Wind power opponents may be blowing hot air | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation
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When it comes to wind power, we have to be careful to ensure that impacts on the environment and on animals such as birds and bats are minimized, and we should continue to study possible effects on health. But we must also be wary of false arguments against it. (Credit: Tim Wilson via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

Opposition to windmills often centres on health effects, but what is it about wind power that causes people to feel ill? According to recent research, it may not be the infrasound from wind-energy installations but, oddly enough, the warnings from opponents.

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For a study published in the American Psychological Association's Health Psychology journal, researchers from New Zealand's University of Auckland showed readily available anti-wind-power film footage to 27 people. Another 27 were shown interviews with experts who said infrasound, such as that created by wind turbines, can't directly cause negative health effects. Subjects were then told they would be exposed to two 10-minute periods of infrasound, but were actually only exposed to one.

After both real and "sham" exposure, people in the first group were far more likely to report negative symptoms than those in the second. In fact, subjects in the second group reported "no symptomatic changes" after either exposure. According to the researchers, "Results suggest psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints."

Another study, which has yet to be published, shows people living near wind-power installations report more health problems during anti-wind campaigns. Researchers from Australia's Sydney University found only 120 complaints from people living within five kilometres of the country's 49 wind farms between 1993 and 2012. But 68 per cent were from people living near five wind farms targeted by anti-wind-farm groups, and 82 per cent occurred after 2009, when wind-energy opponents started highlighting health scares in their campaigns.

The power of suggestion can be extremely effective, especially when it comes to human health. Unfortunately, in the case of wind energy, this can delay or even stop wind-power installations that are a necessary part of the shift from polluting fossil fuels to clean energy, as has happened recently in Canada.

In fact, science shows that wind energy does not negatively affect human health in any significant way. An independent panel convened by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection reviewed the available research and released a report last year. It found no scientific evidence to support most claims about "Wind Turbine Syndrome", infrasound effects and harm blamed on wind power such as pain and stiffness, diabetes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease and headache/migraine.

At worst, there is some evidence that wind installations may cause annoyance and sleep disruption. But most of the resulting minor effects can be overcome by regulations governing how close windmills are to residences. In Ontario, the required setback is 550 metres. At this distance, audible sound from windmills is normally below 40 decibels, which is about what you'd find in most bedrooms and living rooms.

On the other hand, we know that using fossil fuels for energy has profound effects on human health — and on the economy. The Canadian Medical Association reports that in 2008 air pollution in Canada was responsible for 21,000 premature deaths, 92,000 emergency room visits and 620,000 visits to a doctor's office. And a new study by the Pembina Institute found that "health impact costs associated with burning coal for electricity in Alberta are close to $300 million annually."

According to Pembina researchers, "Coal plants are a major source of toxic air contaminants, including mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter. The study shows that in Alberta each year this pollution contributes to over 4,000 asthma episodes, over 700 emergency visits for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and around 80 hospital admissions, with chronic exposures resulting in nearly 100 premature deaths."

Factor these costs into the equation, and coal and other fossil fuels don't seem like the bargain they're purported to be — especially considering the sector is subsidized by about $1.9 trillion a year worldwide, according to the International Monetary Fund. With the costs of renewable energy coming down, and the technology improving, more and more research shows that switching from fossil fuels to clean energy is feasible.

When it comes to wind power, we have to be careful to ensure that impacts on the environment and on animals such as birds and bats are minimized, and we should continue to study possible effects on health. But we must also be wary of false arguments against it.

April 18, 2013
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2013/04/wind-power-opponents-may-be-blowing-hot-air/

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26 Comments

Jan 02, 2014
11:48 PM

Hi, Thanks for sharing very good tips.I really like this post.

Dec 03, 2013
10:08 AM

My name is John and I find this blog offensize.

