Opinion: Dr. W. David Colby: Turbines and Health

IPPSO FACTO (Magazine of the Association of Power Producers of Ontario)

November 2011, Volume 25, Number 5

When I became the acting medical officer of health for Chatham-Kent, little did I know that I would be swept headlong into controversy about harnessing the wind right here in our backyard. Three years ago, I was asked to help make sense of the conflicting information the local council was receiving about the effectsof wind turbines on human health.

I researched the topic extensively and found no scientifically credible evidence that wind turbines eroded human health. I was then asked to produce a more extensive report that was issued by the Chatham-Kent Health Unit. Since then I have been asked to speak on a number of occasions about wind turbines and health, and I have collaborated on an international panel review on the topic with some of the biggest names in audiology and occupational health.

It is admittedly a complicated topic that has been made more complicated by the huge amount of misinformation that has been circulated. Wind turbines do not produce unique sounds in terms of intensity or characteristics. The sound intensity is virtually the same as what is found in normal urban environments. There is also no convincing scientific evidence of an epidemiologic link between wind turbine sound exposure and health problems.  However, a very small number of people believe otherwise; they've attributed illnesses of all kinds to wind turbines. There is no doubt that some people find the low level swishswish sound of wind turbines annoying. And these people claim that annoyance itself is a health effect, since annoyance can lead to stress and too much stress is bad. However, by such criteria, living anywhere in a town or city is a threat to health.

Wind power opponents continue to make claims about sickness caused by turbines, which they call "industrial" wind turbines, as that sounds more threatening. However, 10 reviews, including reviews by Ontario's chief medical health officer, the Australian government, the Sierra Club and McMaster University have confirmed that there is no evidence of direct adverse health effects from wind turbines when sited to comply with Ontario's noise regulations.  Furthermore, all the power generation alternatives except solarenergy are clearly worse than wind turbines in terms of health and environmental effects. That's especially true of coal-fired generating stations. According to a study prepared for the Ontario government, coal plants cause nearly 250 deaths and more than 120,000 illnesses (such as asthma attacks) each year in the province.

 So while I am sympathetic to concerns raised by local residents and agree that any projects must be sited in a way that minimizes impact on local residents, when it comes to energy choices for healthy communities, I am confident that we shouldn't be tilting at windmills.

Dr. W. David Colby is acting medical officer of health in Chatham-Kent, and associate professor at the University of Western Ontario's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

Related articles:

Canadian researchers: No direct link between wind turbines and health, November 29, 2011
Wind power: A quiet solution to climate change, June 27, 2011
Sierra Club Canada 1.1: Time to confront anti-wind fear campaign, June 15, 2011
Environmental Defence (Canada): 'No basis' for health impact claims, June 6, 2011
Sierra Club Canada: Time to confront anti-wind disinformation campaign, June 3, 2011
WINDPOWER report: New study finds minimal low-frequency and infrasound impact from wind turbines, May 25, 2011
Does the sound of money soothe Wind Turbine Syndrome?, April 25, 2011
WHO guidelines on sound are … guidelines, March 28, 2011
Scientists, doctor weigh in on wind and health, November 30, 2010
Wind turbine sound: The neighbors speak, March 18, 2010
Expert panel concludes wind turbine sounds not harmful to human health, December 15, 2009

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