Canada: Massachusetts Expert Panel On Wind And Health Recommends Comparing All Energy Sources

Last Updated: August 22 2012
Article by Dianne Saxe

Environmental science research is desperately needed on many fronts, including on how we can adapt to the galloping pace of climate change. The 17 major studies that have already been done on complaints about wind turbines include the

Wind Turbine Health Impact Study: Report of Independent Expert Panel January 2012 Prepared for: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Here is its executive summary:

Executive Summary of Wind Health Study

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) convened a panel of independent experts to identify any documented or potential health impacts of risks that may be associated with exposure to wind turbines, and, specifically, to facilitate discussion of wind turbines and public health based on scientific findings.

While the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has goals for increasing the use of wind energy from the current 40 MW to 2000 MW by the year 2020, MassDEP recognizes there are questions and concerns arising from harnessing wind energy.

The scope of the Panel's effort was focused on health impacts of wind turbines per se. The panel was not charged with considering any possible benefits of avoiding adverse effects of other energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas as a result of switching to energy from wind turbines.

Currently, "regulation" of wind turbines is done at the local level through local boards of health and zoning boards. Some members of the public have raised concerns that wind turbines may have health impacts related to noise, infrasound, vibrations, or shadow flickering generated by the turbines. The goal of the Panel's evaluation and report is to provide a review of the science that explores these concerns and provides useful information to MassDEP and MDPH and to local agencies that are often asked to respond to such concerns.

The Panel consists of seven individuals with backgrounds in public health, epidemiology, toxicology, neurology and sleep medicine, neuroscience, and mechanical engineering. All of the Panel members are considered independent experts from academic institutions.

In conducting their evaluation, the Panel conducted an extensive literature review of the scientific literature as well as other reports, popular media, and the public comments received by the MassDEP.

ES 1. Panel Charge

1. Identify and characterize attributes of concern (e.g., noise, infrasound, vibration, and light flicker) and identify any scientifically documented or potential connection between health impacts associated with wind turbines located on land or coastal tidelands that can impact land-based human receptors.

2. Evaluate and discuss information from peer reviewed scientific studies, other reports, popular media, and public comments received by the MassDEP and/or in response to the Environmental Monitor Notice and/or by the MDPH on the nature and type of health complaints commonly reported by individuals who reside near existing wind farms.

3. 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.

4. For the attributes of concern, identify documented best practices that could reduce potential human health impacts. Include examples of such best practices (design, operation, maintenance, and management from published articles). The best practices could be used to inform public policy decisions by state, local, or regional governments concerning the siting of turbines.

5. Issue a report within 3 months of the evaluation, summarizing its findings.

ES 2. Process

To meet its charge, the Panel conducted an extensive literature review and met as a group a total of three times. In addition, calls were also held with Panel members to further clarify points of discussion. An independent facilitator supported the Panel's deliberations. Each Panel member provided written text based on the literature reviews and analyses. Draft versions of the report were reviewed by each Panel member and the Panel reached consensus for the final text and its findings.

ES 3. Report Introduction and Description

Many countries have turned to wind power as a clean energy source because it relies on the wind, which is indefinitely renewable; it is generated "locally," thereby providing a measure of energy independence; and it produces no carbon dioxide emissions when operating. There is interest in pursuing wind energy both on-land and offshore. For this report, however, the focus is on land-based installations and all comments are focused on this technology.

Land-based wind turbines currently range from 100 kW to 3 MW (3000 kW). In Massachusetts, the largest turbine is currently 1.8 MW. The development of modern wind turbines has been an evolutionary design process, applying optimization at many levels. An overview of the characteristics of wind turbines, noise, and vibration is presented in Chapter 2 of the report. Acoustic and seismic measurements of noise and vibration from wind turbines provide a context for comparing measurements from epidemiological studies and for claims purported to be due to emissions from wind turbines. Appendices provide detailed descriptions and equations that allow a more in-depth understanding of wind energy, the structure of the turbines, wind turbine aerodynamics, installation, energy production, shadow flicker, ice throws, wind turbine noise, noise propagation, infrasound, and stall vs. pitch controlled turbines. Extensive literature searches and reviews were conducted to identify studies that specifically evaluate human population responses to turbines, as well as population and individual responses to the three primary characteristics or attributes of wind turbine operation: noise, vibration, and flicker. An emphasis of the Panel's efforts was to examine the biological plausibility or basis for health effects of turbines (noise, vibration, and flicker).

