Wind turbines' health impacts: Founded or unfounded?

Image by steve p2008 | flickr.com

Image by steve p2008 | flickr.com

At the end of December an Ontario court dismissed appeals from four families which claimed that the recent approval of large scale wind farms was unconstitutional due to the potential health effects of living close to turbines.  I thought it was fitting that shortly before this ruling, Health Canada released their findings on wind turbine noise on health.

The study aimed to quantify the health effects of wind turbine noise (WTN), low frequency noise (LFN), and infrasound from wind turbines.  Health Canada conducted the study in Ontario and Prince Edward Island by randomly sampling homes at varying distances from wind turbines.  Participants were then measured for hair cortisol, blood pressure, and sleep quality. Cortisol is an established biomarker of stress that can be measured from saliva, blood, or hair. The WTN was also measured at each residence. The study found that self-reported sleep, illness, stress, and quality of life were not related to a change in WTN levels. Increasing levels of WTN was related to increased reporting of annoyance. The annoyance was characterized by wind turbine features such as noise, shadow flicker, blinking lights, vibration, and visual impacts. It is worth noting that annoyance by wind turbine noise was 3.29 times higher in Ontario versus PEI, however the cause for this difference was not further examined in the present study. Annoyance was significantly lower for those who had a direct personal benefit from the wind turbine such as rent, payments, and community improvements. What the study terms “WTN annoyance” was statistically related to measured hair cortisol and systolic and diastolic blood pressure. However, these findings were not related to particular levels of noise or distance from turbines. This indicates that perhaps the level of long-term annoyance one feels has a link to health but is not related to environmental factors aside from the unsightly appearance of a wind turbine. Health Canada did not examine the health effects predating the installation of wind turbines, which would be another avenue to consider for future studies related to annoyance.

A similar study was conducted in the UK where they examined the effect of negative orientated personality (NOP) traits such as Neuroticism, Negative Affectivity, and Frustration Intolerance on the relationship between perceived and actual noise on non-specific symptoms. The study found that individuals with high NOP traits perceived WTN to be louder than actual measured noise and increased symptom reporting whereas actual measured noise did not predict an individual’s symptom reporting. The perceived wind turbine noise was associated with negative attitudes towards wind turbines and was not related to actual noise levels experienced by these individuals. Thus participants in this self-reporting survey who were not experiencing a change in actual WTN reported symptoms based on the perceived noise.

Both of these studies conclude that those who have a negative attitude towards wind turbines or those that exhibit personality traits such as those above will perceive more noise from the turbine. However, that perceived noise is not related to proximity to wind turbines or actual measured noise. From a geographic health perspective, I would assume that if there is a relationship to adverse health effect(s) due to wind turbine noise that these health effect(s) would have a spatial relationship to distance from the wind turbine. Since this was not the case with the two studies mentioned above, I question the validity of some of the claims made by those in proximity to wind turbines regarding adverse health effects. These studies seem to support that the health effects observed are not in relation to WTN but in fact due to one’s personality traits.

*It should be noted that the Health Canada study linked here is still in preliminary stages, with peer-reviewed and published papers to come in 2015.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.