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Note: this paper was first published in 2002. Last Updated on 19 May 2004

Some health aspects of wind driven industrial turbines.

Preamble

Nearly all sources used for this memo are outside Ontario as we have no documented precedents. This fact constitutes a primary call for caution, as Prince Edward County is being proposed for use as the first Ontarian test-site or guinea pig with major potential consequences. While there may be many other pros and cons, this paper makes the case for a moratorium on rural, green-belt planning permission for industrial wind-driven turbine electricity production in proximity to residential dwellings, pending full clinical evaluation and conclusions of health hazards alone.

Opinion on health hazards of wind powered electricity generating turbines of the commercial variety being proposed in PEC is moving from the anecdotal domain to a deeper understanding of causality. However, it should be stated that many conclusions are disputed. There is however a significant and growing trend towards caution.

Mental and physiological health

Health, specifically mental health, can be defined as the absence of any identifiable psychiatric disorder according to current norms (Freeman, 1984). In noise research, mental health covers a variety of symptoms, ranging from anxiety, emotional stress, nervous complaints, nausea, headaches, instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotency, changes in general mood, anxiety, and social conflicts, to more general psychiatric categories like neurosis, psychosis and hysteria (Berglund and Lindvall 1995).

In terms of physiological health, a team of physicians has been examining such health hazards in New England and the Maritimes and is working on a research paper looking at the adverse effects of wind turbine noise on human health; good progress with this is being made. They have gathered a number of references, all current within the last 10 years, from acoustical studies of wind turbines, studies from medical journals and journals of environmental health documenting negative impacts of noise that are characteristic of noise emissions from wind turbines and even a few small studies around wind farms in Europe. They also have some basic clinical research studies documenting endocrinological effects of offending noise in children and adults which represent the early pathophysiology leading to the documented increased incidence of ischemic heart disease and other cardiovascular complications and potentially even more far reaching implications in children.

Low frequency noise pollution

Clinical medical studies are beginning to suggest that sounds that are audible to the human ear may not be the sole cause for concern - even that "infrasound" or "low frequency" noise pollution may represent the major portion of potential health hazards. Such "inaudible" noise pollution is apparently not being analysed by the wind driven turbine industry.

In late 2003 and early 2004, reports of work by Dr Amanda Harry ("People demonstrated a range of symptoms from headaches, migraines, nausea, dizziness, palpitations and tinnitus to sleep disturbance, stress, anxiety and depression. These symptoms had a knock-on effect in their daily lives, causing poor concentration, irritability and an inability to cope") and Dr Bridget Osborne ("There is a public perception that wind power is 'green' and has no detrimental effect on the environment. However, these turbines make low-frequency noises that can be as damaging as high-frequency noises.") have been made public.

Dr Osborne of the Royal College of General Practitioners [1] has published a paper detailing a "marked" increase in depression among local people. A report by Dr Geoff Leventhall, a fellow of the Institute of Physics and Institute of Acoustics, is reported as endorsing the findings: "Low-frequency noise causes extreme distress to a number of people who are sensitive to its effects."

Some aspects have already been published by the World Health Organization. The WHO has also disseminated some Community Guidelines for health effects of noise. The Health Council of the Netherlands has also made available some findings on long term health aspects. We are still awaiting some journal articles and studies both published and unpublished from Sweden that are most probably significant.

We have evidence that has led to ordinances such as the one in Riverside County, California where turbine distances from dwellings can be no closer than 2 miles. We also have collected the studies that have led to the latest updated WHO guidelines on frequency and decibel threshold limits which as you might expect are going lower with the results of on-going research.

While some of this research is not yet quite ready for publication, and will surely be disputed by the wind powered electricity generating turbine industry, it represents a quantum leap forward in clinical assessment of potential dangers - however, "potential" can imply various shades of probability, and time factors may be somewhat fluid; unduly assertive conclusions would be contrary to rigourous scientific study. Necessarily, there is very little long term data yet available on wind turbines and causality requires proof, not assumption.

Absent compelling reasons to gamble with health hazards, public health costs and quality of life, probable threats to human health must be avoided and possible threats to human health should be avoided. It should be noted that risk management normally places a very low threshold on acceptable risk where human health outcomes may be negatively influenced. Again this constitutes a call for caution.

The Cost

The author is incapable of putting a "cost" on human suffering; nevertheless, the economic cost may be examined but a dichotomy surrounding "internal" and "external" accountability for secondary energy costs in commercial power production immediately becomes apparent. External costs are defined as those actually incurred in relation to health and the environment and quantifiable but not built into the cost of the electricity to the consumer. External costs are therefore borne by the community at large. Such costs include specifically occupational disease and accidents, as well as the effects of pollution on human health, animal husbandry, crop yields, buildings, etc.

The air (and water) pollution of fossil-fuel power production is widely accepted as a having a negative impact; it should not be an unacceptable leap of faith to consider that the noise (and visual) pollution of wind-powered power production should be treated with respect. "In comparison to other pollutants, the control of environmental noise has been hampered by insufficient knowledge of its effects on humans... as well as a lack of defined criteria." (World Health Organization, 1999)

This aspect has traditionally been demonstrated by imposing a "set-back" between the industrial turbines and residential property (note the use of "property" rather than "residence"; children have the right to play in their parents back yards, however extensive). Such set-backs have shown a consistent trend towards increase and whereas 1/4 mile (~400 metres) was in the past a guide line used by the wind turbine industry in their proposals, the regulatory planning authorities are now looking at significantly increased figures (example 2 km in Germany; 2 miles in part of California - both areas with significant experience) or are no longer permitting land based wind turbine farms (Denmark) or making controversially expensive commitments to offshore installations (Scotland).

From Retexo-RISP GmbH which is engaged in "marketing innovative, viable, new technology to overcome damage to the environment and improve life for today and the future" in Thuringan, Germany. Mission: the international promotion of environmental technology within the fields of:

  • recycling of ash and waste energy sources,
  • renewable energy,
  • environmental industrial development.

"Description of location [of windfarms]: The location under consideration should first of all be wind-intensive during the whole year. /.../ Buildings, particularly housing, should not be nearer than 2 km to the windfarm."

From Riverside County California:

"LU 15.9 Restrict the placement of wind turbines within 2 miles of residential development unless the applicant supplies documentation that the machine(s) will not produce low frequency impulsive noise."

The World Health Organization, Guidelines for Community Noise, 6.1, has reached (inter alia) two relevant conclusions, of interest to the PEC study:

"f. Municipalities should develop low-noise implementation plans."

"g. Cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses should be considered as potential instruments when making management decisions."

Conclusion

The only possible conclusion from the above, is that the health hazard aspects of wind powered electricity generating turbines in Prince Edward County have not been explored, and that the [previous] Municipality's approval of a Point Petre wind farm was reached without due process and with an apparent misunderstanding of the potential health hazards and the wellbeing of residents.

 

Notes:
[1] This was originally, and erroneously, reported as having been "presented to the Royal College of General Practitioners". In an e-mail to the author, dated 1 May 2004, Dr Osborne confirmed that it was written "for the Royal College of General Practitioners North Wales Faculty Newsletter on the Physiological effects of Wind Turbines". This had been questioned by the British Wind Energy Association, an industry lobby promoting, in their own words, the "industry's commitment to the highest standards and best practice."

 

Revised: 31 March 2012