Sarah Boesveld – Globe and Mail
By now, the residents of Wolfe Island, Ont., are getting used to the whirr and thump of wind turbines overhead. By next year, they’ll get a glimpse of whether those whirrs and thumps could be damaging their health.
Researchers at nearby Queen’s University have embarked on the first study to probe whether wind turbines built over communities can cause adverse health effects. The study measures residents’ health and well-being before the turbines arrived on the island, again when the turbines were built but not yet operational and again after they’d been operating for a few months.
People living close to turbines in other regions have reported nausea, headaches, dizziness, anxiety, sleep deprivation and tinnitus – an incessant ringing in a person’s ears.
However, there has yet to be any substantive research linking those ailments to the presence of windmills, says lead study author Neal Michelutti, a research scientist in the Queen’s University biology department.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time that people have acquired a snapshot of community health prior to wind turbines,” he says. “It gives us [a sense of] community health that we can use in a before-and-after comparison.”
The issue of health has become a lightning rod in the debate dividing communities where wind farms have been built, Wolfe Island being no exception.
While the Ontario government recently legislated a 550 metre setback for wind turbines, the 86 machines on Wolfe Island that officially hissed to life on June 26, are only 400 metres from people’s homes.
Last July, Dr. Michelutti and his Queen’s colleagues mailed out 1,000 SF36 surveys, a standard, multipurpose health questionnaire, to every registered address on Wolfe Island. Between 150 and 200 people returned the anonymous surveys.
On the survey, residents gave a snapshot of their general health, describing any illnesses or health problems both physical and emotional and sharing their level of physical activity and mental concentration. The researchers sent a second questionnaire asking about symptoms commonly reported by people living near wind turbines and for the residents’ attitudes toward the wind project.
The same survey was completed this spring and another will be mailed in late August after the turbines have chopped the air for two months. When the third round of surveys comes back, Dr. Michelutti and his colleagues will analyze the data to find out whether community health has suffered, he says.
They plan to follow up on an annual or biannual basis for a number of years to see whether the health impacts, if any, continue to persist or crop up later. It’s tricky to attribute ill health effects to turbines, without knowing a person’s health beforehand, Dr. Michelutti says, which is why a before-and-after comparison is so crucial.
“A lot of these symptoms are pretty commonly reported symptoms – anxiety, sleeplessness, these sort of things,” he says. “It’s difficult without having that baseline data to attribute them to a specific cause and effect like the windmills.”
Questions in the second survey which ask whether a respondent is for or against the wind farm may help them find out if symptoms are psychosomatic, he says.
Previous research, much of which has not been peer reviewed, links wind turbines with a variety of physical and emotional problems. Researchers in Portugal claimed the turbines contributed to “vibroacoustic disease,” a full body reaction to low frequency noise that affects the auditory and vestibular system, which controls a person’s ability to balance. A pediatrician in the United States coined the term “wind turbine syndrome” to describe the symptoms people experience from living near wind turbines, such as sleep disturbance, headache, vertigo, ear pressure, tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and concentration and memory problems.
Wind-farm construction has polarized communities across the country. Those in favour of wind energy say the environmental and economic benefits are plenty. Those against the farms have argued that they are annoying, disruptive and that they are harming the health of residents.
Dr. Michelutti says he and his colleagues are neutral on the issue and have not accepted funding from any anti-wind turbine groups or wind-energy development companies.
“What’s important to note is no one on this study is against windmills,” he says. “I think most people think windmills are great, but the question is does it make sense to build them on top of communities? Really what we’re hoping our study can contribute is information on proper setbacks for the turbines.”
Conducting unbiased research on the health effects of living near wind turbines is key, says Robert McMurtry, a professor emeritus at University of Western Ontario and former assistant deputy minister of population and public health at Health Canada. Such a hot button issue deserves proper tracking in order to advise on setback rates for future wind farms, he says.
“Repeating it in year two and three will really add important information to the understanding,” he says. “And then if you start doing correlations between setbacks and health problems, that will be very important too.”