Photo: Wind power and human health: No evidence of direct harm

Dr. David Colby researched extensively and found no scientifically credible evidence that wind turbines erode human health (Credit: Shawn Silver).

By W. David Colby, MSC, MD, FRCPC

I got pulled into the debate over wind turbines as acting medical health officer for Chatham-Kent, Ontario. The municipal council asked me to make sense of the conflicting information council was receiving about the potential effects of wind turbines on human health. Little did I know what I was in for!

I researched the topic extensively and found no scientifically credible evidence that wind turbines eroded human health. I was then asked to produce a more extensive report that was issued by the Chatham-Kent Health Unit. Since then I have been asked to speak on a number of occasions about wind turbines and health, and I have collaborated on an international panel review on the topic with some of the biggest names in audiology and occupational health.

It's a complicated topic that has been made more complicated by the huge amount of misinformation that has been circulated. Wind turbines do not produce unique sounds in terms of intensity or characteristics. The sound intensity is no different than what is found in normal urban environments. There is also no convincing scientific evidence of an epidemiologic link between wind turbine sound exposure and health problems. A small number of people believe otherwise; they've attributed illnesses of all kinds to wind turbine sounds.

There is no doubt that some people find the low level swish-swish sound of wind turbines annoying, and these people claim that annoyance itself is a health effect, since annoyance can lead to stress and too much stress is bad. By such criteria, a dripping faucet is a threat to health. Wind-power opponents make lurid claims about sickness caused by turbines, which they call "industrial" wind turbines, as that sounds more threatening. But recent reviews by Ontario's chief medical health officer and by the Australian government have confirmed that there is no evidence of direct adverse health effects from wind turbines.

DocsTlkSep.jpgFurthermore, all the power-generation alternatives except solar energy are clearly worse than wind turbines in terms of health and environmental effects! That's especially true of coal-fired generating stations. According to a study prepared for the Ontario government, coal plants cause nearly 250 deaths and more than 120,000 illnesses (such as asthma attacks) each year in the province.

This helps to put the issue in perspective. When it comes to energy choices for healthy communities, there's no case for tilting at windmills.

Dr. David Colby is the acting medical officer of health in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. He is also an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

September 9, 2010

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Feb 05, 2013
11:06 AM

Just came across this one, and i would have to summarize this idiot doesnt live near one to be able to make any useful comments on this topic. Tell you what why dont you come down to my other property, i’ll put you up for a week there and at the end of that tell me it doesnt affect you.

Sep 23, 2012
6:28 PM

just stumbled on this item, about two years after the fact… hopefully the author is now better informed than at time of writing… for me, the most telling aspect was at the top…there was a button for… thumbs up, but no button for thumbs down!! Most revealing…not interested in other views, and facts? Ain't religion great?

Jun 29, 2012
10:29 AM

It is less than comforting to hear David Colby opine in the same old way about the very subject he testified to in Ontario's first Environmental Review Tribunal — where he affirmed that he had found no scientifically credible evidence that wind turbines erode human health.

Ineterestingly, the Tribunal did not agree with Colby when they ruled that there is convincing evidence that the turbines can cause harm if they are too close to homes. According to the tribunal, the debate, “has now evolved to one of degree. The question that should be asked is: What protections, such as permissible noise levels or setback distances, are appropriate to protect human health?"

Colby has been passed by and his observations are no longer pertinent in this debate — just as the Flat earth society (although fun to listen to) is no longer credible, either.

Jan 20, 2012
2:17 PM

The problem with this analysis, is that the doctor cannot point to one global constituency heavily invested in wind industry, that can scientifically verify a reduction in the production of carbon emissions. Please, someone provide one jurisdiction that can demonstrate that the wind industry has actually contributed to carbon reductions.

Why is this so difficult? Well, that is because the wind industry, coal industry, oil sands industry are one in the same. Transalta, for example, is Canada's largest coal producer. It is also the owner and operator of one of the most controversial wind plant, the Wolfe Island Wind Plant — which has a bird mortality rate of 14 birds/turbine. No surprise, given it is in a globally and continentally important migratory route. Transalta has been very clear that it is using its "investments" in wind technology to expand coal production in the oil sands. That so called "investment" is really the tax dollars Ontario ratepayers are providing. The problem with how wind has been developed in Ontario — thanks to the Green Energy Act — is that the FIT program benefits large, multinationals, like Transalta, who use the generous subsidies to invest in coal and oilsands expansion.

