In southwestern Ontario, if you turn north of the 401 and head up towards the Bruce peninsula, you will eventually stop seeing familiar farmland and your eye will be drawn to the towering wind turbines which dot the landscape.
The turbines supplement the nuclear power plant located in Kincardine, Ontario. Wind power has been heralded as a potential untapped resource for sustainable energy. With no pollution and no nuclear waste to contend with, what could possibly go wrong?
But residents nearby have claimed that the noise from the turbines is causing adverse health effects. Headaches, migraines, nausea and other non-specific symptoms are being blamed on the presence of the turbines.
Health Canada has recently announced that it will fund a two-year study on the health effects of the turbines on the nearby residents. In the meantime, a moratorium on the construction of new turbines is being proposed until the study is complete.
Shawn and Tricia Drennan’s farm sits in the proposed Kingsbridge II wind farm and one turbine will be about 650 metres from their house. Shawn Drennan says they heard some people living near an earlier wind farm project sold their properties to the wind farm operator after suffering health problems.
This couple heard through the grapevine that their neighbours sold their house because of the turbines. Anyone who reads this blog knows how I feel about anecdotal evidence. I prefer real scientific studies.
But a large amount of study has already been done in this area. So what does it say?
A review of the literature from the journal Environmental Health in 2011 stated that
While it is acknowledged that noise from wind turbines can be annoying to some and associated with some reported health effects (e.g., sleep disturbance), especially when found at sound pressure levels greater than 40 db(A), given that annoyance appears to be more strongly related to visual cues and attitude than to noise itself, self reported health effects of people living near wind turbines are more likely attributed to physical manifestation from an annoyed state than from wind turbines themselves. In other words, it appears that it is the change in the environment that is associated with reported health effects and not a turbine-specific variable like audible noise or infrasound. [emphasis mine]
So the negative of effects of the wind turbines had more to do with the attitude of the person towards the wind turbines, rather than the turbines themselves.
The World Health Organization held a workshop in 2004 to discuss the reports of adverse health effects of wind turbines. They found several things; first
The term “Iditopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI) with attribution to EMF (electromagnetic fields)” was proposed by the working group to replace EHS (electromagnetic hypersensitivity) since the latter implies that a causal relationship has been established between the reported symptoms and EMF.
So the attendants of the workshop found that since there was no causal relationship between EMF and adverse health effects, a new term should be used to describe those who believe they are afflicted with such an ailment. This was to stop the proliferation of the idea that low-frequency EMF from power sources could cause adverse health effects. Further,
The majority of studies indicate that IEI individuals cannot detect EMF exposure any more accurately than non-IEI individuals. By and large well controlled and conducted double-blind studies have shown that symptoms do not seem to be correlated with EMF exposure.
There are also some indications that these symptoms may be due to pre-existed psychiatric conditions as well as stress reactions as a result of worrying about believed EMF health effects, rather than the EMF exposure itself. It was added that IEI should not be used as a medical diagnosis since there is presently no scientific basis to link IEI symptoms to EMF exposure. [emphasis mine]
Studies from Sweden and the Netherlands also found that the level of “annoyance” associated with nearby wind turbines is largely affected by the subject’s views on the presence of the turbines. The study from the Netherlands stated that
High turbine visibility enhances negative response, and having wind turbines visible from the dwelling significantly increased the risk of annoyance. Annoyance was strongly correlated with a negative attitude toward the visual impact of wind turbines on the landscape. The study further demonstrates that people who benefit economically from wind turbines have a significantly decreased risk of annoyance, despite exposure to similar sound levels [emphasis mine]
So does this mean that the symptoms the residents of rural Ontario are experiencing are not real? Are they just exaggerating?
The symptoms they are describing are indeed real, but seem to have little to do with any EMF or sound generated by the wind turbines.
It is likely that any unexplained symptom experience by residents near a wind turbine, be it nausea or migraine or the like, they blame on the presence of the turbine. It is classic post hoc ergo propter hoc logic: the turbine was built, now I have a headache, therefore the turbine caused my headache.
But it is a tough situation. How do you tell someone that their headache is not being caused by a wind turbine, but by their negative attitude towards the turbine? I cannot see that conversation going well. I imagine the situation would be quite similar if a highway were being built behind these people’s houses. But does that mean we should stop building roads?
Will a two-year study by Health Canada convince anyone? I don’t think so. If the study shows there is no adverse health effect of the turbines, residents are just going to get more upset and say the study is wrong. If the study shows that there is an effect, it will be heralded by the few that believe in it, but will be criticized by the scientific community, and will still only be a single study in a large body of evidence, therefore proving nothing.
I can understand being upset at the construction of the turbines, I really can. If a new condo development sprang up behind my apartment, I would be pretty upset as well. But you can only delay progress for so long. Renewable energy is the wave of the future and we are going to have to learn to accept it. You can say “Not In My Back Yard” all you want, but eventually we all just need to learn to adapt.