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Health effects of turbines unclear

A view of two turbines at Gloucester Engineering that will provide power to the city's municipal buildings and schools.

Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff

A view of two turbines at Gloucester Engineering that will provide power to the city's municipal buildings and schools.

Doreen Reilly says her family can’t sleep at night because the wind turbine 328 yards away sounds like a “jet liner hovering” over her Kingston home. During the day, Reilly said, she gets headaches because the spinning blades from the 400-foot-tall structure cause sunlight to flash like “a strobe light” throughout her home.

“You can’t escape it,” said the Leland Road resident. “I’m very concerned for my family and their health.”

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The complaints are similar to those heard in Newburyport, where a turbine is visible from Route 1.

In an e-mail, City Councilor Ari Herzog recalled a 2009 meeting in which “residents stood and complained they couldn’t sleep due to thumps, whooshes, and growling noises caused by the whirring blades 292 feet above ground. . . . I wondered — and still wonder — why a test tower was never erected.

“I support wind energy in the Commonwealth, but not at the expense of disrupting people’s homes and the lives they built there,” Herzog said.

More turbines could be on the way. The “fiscal cliff” budget deal signed by President Obama last week extends wind energy tax credits, including a key change that will make it easier for wind developers in Massachusetts and elsewhere to obtain what are viewed as crucial incentives for a burgeoning industry, the Globe reported.

But amid the push toward wind power and other “green” energy sources, a small but growing number of people are voicing their concerns about wind turbines.

They worry about the possible long-term health effects of living so close to the machines, and question whether they belong in densely populated neighborhoods. Some say they’ve experienced sleep loss, migraine headaches, ringing ears, and higher blood pressure since wind turbines were installed near their homes.

Such complaints have often been met skeptically by wind-power advocates and the public at large, many of whom assume the complaints of noise, vibrations, and moving shadows are being exaggerated by a gaggle of NIMBYs.

According to wind-power advocates, turbines are far better for the environment and people’s health, compared with fossil fuels.

“Wind power is the most affordable zero-emission source available,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance. Wind power produces “no carbon dioxide, no sulfur, no nitrogen, no particulates . . . all things that cause problems with the planet and public health.”

Chretien acknowledged that “we are hearing complaints in a couple of locations” from neighbors living near turbines, but said that most wind projects, such as those in Hull, Ipswich, and most recently, Gloucester, have been successful and enjoy plenty of local support.

“In our viewpoint, 90 precent of [wind turbine] projects are sited responsibly and very much contribute to their communities,” he said.

In addition to Hull, Ipswich, and Gloucester, health and planning officials in Bourne, Everett, Ipswich, Medford, Plymouth, and Wrentham said they haven’t received any complaints about the turbines in their communities. (In Everett’s case, the turbine is actually located in Charlestown.)

Still, out of the 16 communities in Eastern Massachusetts that have working turbines, at least five have residents who say that turbines near their homes have caused health problems.

While previous studies have shown that wind turbines may cause sounds that disrupt sleep (which can, over time, lead to health problems), evidence of a direct link between turbines and specific health problems is lacking. But with the growing number of complaints, more research is on the way.

The real problem lies in zoning, said Christopher Senie, a Westborough-based attorney who has represented neighborhood groups opposed to wind turbine projects, including in Salem.

“Zoning is not doing a good job with wind turbines,” he said. “It’s a new use we really weren’t ready for. . . . The problem is, we got so enthusiastic about [wind power], and there wasn’t the zoning in place.”

Senie represents 10 Kingston residents who say they are adversely affected by the noise, vibrations, and spinning blades of the turbines, mostly at night.

According to Senie, Cape Cod planning officials have determined that the distance between homes and turbines should be at least 10 times the diameter of the rotating blades. So a wind turbine with blades measuring 282 feet across would require a minimum setback of 2,820 feet. In Kingston, Fairhaven, Falmouth, and Scituate, several homes are inside of that range.

Scituate’s director of public health, Jennifer L. Sullivan, said her office has received complaints from 15 people, mostly regarding noise, flicker, and sleep disruption. “We’re still in the discovery phase,” she said. “We’re going to have some testing done.”

Further research is needed to figure out safe distances for wind turbines, said Michael Nissenbaum, a radiologist at the Northern Maine Medical Center who conducted a study of residents living near wind turbines in Mars Hill, Maine.

“I think it’s ridiculous that people jump to conclusions that it’s a placebo effect . . . ’’ Nissenbaum said in an interview. “To come out right out of the gate and say that these people are just making this up because they don’t like [wind turbines] . . . that’s malpractice, from a medical point of view.”

Harris Miller Miller & Hanson Inc., a noise-consulting firm in Burlington, has been tapped to study one of Kingston’s turbines, a privately owned structure atop a capped landfill. The firm will place noise-monitoring instruments around the turbine, with microphones about 5 feet from the ground (roughly the height of a human ear), to collect data on sound levels and frequencies.

One interesting finding is that “people seem to be more sensitive to sounds from wind turbines than from transportation sources,” said Christopher W. Menge, principal consultant and senior vice president with Harris Miller.

One possible reason is that unlike much other noise, turbines don’t get quieter at night, so people notice them more, he said. He added that the pulsating noise of turbines “sounds different. It’s unusual in the environment. It’s something new.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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