Ontario has a choice: in the coming post carbon world, whether it will invest in nuclear power, or start building wind turbines.
More and more wind turbines are going up across the province, and not in the future, but right now. New builds are being facilitated by the Green Energy Act, which took the authority to approve wind farms away from municipalities and gave it to the province. The hope for the Act is that by doing this, it will speed up approvals, overcome local political objections and get turbines up and producing electricity as soon as possible.
Yet wherever wind turbines go up, objections rain down. And for all the objections that can be laid against wind farms – noise pollution, sightline obstruction, and effect on property values – one of the most intriguing objections has to be the fear of damage to people’s health. People living near wind farms have reported a whole range of symptoms, including sleep disturbance, headaches, tinnitus, ear pressure, dizziness, nausea, tachycardia, irritability, and more. One doctor, Nina Pierpont, has put a name to it, calling this collection of complaints ‘wind turbine syndrome‘, and hypothesising a biological cause based on low frequency sound waves.
But wind turbines aren’t new. The technology has been around for decades, and usage, in countries like Denmark and Germany, is so widespread that if wind turbine syndrome was real, surely, surely, somebody would have noticed by now. The beguiling question is why not.
Research from Europe – where people have had extensive exposure to wind turbines, for decades – has failed to uncover any such problems. For example, a mail-in study of 725 Dutch rural residents living close to wind turbines received 268 responses, 92% of which said they were satisfied with their living environment, and no statistically significant correlations between levels of wind turbine noise and health or well being were found. The same study did come out with a few other intriguing findings though, on which more later.
One obvious point to make is that in Europe, wind turbines have a high level of acceptability. Even so, some people do experience disatisfaction with wind turbine builds, and they can experience annoyance, but this has not been elevated to the level of calling their experience a medical syndrome. Let’s take a quick look at the reasons for high public acceptance. It will prove to be relevant to the health issue, as we will later see.
In Denmark, where wind turbines are most common, by the year 2001, 85% of the turbines were owned by local co-operatives or individual farmers. Imagine: local ownership, generating income for local people, sited according to local desires and in accordance with the resident’s interests. That’s in stark contrast to the Canadian situation. In Canada, a large company, with no sympathy for local concerns, can dramatically change the visual and aural scenery of a township or village with a wind farm. Sadly, local or co-operative ownership of wind farms is not likely to happen in Canada. In its absence, wind farms –and the companies that want to build them – will, one hopes, seek other ways to find public approval.
Let’s take a look at what Denmark does with set back distances. Windmills must be situated at a minimum distance of 4 × their height away from habitation. If the windmill is erected closer than 6 × its height, an estimation is carried out free of charge regarding the depreciation of the property value. If the loss is more than 1%, full compensation of the loss in property value is paid out. If the property is situated farther away than 6 × the height of the windmill, 4,000 DKK is payable to have an evaluation of the loss in value carried out. If it is estimated that the depreciation is more than 1%, the loss in value of the property is paid out and the 4,000 DKK reimbursed. If it is estimated that there is no loss in value of the property, the 4,000 DKK is forfeited. Owners of windmills have to pay the compensation.
Implicit in this process is the understanding that property prices will be affected if a windmill is situated too close to a property. If on appraisal, a property is found to have lost value, the owner of the windmill is responsible and must compensate the property owner. This is a serious concern and a source for tremendous angst for any homeowner, and it is a concern that remains currently unaddressed in Canada.
In France, 500 m set back distances are used for wind turbines. Germany considers local noise protection status, and set back distances are determined by the permitted decibel limit for that area. The Netherlands uses a limit of 4x the height of the wind turbine mast, and a maximum noise level of 40 dB. Broadly speaking, set back distances of around 500 m, and permitted noise levels of 35-45 dB, are common in the rest of the world. What about here in Canada? In Ontario, set back distances are mandated at 400 m, which is similar or slightly closer than a lot of other places.
So how is that in Denmark, with its similar set back distances and much greater population exposure to wind turbines, has never come up with wind turbine syndrome, while Canada, with a limited populaton exposed to wind turbines, is so concerned about it?
To give Dr. Pierpont’s hypothesis consideration, I think it is biologically plausible that wind turbines, producing persistent, low frequency sound, could cause perturbations in human health and the symptoms of wind turbine syndrome. It’s certainly possible, albeit unproven as yet. However, Dr. Pierpont’s work, while interesting, is incomplete. Her 38 case studies are far from conclusive when, as in the case of Denmark and Germany, their large populations – and, if you will, very large datasets – should have revealed the existence of a widespread, wind-turbine-related human health problem. But these two countries have not.