Thank you

Sep 15, 2013
3:37 AM

For an excellent peer reviewed and well researched article on this topic published in May 2013 go to

http://www.cfp.ca/content/59/5/473.full

Aug 24, 2013
2:07 AM

Why are most nations opting for the very large wind turbines which are the noisiest when shorter length blades or vertical barrel shaped ones might be quieter?

Jun 03, 2013
9:03 PM

I recently visited a farm of very large three bladed wind turbines when the winds were howling at 50 kph and gusting up to 70 kph. This was a needed reality recheck for me after hearing so many stories of ill effects arising from such exposures as I had done this years ago.

Spending most of the day wondering the meadows around the wind farm generally within 200 meters of a turbine most of time and sitting directly under one for a couple of hours I found the experience reassuring.

The birds were all going about their usual activities and I could clearly hear their calls. I found the sound from the turbine itself became barely perceptible due to competition with the sound of the wind flowing over the grasses and through leaves in the trees. Nothing about it suggested to me that if I could filter out these other sounds the turbine sound would be obnoxious. There was no palpation of anything suggesting high levels of infra sound were present.

It struck me that this was truly an engineering masterpiece for such a large machine to be outputting maximum energy while emitting so little sound.

The presence of the turbines in the visual field was impossible not to notice however in some strange sense they seemed to fit in the environment,

It was a fine day and it left me wondering what all these people were talking about?

Jun 02, 2013
12:49 AM

Excellent article. Wind is the oldest and most matured Renewable Energy source. These types of petty criticism with out any scientific base will only expose the critics of Wind venergy their lack of knowledge.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

May 30, 2013
3:49 PM

Sorry, one last posting.

I have just learned that there is currently an Environmental appeal (ERT) going in in Toronto/Picton right now.

This is the website of the “anti turbine” side. Read the day-by-day proceedings to hear some health complaints reported. I find it hard to believe all these people have just “made up” their symptoms. It seems many affected are older people with existing health problems. Nonetheless, people appear to be suffering and it is time to take notice.

http://appec.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/ert-hearings-resume-may-14th-930-am/ (follow daily proceedings by clicking on upper right of page)

An obvious question is why are we seeing this now, after a decade of European projects? Perhaps it is because Ontario is putting turbines in populated (rural and small town) areas. Once turbines go in, we are all living with a giant wind farm.

Richard Mann Waterloo ON

May 30, 2013
3:10 AM

Would you kindly remove my previous comment and replace with the following. I reconsidered my post after reading the refernces on your page. Thanks!

I am concerned about “sub sonics” or “infrasound”. This may or may not cause health problems. I don’t know. A few people appear to be suffering. Should we not talk to them first and find out why? Perhaps they have pre existing hearing problems that make them susceptible. We don’t know the long term effects on humans or animals, either.

The problem is that neither the Government nor the energy companies are addressing the infrasound issue. They currently only measure “A weighted” sound levels, which essentially ignores the low frequencies. How can we debate something that we are not even measuring?

Reference: A technical paper questioning “A weighting”: http://home.mchsi.com/dmaguire/dba-djm.pdf

As a concrete step I suggest that the wind companies provide a full disclosure of the sound levels, including infrasound. This could then be compared to existing disturbances such as traffic, machinery, train, etc.

Finally, even if infrasound is not a problem, and there are only moderate increases of sound levels, I don’t think we should be turning all our natural and rural landscape into industrical areas. Isn’t part of a “green” lifestyle supposed to be about local sustainability. It would be much better to support small scale energy projects. Stop factory farming as well, as that is clearly not small scale either…

Sincerely, Richard Mann Waterloo ON

May 23, 2013
4:10 PM

I felt I had to come back to this forum… and come clean.

One of the reasons I do not want the construction of wind farms to take place, is that it is scientifically proven, without a doubt, that wind farms keep all sorts of evil dragons at bay. And I’m not talking about the little ones — the really large, man-eating, fire breathing, thunder-shattering red dragons, and their larger, more dangerous counterparts, the black dragons.

