To some, spinning wind turbines are a majestic source of pollution-free energy. But when they're proposed for residential areas, opponents often portray them as a menace to healthy, safety, aesthetics and property values.
The rhetoric can get pretty extreme.
When one was proposed in Barrington in 2008, opponents claimed that unnamed "independent medical experts" had found that turbines can cause everything from headaches to heart problems, and that sunlight flashing through the blades can produce a stroboscopic effect that may lead to nausea, dizziness, disorientation and seizures.
So when a massive 427-foot turbine was proposed for Stamp Farm on Route 2 in North Kingstown, it wasn't surprising that the opposition would echo those claims. One opponent was state Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt of North Kingstown. He co-authored an opinion column published in The Providence Journal with former North Kingstown Town Council President Edward Cooney.
For one of their bullet points, they played the epilepsy card: "The health risk of 'flicker' impact created by shadows of blades of turbines poses real and significant health risks, particularly seizures."
We've seen reports in the medical literature documenting that seizures can be caused by everything from Pokemon cartoons and "Super Mario Brothers" to the voice of former Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart, but we've never seen any real evidence that wind turbines can trigger seizures. So we decided to investigate.
We contacted Ehrhardt and Cooney to ask for their source for the statement.
Ehrhardt said Cooney was responsible for that part of the commentary. Cooney sent us links to various articles available on anti-turbine websites.
None of them offered any documented case histories of people having seizures because of wind turbines. Instead, they say the turbines "may" cause seizures and they raise other issues with similarly tenuous evidence.
For example, North Kingstown opponents sent us to the website WindVigilance.com asserting that "the health impact of visual burdens cannot be underestimated."
But the WindVigilance.com page, drafted by turbine opponents, doesn't say turbines pose a "real" seizure risk, as Ehrhardt and Cooney said. Instead, it says that flicker just "has the potential to induce photosensitive epilepsy seizures, however the risk is low with large modern models and if proper planning is adhered to."
Similarly, opponents sent us copies of a research report that looked at flicker and epilepsy, but the report only examined the conditions that might cause a seizure.
Cooney referred us to "a well-known study by Dr. Nina Pierpont, which addresses 'wind turbine syndrome' and the health risks associated with such."
Pierpont's "study" is actually a book in which she reports on people who claim to have suffered all kinds of ills from living next to turbines, from blurred vision to rapid heart rate and panic attacks. But, according to her online resume, she has never published a study on any human health topic in any respected medical or scientific journal. One of her stated goals was to prove that the physical symptoms of the residents were real, not psychosomatic, a bias that most researchers try to avoid.
In one of his emails, Cooney referred us to a 2007 report on wind turbines written by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. It reported that "Thus far, there has been relatively little dispassionate analysis of the human impacts of wind-energy projects. Much that has been written has been from the vantage points of either proponents or opponents."
That report, written by a panel of experts, concluded that shadow flicker "can be a nuisance to people living near a wind-energy project" but the frequency of the flickering "is harmless to humans."
In his e-mail, Cooney quotes the "harmless to humans" paragraph, which directly contradicts his claim. When asked about the contradiction, he responded: "I stand by my statement."
Another piece of evidence supplied by Cooney was a portion of a report called "Planning for Renewable Energy. The section on flicker and epilepsy says only 0.5 percent of the population is epileptic, only about 5 percent of those are sensitive to flickering light, and less than 5 percent of those would be sensitive to the type of flicker produced by turbine blades. That's less than 1 in 80,000 people.
We contacted two epilepsy experts who said the concern was ridiculous because it was so unlikely.
David Mandelbaum, a neurologist and pediatrician at Brown University's Alpert Medical School, said even if an epileptic is sensitive to light, the flicker has to be at just the right frequency, and that frequency can vary widely from person to person.
Dr. Gregory Kent Bergey, director of the epilepsy center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, said in an email: "The fact is, the great majority of people with seizures [probably greater than 95 percent] do not have this photosensitivity." Some patients may experience a brief spasm if they see the sun coming through the trees, "but these seizures are usually readily controlled by medication. I do not tell these patients not to drive in the forest!"
He said "the risk from sun coming through a wind turbine would be very small -- the person would first have to be looking at the sun, not just at a turbine, and most of us know not to look at the sun directly. . . . We cannot use this as a reason not to erect wind turbine farms."
Mandelbaum said he has never seen any reliable documentation that turbines can cause seizures, or any other health problems. "They're using the epileptic community. It's clever and it's nonsense, and I find it personally offensive," he said.
Finally, we called a place where, if wind turbines did cause health problems, doctors would probably know about it.
Cogdell Memorial Hospital is near what is reputed to be the world's largest wind farm, located in Roscoe, Texas. The farm has 627 turbines spread out over 100,000 acres and 4 counties. Several are located along Route 84, where motorists would be exposed to flicker.
Said spokeswoman Belinda Kerr: "We have not seen or treated any illnesses or injuries related to these wind farms."
In the end, there may be valid arguments to make both for and against wind turbines in residential neighborhoods. But the seizure risk that Ehrhardt and Cooney cite is not one of them.
The "real and significant" health risks that they say turbine flicker poses are undocumented. If they exist, they are probably not very significant. To say that seizures are the best example is ridiculous.
We wish there were a more environmentally-friendly solution, but the Truth-O-Meter calls for some carbon-based combustion. Pants On Fire!