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.
Furthermore, 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.