It’s unlikely to silence the critics – nothing seemingly will – but there is no evidence to support the claim that wind turbine noise is making people sick, according to preliminary results from a comprehensive Health Canada study launched two years ago.
Yes, concluded Health Canada, some people interviewed and assessed as part of its 1,238 household epidemiological study were shown to get highly annoyed by wind turbine noise and other factors, such as shadow flicker and flashing lights.
While that annoyance has led to increased stress for some, that doesn’t equate to evidence of a health impact, the department reported. “No evidence was found to support a link between exposure to wind turbine noise and any of the self-reported or measured health endpoints examined,” it said in a statement.
It’s important to put this study into context. Launched in July 2012, the research effort was hailed by wind opponents as a major victory, perhaps on the assumption the results would finally demonstrate that wind turbines do make people sick, despite years of research from Europe showing otherwise.
That Health Canada decided to wade into this area also raised suspicion of its motives. After all, it hasn’t done the same for the oil sands, what most would safely consider a bigger health concern. Many in the wind community thought the study would end up being a hit job on wind energy aimed at appeasing the federal Conservative government’s support base in rural Ontario.
And make no mistake, this was a comprehensive study – and likely a costly one. It involved staff from Statistics Canada doing in-person questionnaires with the occupants of more than 1,200 households located near wind farms in Ontario and Prince Edward Island. All households within 600 metres of a wind turbine were included, as well as a random sample of homes between 600 metres and 10 kilometres.
Hair samples and blood pressure data were collected to assess stress levels, such as the degree of concentration of cortisol in hair. On top of that, Health Canada spent more than 4,000 hours measuring different levels of wind turbine noise, including low-frequency noise and infrasound.
Again, they found evidence of stress possibly linked to an annoyance factor. There were people who self-reported sleep disturbance, migraines, dizziness, high blood pressure, and other conditions, but as Health Canada pointed out, “the prevalence was not found to change in relation to (wind turbine noise) levels.” In other words, go to a community without wind turbines and you’re likely to find the same level of complaints.
Perhaps most interesting about this study is data that suggests the highly subjective nature of “annoyance” as it relates to wind turbines. The research found that people studied in Ontario were 3.29 times more likely to be annoyed by wind turbine noise than people studied in PEI. Expressed as a percentage, 16.5 per cent of respondents in Ontario were found “highly annoyed” by wind turbine noise versus 6.3 per cent in PEI.
“Investigating the reasons for the provincial differences is outside the scope of the current study,” Health Canada said.
But it’s an important question: Why the difference? Are people living in PEI more genetically immune to noise? From my own experience, the anti-wind movement in Ontario has clearly been more vocal, creating more awareness of alleged health effects of wind through the media and turning the issue into a political hot potato.
What it amounts to is the power of suggestion. Tell more people that wind turbines make you sick, and more people are likely to interpret and perceive their own conditions as attributable to wind turbines. In science, this is called the nocebo effect, the opposite of the placebo effect.
Similar reasoning can be applied to why some areas with wind turbines can experience a temporary decrease in property value while others don’t. Tell somebody something tastes like crap and the odds are they are less likely to take a bite.
Another interesting finding, one that has been found in other studies in other jurisdictions, such as this Dutch study, is that the level of annoyance substantially decreased when the household was benefitting financially from having a wind turbine located nearby.
“Annoyance was significantly lower among the 110 participants who received personal benefit, which could include rent, payments, or other indirect benefits of having wind turbines in the area,” Health Canada said.
“There were other factors that were found to be more strongly associated with annoyance, such as the visual appearance, concern for physical safety due to the presence of wind turbines and reporting to be sensitive to noise in general.”
As mentioned, wind opponents won’t be satisfied by this study. They will continue to call wind expensive and ineffective at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as claim negative impacts on property value. They will continue to brand wind turbines bird killers, despite the fact there are far bigger threats to birds than wind, such as skyscrapers and cats.
And while this study undermines their claims of a sickness they call wind turbine syndrome, they will continue to highlight the annoyance factor as a reason to do away with wind, despite the fact that we all involuntarily experience all sorts of similar annoyance factors throughout out lives – from noisy roads and highways to neighbours that drive you batty.
In the case of wind, that doesn’t mean every effort should not be taken to minimize potential annoyance. Quite the opposite, the wind industry has a duty to do so and should be held to account for negligence or poorly managed projects, when complaints raised are found reasonable.
It also doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who are particularly sensitive to noise, vibration and other things possibly associated with the operation of wind turbines. The same, of course, applies to people particularly sensitive to pollution, wireless frequencies, and certain smells.
What it does mean is that findings from Canada’s health agency, after doing a local, comprehensive and independent study – research that has been vetted by a wide range of scientific experts – has added considerable weight to evidence that says wind turbines don’t make people sick any more than a neighbour’s incessantly barking dog or a demanding, grumpy boss.
Or, for that matter, angry e-mails sent from wind opponents who don’t agree with what journalists write. Let’s hope this study at least puts to rest silly calls in Ontario for a moratorium on wind energy because of potential health implications.