By Susan Hundertmark, Seaforth Huron Expositor
As municipalities and some health units in Ontario continue to call for an independent health study on industrial wind turbines, Dr. Claudio Munoz, research director of Gateway Rural Health Research Institute, says he is part of a team looking for funding to conduct such a study after approaching the Ministry of the Environment in November of 2009.
Munoz says he and a team of researchers from Kingston’s health unit and Queen’s University have collaborated on a study proposal that would look at communities where local residents are being exposed to wind turbines and communities where wind turbines are not in place yet.
Munoz says the group sent a letter of intent to Minister of the Environment John Gerretsen on Nov. 2, 2009 and received a response in January, 2010.
Dr. Paul Masotti, of the Kingston, Frontenac, and Lennox and Addington (KFL and A) Health Unit and Queen’s University, says the letter’s intent was to inform the province that someone is prepared to do a research study on wind turbines in Ontario and Gerretsen referred the group to other possible funders. Masotti met Munoz at a conference in Kingston where Masotti was giving a presentation on wind turbines.
“He’s (Gerretsen is) not a funder and we didn’t ask him for funding. But we told him we’re in a position to do the study,” says Masotti, the lead researcher in the study proposal. He adds that a full proposal hasn’t yet been developed or submitted for funding.
Masotti says that while he doesn’t believe the construction of wind turbines must stop before a study on their health effects is done, there is no definitive evidence yet that wind turbines don’t cause health problems.
“There is not enough research to prove they (wind turbines) don’t cause problems. Our position is that the quality of the research done so far is not credible enough to document whether wind turbines have an impact or not. More research needs to be done,” adds Munoz, continuing that the design of the studies, done mostly in Europe, and the length of the follow-up hasn’t been sufficient to determine any long-term effects.
The proposal sent to Gerretsen cites the statistic that 1.88 million Google searches in September, 2009 were looking for information on wind turbines and health, illustrating the dramatic increase in public interest in the topic. On the Internet, searchers can find information about “wind turbine syndrome” and “vibroacoustic disease” whose symptoms are listed as pericardial thickening, respiratory pathology, late onset epilepsy, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory pathology, sleep disturbance, headache, tinnitus, ear pressure, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, visual blurring, tachycardia, irritability, problems with concentration/memory, and panic episodes.
The study proposal points out that the information about health concerns come from anecdotal evidence, creating a “clear need for research.”
“The current situation presents problems for government and public health units when responding to public concerns. For example, the typical response is that there is no available evidence that exposure to wind turbines causes ill health and that this suggestion is supported by expert opinion. However, this allows one to argue that there also is no evidence that wind turbines do not cause ill health,” says the proposal.
“I have a problem with people relying on things the read on the Internet when they don’t know how to judge what’s scientific or not,” says Masotti.
Munoz says the proposed study would measure noise levels in homes along with the blood pressure and cortisol levels of the people living there, comparing residents of the Kingston area where a number of wind turbines have already been erected with Huron County where wind turbines are in the planning stages. Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress.
The main research question will be, “Is exposure to wind turbines associated with ill health among residents living within 1.5 km to a wind farm?” The study would identify all the residences within 1.5 km of wind farms or proposed wind farms, measure high and low frequency noise exposure levels in a random sample of residences and all residences with noise complaints and document self-reported quality of life, health status and annoyance along with clinical outcomes such as chronic stress levels and new or increased morbidity levels.
“The trick is designing the study to provide a true answer. It won’t be easy,” says Munoz, adding that he’d like to see a study that runs for at least five years.
“This would be an opportunity to do a study pre and post wind turbines. That’s the interesting part,” says Munoz.
In communities with planned wind farms, baseline data will be collected before the turbines are erected. In the Wolf Island area near Kingston, more than 80 wind turbines are operating.
Experts would include medical doctors, PhD researchers, health unit professionals, a health geographer and an acoustician to plot the wind turbines and residents using GIS (geographical information system) and make sound measurements.
Munoz says current literature says the No. 1 effect of wind turbines on health is increased annoyance levels, a phenomenon that has been documented whenever new technology, such as trains, cars and airplanes, develops.
“Over time, the level of annoyance phases out and the same thing may happen with wind turbines,” he says.
He adds that it will be difficult to determine if wind turbines lead to problems with high blood pressure and stroke since the statistics on heart disease and stroke are already so high in Huron County.
As well, he says it will be difficult to avoid bias in the study when the issue has been so politicized.
“We’ll need a control group to bring answers to our questions. It will require a long term follow-up and long term funding and it will be a struggle to get that,” he says, adding that they will keep developing their proposal.
Munoz says they also sent the proposal to the Canadian Institute of Health Research but came ninth when eight grant proposals were funded.
Masotti says work is still being done to create a more comprehensive study proposal on wind turbines, which he hopes will eventually find funding.
“My interest level is still high,” he says.