Are Wind Farms Really Bad for People’s Health?

turbineAt present wind turbines produce a little over 2% of Canada’s electricity.  The industry’s goal is to have this number go up to 20%  by 2025 leading to a rapid expansion of wind farms around the country.  In Ontario, wind power for the first time has surpassed coal in the production of electricity. This is good news in terms of greenhouse gas emission but it may come at a cost. More and more people living nearby, blame wind turbines for a variety of health problems.  The symptoms vary but include sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression and increased blood pressure.

Although there is no doubt that these people suffer, it is difficult to give a clear cut answer as to the cause of the symptoms. For the industry the noise level given off by wind turbines is well within the norms and cannot give rise to any negative health effects.  They point to a number scientific studies to support their claims. For example an expert panel review published in 2009 states  “There is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects”. It should mentioned though that the review was commissioned by the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations (AWEA and CanWEA).

On the other side opponents to wind turbines support their position with their own studies including one recently published in the periodical “Noise and Health”. In the  peer reviewed study the authors examined questionnaires distributed to residents living in two Maine communities. Those living within 1.4 km of wind turbines reported suffering more from impaired mental health and sleep deprivation than those who lived at least 3.3 km away. To be noted in this case Jeff Aramini, one of the authors is a  director for the Society for Wind Vigilance.

The difficulty when studying the effect of wind turbines in a controlled study, is proper blinding. If you are already apprehensive  about the negative effect of wind turbines it is quite obvious that you are more likely to report some negative symptoms – the so called nocebo effect.

Starting this May Health Canada and Statistics Canada are collaborating  to study the health of 1,200 people who live near wind turbines. Rather than depending on a questionnaire the scientists will actually measure blood pressure, heart rates and sleep patterns.   In addition – in an innovative approach – they will measure the levels of cortisol, in the hair of the people involved. Cortisol is produced under stress conditions either psychological of physical and prolonged exposure can lead to health problems.

The results should be interesting. To be valid though, they will have to show significant negative health effects among people living close to the wind farms.  if not the industry could always claim the nocebo effect. In order to discount this effect completely, a study would require people not knowing if the live close, or not, of a wind farm – an impossibility.

Ariel Fenster

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