vetting of public health and safety issues…the report has kicked the can down the road…pure and simple…a disgrace given the fact that lives have been impacted, properties degraded…and more to follow…

  4. A. Pattie Says:

    Why, oh why, are major studies not being done by established, world wide, acoustical engineering companies, the only people with the correct instrumentation to study LFS?

  5. M. Burton Says:

    I cannot believe that with all the evidence of peer-reviewed studies that show noise is an issue because of the constant sounds that developers refuse to acknowledge. Without subsidies i wonder how many would be built. These are not windmills but industrial turbines and should be treated as industrial complexes not farms. They have proven to be inefficient and costly with Denmark having compensation for neighbours and selling off their windpower and buying reliable power from other countries when needed.
    The UK has stopped subsidies and it will be interesting to see just how many complexes will now be built considering it has cost over 6.5 billion pounds to developers. It has also cost Scotland 1.6 billion pounds to turn them off when they do not need the power.

  6. aeinews Says:

    Yes, M, developers are being pretty slow to recognize that even moderate noise can be unwelcome in many areas (especially at night, and especially indoors).

    No idea where you’re pulling those numbers about costing billions of pounds to “turn them off”….and I know the Tory MPs are calling for subsidies to stop, but haven’t seen that it’s happened, indeed Cameron called for continuing them….I may not agree with you about the inefficiencies, and may be more willing than you to pay more for non-carbon electricity, but I do largely agree with you about community responses to noise.