And that is a big problem for the wind turbine syndrome hypothesis. It is very unlikely that a problem would only exist in Canada and the States, and not exist in countries like Denmark and Germany, when all four countries are using what is essentially the same technology. So what makes the difference? In Denmark and Germany, wind turbines are widespread, widely welcomed and well managed. In Canada and the United States, they are rare, imposed, and sometimes poorly planned. One is tempted to conclude that the best cure for wind turbine syndrome – or perhaps the best preventative – is to desire wind turbines in the first place, rather than to resent them as an imposition.
Can it be that simple? It should certainly be considered that wind turbine syndrome may be explained, at least for some people, by the nocebo effect. A nocebo (Latin for “I will harm”) is something that should be ineffective but which causes symptoms of ill health, and the ‘nocebo effect’ is an ill effect caused by the belief that something is harmful. In this case, the belief that wind turbines are harmful results in the manifestation of a number of non specific symptoms, including sleep disturbance, head aches, nausea and so on. But I don’t think the nocebo effect alone can really explain wind turbine syndrome. It is also plausible that someone, resentful of the new wind turbine and primed to expect ill health from it, attributes any and all illnesses and ailments to the ever present wind turbine. Ill health can then become a self fulfilling prophecy.
It would not be fair, though, to dismiss every wind turbine related health complaint in this way. Indeed, there are a number of fairly obvious exceptions. A wind turbine is a very large, and, if you are close enough, very loud structure. Can a poorly sited wind turbine that produces constant, audible and persistent noise lead to sleep disturbance, stress and headaches? Certainly. There are also problems related to light flicker from turbine blades moving in front of the sun.
Given all of that, in as much as wind turbine syndrome may be – if it exists – caused by infrasound, as Dr. Pierpont has proposed, it must be disentangled from: any possible nocebo effect; a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of attributing unrelated ailments to the new wind turbine; and a self fulfilling prophecy of illness. Given these confounders, 38 case studies simply do not suffice as proof.
The answer, in the end, may be to just avoid these problems in the first place. This is the other side of the European story, illustrated by the intriguing findings to which I alluded earlier. For the Dutch respondents to the postal survey, the risk for being annoyed by wind turbine noise outdoors increased with increasing sound levels; one would expect exactly that to happen, and it does suggest that set back distances should be based on noise levels as well as minimum distances. But this, for me, is the key finding from the study: “Noise annoyance due to wind turbine noise was associated with stress symptoms, psychological distress and lowered sleep quality.” All of those things, be they stress, mental or psychological distress, or lack of sleep, can result in what would appear to be a ‘syndrome’ of symptoms, but this syndrome doesn’t need a new, cutting edge medical hypothesis based on infrasound to explain it. What it does need is an acknowledgement that poorly sited wind turbines, or turbines sited by fiat, can lead to real physical and mental perturbations.
We do need wind turbines. We need a lot of them. But if people are being made resentful and embittered by the process and the siting of wind turbine construction, we should look at this process as a political failure and one with potential implications for health and quality of life.
Unfortunately, in Ontario, the Green Energy Act has rendered the public uniquely powerless against wind farms. By removing jurisdiction for approval to the province, local people can no longer influence their own politicians and their own town councillors to prevent wind farm construction. Adopting the rhetoric of climate change denial won’t stop wind energy. Pleading for the preservation of a scenic view won’t have much sway on a distant bureaucrat in a distant city. When one cannot argue against a de facto political decision, what can one do? In that regard, claiming an unproven, barely plausible health problem as one’s own has got to be worth a try. Like embarking on a hunger strike, attributing non-specific illnesses to the local wind turbine can seem to be a persuasive, last ditch, desperate form of rhetoric. For stressed, unhappy people, feeling disempowered and wronged, claiming to suffer an unproven syndrome may be all that they have left in their armory.
If the European experience has taught us anything about wind farms, it is that gaining acceptance and achieving consensus is essential to growing the wind power industry. When local communities are involved in wind turbine decisions, when they are treated respectfully and honestly, as the European experience shows, they can be won over to the idea. When wind farms are imposed on communities without consent, without concern, without consultation and with insufficient set back distances, local hostility and resentment can burn for a long, long time. When a company purchases agricultural land at low cost and then seeks provincial approval for a wind farm, with only a cursory attempt to inform the local populace of their plans, it is an imposition. This isn’t the same as NIMBYism. It isn’t that people don’t want wind turbines from the outset. It isn’t even that they don’t want wind turbines in their back yard or local area. It is that wind turbine locations should be reasonable, and the parties that want them should seek, and obtain, consensus. Then, like Germany and Denmark, we won’t see a hint of wind turbine syndrome.
In fact, at the end of this post, I’ll offer a testable prediction. News reports on ‘wind turbine syndrome’ and statements from pressure groups invoking its existence will be more prevalent in countries with lower levels of public acceptance for wind turbines. Conversely, reportage on wind turbine syndrome will be significantly lower in countries with high levels of public acceptance for wind turbines. Check back in 12-18 months, count newspaper articles and we’ll see how things turn out.