Beyond traditional forms of scientific publications, the Panel also took great care to review other nonpeer reviewed materials regarding the potential for health effects including information related to "Wind Turbine Syndrome" and provides a rigorous analysis as to whether there is scientific basis for it. Since the most commonly reported complaint by people living near turbines is sleep disruption, the Panel provides a robust review of the relationship between noise, vibration, and annoyance as well as sleep disturbance from noises and the potential impacts of the resulting sleep deprivation.

In assessing the state of the evidence for health effects of wind turbines, the Panel followed accepted scientific principles and relied on several different types of studies. It considered human studies of the most important or primary value. These were either human epidemiological studies specifically relating to exposure to wind turbines or, where specific exposures resulting from wind turbines could be defined, the panel also considered human experimental data. Animal studies are critical to exploring biological plausibility and understanding potential biological mechanisms of different exposures, and for providing information about possible health effects when experimental research in humans is not ethically or practically possible. As such, this literature was also reviewed with respect to wind turbine exposures. The non-peer reviewed material was considered part of the weight of evidence. In all cases, data quality was considered; at times, some studies were rejected because of lack of rigor or the interpretations were inconsistent with the scientific evidence.

ES 4. Findings

The findings in Chapter 4 are repeated here. Based on the detailed review of the scientific literature and other available reports and consideration of the strength of scientific evidence, the Panel presents findings relative to three factors associated with the operation of wind turbines: noise and vibration, shadow flicker, and ice throw. The findings that follow address specifics in each of these three areas.

ES 4.1 Noise

ES 4.1.a Production of Noise and Vibration by Wind Turbines

1. Wind turbines can produce unwanted sound (referred to as noise) during operation. The nature of the sound depends on the design of the wind turbine. Propagation of the sound is primarily a function of distance, but it can also be affected by the placement of the turbine, surrounding terrain, and atmospheric conditions. a. Upwind and downwind turbines have different sound characteristics, primarily due to the interaction of the blades with the zone of reduced wind speed behind the tower in the case of downwind turbines. b. Stall regulated and pitch controlled turbines exhibit differences in their dependence of noise generation on the wind speed c. Propagation of sound is affected by refraction of sound due to temperature gradients, reflection from hillsides, and atmospheric absorption. Propagation effects have been shown to lead to different experiences of noise by neighbours. d. The audible, amplitude-modulated noise from wind turbines ("whooshing") is perceived to increase in intensity at night (and sometimes becomes more of a "thumping") due to multiple effects: i) a stable atmosphere will have larger wind gradients, ii) a stable atmosphere may refract the sound downwards instead of upwards, iii) the ambient noise near the ground is lower both because of the stable atmosphere and because human generated noise is often lower at night.

2. The sound power level of a typical modern utility scale wind turbine is on the order of 103 dB(A), but can be somewhat higher or lower depending on the details of the design and the rated power of the turbine. The perceived sound decreases rapidly with the distance from the wind turbines. Typically, at distances larger than 400 m, sound pressure levels for modern wind turbines are less than 40 dB(A), which is below the level associated with annoyance in the epidemiological studies reviewed.

3. Infrasound refers to vibrations with frequencies below 20 Hz. Infrasound at amplitudes over 100–110 dB can be heard and felt. Research has shown that vibrations below these amplitudes are not felt. The highest infrasound levels that have been measured near turbines and reported in the literature near turbines are under 90 dB at 5 Hz and lower at higher frequencies for locations as close as 100 m.

4. Infrasound from wind turbines is not related to nor does it cause a "continuous whooshing."

5. Pressure waves at any frequency (audible or infrasonic) can cause vibration in another structure or substance. In order for vibration to occur, the amplitude (height) of the wave has to be high enough, and only structures or substances that have the ability to receive the wave (resonant frequency) will vibrate.