Dec 13, 2011
10:20 AM

I'm all for wind energy but not at the cost of someone else good health or even their peace of mind. Let's be sure we're not creating a new set of environmental concerns as we eliminate the old ones.

We have all heard the "lack of scientific evidence" phrase before, the tobacco industry, chemical industry and GHG induced global warning opponents all use it. The sounds may not differ in nature from urban sounds but we are introducing them to suburban and rural areas that didn't formerly have them. Sound is energy and can produce unpredictable resonance in homes resulting in sleep loss at least and that is a health concern.

May 13, 2011
1:16 PM

Wind energy has been used in the Netherlands for centuries… perhaps we are confusing proper usage with a job producing industry…gov’ts routinely try to walk both sides of that street.
If the turbines being used have a productive life of 20 or so years and must be “decommissioned” after that…we have taken a wrong turn somewhere. There are windmills on the polders that have been milling grain, or pumping water since the 1300’s or, more recently, powering whole factories.
Perhaps we are thinking on too small a scale? There are areas in the far north with incessant wind and a very low population density. Wind farms just produce energy…a windmill does two jobs…it can mill or pump AND produce energy for storage or transmission.
Consider the opportunity…If we (Canadians) continue to use fossil fuels to produce energy and ignore the alternatives available because one facet of the alternative doesn’t suit one facet of the population….we are the problem. Canada has a great opportunity, and we certainly have the brains to exploit it.

Apr 20, 2011
9:30 AM

In Australia the Land and Environment Court came to a decision last year that has put properties owners, faced with the construction of 73 giant wind turbines in the vicinity or their homes, in a position to sell to the developer who must offer to purchase homes impacted by turbines. “If they don’t sell they will be living in a house that the Land and Environment Court thinks is uninhabitable.” I wonder why they came to this decision if there are no health impacts from industrial turbines?

Nov 18, 2010
2:06 PM

Clearly Mr. Colby is outdated. They are referred to as “Industrial” Wind Turbines because it is a massive piece of machinery that has gears, uses barrels of oil and must be maintained. The piece of land that Industrial Wind Turbines are built on is deemed Industrial. That was the point of bringing in the Green Energy Act, to more easily enable land to be used for Industrial Wind Turbines without municipal and therefore residents consent. Our Crown land is also being used for Industrial purposes as is the protected Green Belt. The energy policies of this government have destroyed our rural areas and ignored its citizens health. Where is David Suzuki to defend against “improperly” placed Wind Turibnes? There is a proposal to place them off Point Pelee in Lake Erie,our most used bird migration route. Where is David Suzuki then?

Nov 11, 2010
9:49 AM

There is evidence that low-frequency noise (below human hearing thresholds) can affect human physiology. I remember psychological studies done that showed increased irritability, loss of sleep leading to increased violence from psychology classes in university back in the 1970s. Further evidence has shown that our internal organs operate at very low frequencies and the interference from external sources at these same frequencies can cause problems such as irregular heartbeat. There is little documented evidence because the families who are suffer adverse health effects living near turbines are bought out by the companies operating the wind turbines and are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. Coined “Wind Turbine Syndrome” by Dr. Nina Pierpoint, she has now published a book by that name, Weekend of Nov 5-7, 2010 saw the first international symposium on the adverse health effects of wind turbines in Picton, Ontario. For the other side of the story check out Wind Concerns Ontario and Society for Wind Vigilance, also based in Ontario, They have links to similar organizations around the world and many more documented cases.

Nov 02, 2010
6:29 PM

I understand about the misinformation out there about health concerns but my question is about whether they are truly a “green” alternative.
I work in an area where they are proposing wind turbines and in the beginning I was not only on the bandwagon, I was driving it, but the more I find out about them, the less excited I’m becoming. There seems to be quite the “ecofootprint” in manufacturing, transporting and constructing these turbines, especially in light of their 18-20 year life span. And the wind company working in our area will not answer the question about what happens when it’s “decommissioned” in 20 years. The community is being lead to believe that it will be left standing there once it’s life expectancy is up. Also, the set backs in our area have been approved for 500 meters, the shortest set backs that I can find anywhere. Our school will have 2 turbines within 1200 meters. Have you done any studies on the “flicker” effect? I’m wondering how it will affect our student with attention-deficit disorders. The company themselves have “warned” us that it can sometimes (obviously depending on time of day and season) appear as though someone is in our classroom turning the light on and off, over and over again. Any information you could share would be appreciated!

Oct 06, 2010
1:18 PM

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