Wind Turbines: Do the Health Risks Outweigh the Green Benefits?

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Research shows the closer a person lives to a wind turbine, the greater the negative health impact.

Rachel Thompson raises free-to-range chickens with her partner Andy on their farm in Bruce County near Tiverton overlooking Lake Huron. She takes great care to see that her birds are well nourished with organic and non-GMO grains, home-grown sunflower seeds, vegetables and apples. She believes peoples’ health is more important than profits.

It was this caring attitude that prompted Rachel to approach the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario with a 55-page document in which she and other rural women have meticulously recorded ordinary people speaking plainly of their own health experience once wind turbines arrived in their community. Her research began in 2010 with local Health Affected Residents Meetings (H.A.R.M.) which two neighbours, Patti Hutton and Catharine Crawford had established when many residents living among the wind turbines began to report health issues.

The symptom most widely experienced is the inability to sleep owing to continuous, low-frequency “pounding”. This is not the government-regulated “audible” noise. The turbines generate pressure waves that cause discomfort. It is a constant vibrating or pulsing sensation felt throughout their bodies but particularly in the head and chest when the turbines are operating. The only way to escape it is by leaving home. Their bodies vibrate day and night making sleep almost impossible. They talk of feeling dizzy, getting shocks off taps, feeling pressure and ringing in the ears. Many find the nausea and headaches unbearable and have to get away for relief as often as they can. Some have had to give up jobs. Children are falling behind in school, unable to concentrate and falling asleep at their desks. Even pets and livestock are disturbed.

Not everyone is affected — maybe 10 – 15%. But Rachel realized these were the same symptoms described world-wide, wherever wind turbines have been situated near homes.

Yet her neighbours’ concerns had been belittled and ignored by the developers and the government. Many who complained to the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) were told that no one else had complained. They would have to “live with it.” Developers claimed the turbines were in compliance with the law and provincial sound regulations. Cabinet ministers ignored letters, trivialized those who spoke out and implied that they were selfish. Their symptoms were psychosomatic, brought on by jealousy of neighbours receiving money for turbine leases.

Arran-Elderslie Deputy Mayor, Mark Davis, Chair of the Multi-municipal Wind Turbine Working Group (comprised of municipal councillors and citizens from municipalities in Bruce, Dufferin, Grey, Huron and Perth Counties where over 30% of Ontario’s turbines are located) has heard dozens of delegations from suffering people.

“These people are not cranks — they are responsible, respected citizens in our communities. We know them and we know they are not lying.”

Now, however, the duplicity of the government has come to light in Freedom of Information (FOI) documents obtained after a year and a half through the determined persistence and considerable expense of another rural Ontario woman, Barbara Ashbee.

The FOI documents reveal that the government was always aware of the problem. In 2009, an MOE Provincial Officer reported that “Noise emissions from… wind turbines… are producing large numbers of complaints (dating back to March, 2006) alleging adverse health effects”  and that “MOE Provincial Officers have attended at several of the complainant’s residences and have confirmed that… the noise emissions are in fact causing material discomfort to the residents in and around their homes” and that “an adverse effect is occurring and therefore a contravention of S.14 (1) EPA (Environmental Protection Act) is occurring [and] that appropriate abatement action must occur forthwith and if necessary be made mandatory via a provincial officer order”. He called for the turbines to be shut down overnight. His report was kept secret and ignored.

Meanwhile, the government and the industry continued to deny there were any problems, repeatedly citing a literature review by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Arlene King, which was released in May 2010. It concluded that there was no direct link between the turbines and health problems.

That review, however, has been discredited as flawed by Dr. Robert McMurtry, former Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario (along with many other international medical experts) because it made no attempt to interview actual people living near the turbines and was merely a very selective literature search.

Against this background and faced with ongoing suffering in her community, Rachel approached Dr. Hazel Lynn, Grey-Bruce Medical Officer of Health. Dr. Lynn knew from her community experience that many people had been dramatically impacted by the noise and proximity of wind farms. “To dismiss all these people as eccentric, unusual, or as hyper-sensitive social outliers, does a disservice to constructive public discourse” she told her Health Board. As a result of Rachel’s presentation along with Virginia Stewart Love of Grey Highlands, Dr. Lynn decided to do her own literature review with the assistance of epidemiologist and MD, Dr. Ian Arra. It was presented on February 22, 2013.

Using more recent information than was available in 2010, they found that in all 18 of the observed peer reviewed studies of people living around industrial wind turbines, health issues of varying levels occurred in every situation. In 3 of the studies, they noted a dose response i.e. the closer to a turbine the greater the negative health occurrence.

Nevertheless, three days after Dr. Lynn’s report was issued, Brandy Giannetta of CanWEA (the industry association) repeated several times in front of three or four hundred Ontario mayors and councillors attending the Rural Ontario Municipal Association Conference in Toronto that there are no adverse health effects from wind turbines.

Frustrated and disillusioned people have tried to sell their homes and move away, only to find that they were no longer saleable. Local real estate agents say customers walk away when they hear turbines are coming. Many houses remain unsold. The Royal Bank recently refused to issue a secured credit line on property in a wind development because of “health concerns” and “the high risk that its future marketability may be jeopardized”. Some families have had to abandon their homes. Those who cannot are forced to remain and suffer. Those who have signed leases to host wind turbines on their property have also signed non-disclosure clauses preventing them from speaking publicly about their distress.

British sleep medicine expert, Dr. Christopher Hanning, MD, FRCA, MRCS, LRCP, founder of the Leicester Sleep Disorders Service, at the University Hospitals of Leicester, England, insists:

“In my expert opinion, from my knowledge of sleep physiology and a review of the available research, I have no doubt that wind turbine noise emissions cause sleep disturbance and ill health.”

His observation is echoed by 71 physicians, medical researchers and acousticians worldwide who have now investigated or voiced concerns for the health of wind turbine neighbours.

Now a study just published by the National Academy of Scientists in the U.S. indicates that sleep deprivation radically alters more than 700 genes in the body responsible for repairing tissues and cells. When vital repair work during sleep fails, the body is left open to autoimmune disease or metabolic and stress disorders, the study says.

Scientists suspect that part of the effect of the turbines is caused by low frequency noise or infrasound. Dr. Alec Salt, Professor of Otolaryngology at Washington University in St Louis, warns that “the ear detects infrasound at levels that cannot be heard and it can have effects on the body that profoundly disturb some individuals”.

Ontario’s Independent Electricity Supply Operator (IESO) recently warned that the sporadic and unpredictable production of wind power is jeopardizing the reliability and economic feasibility of the grid and that unusable surplus wind power may cost consumers $200 million a year. Developers are paid twice as much for wind energy which is routinely produced at times when it can’t be used. Their profits represent a huge transfer of funds from electricity consumers to transnational corporations.

The Ontario Auditor General says because they need fossil-fuelled back up running inefficiently on standby for whenever the wind stops blowing, “we are paying twice for wind energy.” He says to shut down coal we will need to build 5,000 MW of new gas-fired production. Evidence shows wind turbines have not reduced CO2 emissions anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile the government goes on approving even more wind turbine projects without proper oversight. The Health Affected Residents Meetings continue because there are ongoing unresolved health problems. These women are determined to redress the injustice that is being done against their communities.

Norma Schmidt is another of Rachel’s neighbours who vacated her home because of illness from the turbines. She says “People should not be guinea pigs” and she wants to see all operating and planned turbine projects halted and a public enquiry.  Ninety-one Ontario municipalities agree that there should be a moratorium.

Further reading: Stop ill wind: and Ontario Wind Resistance

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