ES 4.1.b Health Impacts of Noise and Vibration

1. Most epidemiologic literature on human response to wind turbines relates to self-reported "annoyance," and this response appears to be a function of some combination of the sound itself, the sight of the turbine, and attitude towards the wind turbine project. a. There is limited epidemiologic evidence suggesting an association between exposure to wind turbines and annoyance. b. There is insufficient epidemiologic evidence to determine whether there is an association between noise from wind turbines and annoyance independent from the effects of seeing a wind turbine and vice versa.

2. There is limited evidence from epidemiologic studies suggesting an association between noise from wind turbines and sleep disruption. In other words, it is possible that noise from some wind turbines can cause sleep disruption.

3. A very loud wind turbine could cause disrupted sleep, particularly in vulnerable populations, at a certain distance, while a very quiet wind turbine would not likely disrupt even the lightest of sleepers at that same distance. But there is not enough evidence to provide particular sound-pressure thresholds at which wind turbines cause sleep disruption. Further study would provide these levels.

4. Whether annoyance from wind turbines leads to sleep issues or stress has not been sufficiently quantified. While not based on evidence of wind turbines, there is evidence that sleep disruption can adversely affect mood, cognitive functioning, and overall sense of health and well-being.

5. There is insufficient evidence that the noise from wind turbines is directly (i.e., independent from an effect on annoyance or sleep) causing health problems or disease.

6. Claims that infrasound from wind turbines directly impacts the vestibular system have not been demonstrated scientifically. Available evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the vestibular system.

a. The measured levels of infrasound produced by modern upwind wind turbines at distances as close as 68 m are well below that required for non-auditory perception (feeling of vibration in parts of the body, pressure in the chest, etc.).

b. If infrasound couples into structures, then people inside the structure could feel a vibration. Such structural vibrations have been shown in other applications to lead to feelings of uneasiness and general annoyance. The measurements have shown no evidence of such coupling from modern upwind turbines.

c. Seismic (ground-carried) measurements recorded near wind turbines and wind turbine farms are unlikely to couple into structures.

d. A possible coupling mechanism between infrasound and the vestibular system (via the Outer Hair Cells (OHC) in the inner ear) has been proposed but is not yet fully understood or sufficiently explained. Levels of infrasound near wind turbines have been shown to be high enough to be sensed by the OHC. However, evidence does not exist to demonstrate the influence of wind turbine-generated infrasound on vestibularmediated effects in the brain.

e. Limited evidence from rodent (rat) laboratory studies identifies short-lived biochemical alterations in cardiac and brain cells in response to short exposures to emissions at 16 Hz and 130 dB. These levels exceed measured infrasound levels from modern turbines by over 35 dB.

7. There is no evidence for a set of health effects, from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a "Wind Turbine Syndrome."

8. The strongest epidemiological study suggests that there is not an association between noise from wind turbines and measures of psychological distress or mental health problems. There were two smaller, weaker, studies: one did note an association, one did not. Therefore, we conclude the weight of the evidence suggests no association between noise from wind turbines and measures of psychological distress or mental health problems.

9. None of the limited epidemiological evidence reviewed suggests an association between noise from wind turbines and pain and stiffness, diabetes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease, and headache/migraine.

ES 4.2 Shadow Flicker

ES 4.2.a Production of Shadow Flicker

Shadow flicker results from the passage of the blades of a rotating wind turbine between the sun and the observer. 1. The occurrence of shadow flicker depends on the location of the observer relative to the turbine and the time of day and year. 2. Frequencies of shadow flicker elicited from turbines is proportional to the rotational speed of the rotor times the number of blades and is generally between 0.5 and 1.1 Hz for typical larger turbines. 3. Shadow flicker is only present at distances of less than 1400 m from the turbine.

ES 4.2.b Health Impacts of Shadow Flicker

1. Scientific evidence suggests that shadow flicker does not pose a risk for eliciting seizures as a result of photic stimulation.

2. There is limited scientific evidence of an association between annoyance from prolonged shadow flicker (exceeding 30 minutes per day) and potential transitory cognitive and physical health effects.

ES 4.3 Ice Throw

ES 4.3.a Production of Ice Throw

Ice can fall or be thrown from a wind turbine during or after an event when ice forms or accumulates on the blades.

1. The distance that a piece of ice may travel from the turbine is a function of the wind speed, the operating conditions, and the shape of the ice.

2. In most cases, ice falls within a distance from the turbine equal to the tower height, and in any case, very seldom does the distance exceed twice the total height of the turbine (tower height plus blade length).

ES 4.3.b Health Impacts of Ice Throw

1. 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.

ES 4.4 Other Considerations

In addition to the specific findings stated above for noise and vibration, shadow flicker and ice throw, the Panel concludes the following:

1. Effective public participation in and direct benefits from wind energy projects (such as receiving electricity from the neighbouring wind turbines) have been shown to result in less annoyance in general and better public acceptance overall.

ES 5. Best Practices Regarding Human Health Effects of Wind Turbines

The best practices presented in Chapter 5 are repeated here. Broadly speaking, the term "best practice" refers to policies, guidelines, or recommendations that have been developed for a specific situation. Implicit in the term is that the practice is based on the best information available at the time of its institution. A best practice may be refined as more information and studies become available. The panel recognizes that in countries which are dependent on wind energy and are protective of public health, best practices have been developed and adopted.

In some cases, the weight of evidence for a specific practice is stronger than it is in other cases. Accordingly, best practice* may be categorized in terms of the evidence available, as follows:

Descriptions of Three Best Practice Categories

Category Name Description

1 Research Validated Best Practice A program, activity, or strategy that has the highest degree of proven effectiveness supported by objective and comprehensive research and evaluation.

2 Field Tested Best Practice A program, activity, or strategy that has been shown to work effectively and produce successful outcomes and is supported to some degree by subjective and objective data sources.

3 Promising Practice A program, activity, or strategy that has worked within one organization and shows promise during its early stages for becoming a best practice with long-term sustainable impact. A promising practice must have some objective basis for claiming effectiveness and must have the potential for replication among other organizations.

*These categories are based on those suggested in "Identifying and Promoting Promising Practices."

ES 5.1 Noise

Evidence regarding wind turbine noise and human health is limited. There is limited evidence of an association between wind turbine noise and both annoyance and sleep disruption, depending on the sound pressure level at the location of concern. However, there are no research-based sound pressure levels that correspond to human responses to noise. A number of countries that have more experience with wind energy and are protective of public health have developed guidelines to minimize the possible adverse effects of noise. These guidelines consider time of day, land use, and ambient wind speed.

The table below summarizes the guidelines of Germany (in the categories of industrial, commercial and villages) and Denmark (in the categories of sparsely populated and residential). The sound levels shown in the table are for nighttime and are assumed to be taken immediately outside of the residence or building of concern. In addition, the World Health Organization recommends a maximum nighttime sound pressure level of 40 dB(A) in residential areas. Recommended setbacks corresponding to these values may be calculated by software such as WindPro or similar software. Such calculations are normally to be done as part of feasibility studies.

The Panel considers the guidelines shown below to be Promising Practices (Category 3) but to embody some aspects of Field Tested Best Practices (Category 2) as well. Promising Practices for Nighttime Sound Pressure Levels by Land Use Type Land Use Sound Pressure Level, dB(A) Nighttime Limits Industrial 70 Commercial 50 Villages, mixed usage 45 Sparsely populated areas, 8 m/s wind* 44 Sparsely populated areas, 6 m/s wind* 42 Residential areas, 8 m/s wind* 39 Residential areas, 6 m/s wind* 37 *measured at 10 m above ground, outside of residence or location of concern

The time period over which these noise limits are measured or calculated also makes a difference. For instance, the often-cited World Health Organization recommended nighttime noise cap of 40 dB(A) is averaged over one year (and does not refer specifically to wind turbine noise). Denmark's noise limits in the table above are calculated over a 10-minute period. These limits are in line with the noise levels that the epidemiological studies connect with insignificant reports of annoyance.

The Panel recommends that noise limits such as those presented in the table above be included as part of a statewide policy regarding new wind turbine installations. In addition, suitable ranges and procedures for cases when the noise levels may be greater than those values should also be considered. The considerations should take into account trade-offs between environmental and health impacts of different energy sources, national and state goals for energy independence, potential extent of impacts, etc.

The Panel also recommends that those involved in a wind turbine purchase become familiar with the noise specifications for the turbine and factors that affect noise production and noise control. Stall and pitch regulated turbines have different noise characteristics, especially in high winds. For certain turbines, it is possible to decrease noise at night through suitable control measures (e.g., reducing the rotational speed of the rotor). If noise control measures are to be considered, the wind turbine manufacturer must be able to demonstrate that such control is possible.

The Panel recommends an ongoing program of monitoring and evaluating the sound produced by wind turbines that are installed in the Commonwealth. IEC 61400-11 provides the standard for making noise measurements of wind turbines (International Electrotechnical Commission, 2002).

In general, more comprehensive assessment of wind turbine noise in populated areas is recommended. These assessments should be done with reference to the broader ongoing research in wind turbine noise production and its effects, which is taking place internationally. Such assessments would be useful for refining siting guidelines and for developing best practices of a higher category. Closer investigation near homes where outdoor measurements show A and C weighting differences of greater than 15 dB is recommended.

ES 5.2 Shadow Flicker

Based on the scientific evidence and field experience related to shadow flicker, Germany has adopted guidelines that specify the following: 1. Shadow flicker should be calculated based on the astronomical maximum values (i.e., not considering the effect of cloud cover, etc.). 2. Commercial software such as WindPro or similar software may be used for these calculations. Such calculations should be done as part of feasibility studies for new wind turbines. 3. Shadow flicker should not occur more than 30 minutes per day and not more than 30 hours per year at the point of concern (e.g., residences). 4. Shadow flicker can be kept to acceptable levels either by setback or by control of the wind turbine. In the latter case, the wind turbine manufacturer must be able to demonstrate that such control is possible.

The guidelines summarized above may be considered to be a Field Tested Best Practice (Category 2). Additional studies could be performed, specifically regarding the number of hours per year that shadow flicker should be allowed, that would allow them to be placed in Research Validated (Category 1) Best Practices.

ES 5.3 Ice Throw

Ice falling from a wind turbine could pose a danger to human health. It is also clear that the danger is limited to those times when icing occurs and is limited to relatively close proximity to the wind turbine. Accordingly, the following should be considered Category 1 Best Practices. 1. In areas where icing events are possible, warnings should be posted so that no one passes underneath a wind turbine during an icing event and until the ice has been shed. 2. Activities in the vicinity of a wind turbine should be restricted during and immediately after icing events in consideration of the following two limits (in meters). For a turbine that may not have ice control measures, it may be assumed that ice could fall within the following limit: x ( R H ) throw = 1.5 2 + max, Where: R = rotor radius (m), H = hub height (m) For ice falling from a stationary turbine, the following limit should be used: ( )/15 max, x U R H fall = + Where: U = maximum likely wind speed (m/s) The choice of maximum likely wind speed should be the expected one-year return maximum, found in accordance to the International Electrotechnical Commission's design standard for wind turbines, IEC 61400-1. Danger from falling ice may also be limited by ice control measures. If ice control measures are to be considered, the wind turbine manufacturer must be able to demonstrate that such control is possible.

ES 5.4 Public Participation/Annoyance

There is some evidence of an association between participation, economic or otherwise, in a wind turbine project and the annoyance (or lack thereof) that affected individuals may express. Accordingly, measures taken to directly involve residents who live in close proximity to a wind turbine project may also serve to reduce the level of annoyance. Such measures may be considered to be a Promising Practice (Category 3). ES 5.5 Regulations/Incentives/Public Education

The evidence indicates that in those parts of the world where there are a significant number of wind turbines in relatively close proximity to where people live, there is a close coupling between the development of guidelines, provision of incentives, and educating the public. The Panel suggests that the public be engaged through such strategies as education, incentives for community-owned wind developments, compensations to those experiencing documented loss of property values, comprehensive setback guidelines, and public education related to renewable energy. These multi-faceted approaches may be considered to be a Promising Practice (Category 3).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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