Science has shown us that wind farms can be used to force air back towards the dragons, sending them adrift into the icy abyss from which they spawned. Many of us, the dragon-worshippers, would be content to see all forms of wind turbines demolished. We can then herald the arrival of the Dragons once more, and the days of daily human sacrifices shall return!

i believe there was a study done by the university of Calgary that proved this without a doubt. Help us by spreading the infrasound doctrine to ALL humankind!

May 10, 2013
7:28 AM

I just cancelled my monthly donation to DZF.

This narrowly focused “review” of scientific evidence on the Science Matters section of this web site was the precipating reason.

As for the 30x30 nature challenge, try to walk out your back door and feel anything remotely natural when you have a wind farm built around your home.

Apr 30, 2013
7:23 AM

This blog post only proves two things: 1) The placebo effect exists. Shocking. 2) It is important to use critical thinking even when the information is coming from a source you trust.

Lets put the contents of this article into perspective. Lets theoretically apply the scientific method used to the widely accepted fact that long term excessive sun exposure can lead to skin damage and skin cancer .

Study one:

A group of scientists took a group of 54 people and showed half of them a movie about the risks of overexposure to sun. The other half were shown a video on the benefits of sun exposure.

The two groups were then exposed to 20 minutes of sun and asked how they felt afterwards. The people in the first group that was warned, said they were concerned they may have a mild burn. The people in the second group said they felt healthier.

Based on this study that took less than half a day, the scientists concluded that long term excessive sun exposure does not cause cancer or skin damage, and it’s all in people’s heads.

Study two:

In another study which hasn’t even been published yet so no one can even review it and submit questions about the scientific method used, scientists found that after communities were exposed to ad campaigns about the risks of sun exposure, more people went to the doctor with concerns about abnormalities on their skin.

This proves that the ad campaigns caused these people to have abnormalities. This does not prove that the ads caused the people in the community to be more aware of and cautious about the abnormalities in their skin that may be a precursor to skin cancer. It also doesn’t prove that the community had those skin abnormalities before, but were not aware that they were connected to sun exposure before the ad campaigns, so the doctor visits regarding the skin abnormalities were not recorded as sun-related, so there was no accurate record to compare it to from before the ad campaign. Nope. Doesn’t prove that at all.

I’m obviously not a scientist, but even my high school level science and critical thinking skills allowed me to put this obvious propaganda into perspective. These studies do not even touch on the long term, cumulative effects of living too close to wind turbines, from a variety of wind turbine related problems including infrasound, flicker, stray voltage, etc.

It’s like saying that because I didn’t drop dead of a heart attack after eating one cheeseburger, it is safe to assume that eating cheeseburgers every day will not cause me to have a heart attack eventually. A child should be able to see through these “studies”.

Apr 27, 2013
7:17 PM

The wind industry is based on greed,ignorance and institutional deceit.It’s propaganda rewards the greedy ,flatters the gullible and exploits the well intentioned.

Also I’m amazed that there are still people out such as Alexia who seem to actually believe that wind and solar power could even begin to replace coal or hydraulic stations — I suggest these people (including fruit fly experts) educate themselves as to the realities of power generation.

Apr 25, 2013
5:44 AM

Shame on this site for posting such nonsense. None of it has been properly reviewed. in fact, the one study that has yet to be published has run into this little controversy coming out of Australia yesterday….

“Dr Daly, who described herself as a “greenie” who utilised solar power at home, said that up until two weeks before the meeting she had been the editor of the Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health. She retired after more than 12 years in the role. She said Chapman had submitted his study to the Journal but the quality of his research was questionable.

“I have to tell you that I think the evidence is at best equivocal,” she said, suggesting it was both ambiguous and deliberately designed to mislead.”

“He (Chapman) said there was no evidence of any health problems, choosing to ignore residents on the doorstep of his own project outside Daylesford, including a local doctor, who have been forced from their homes since the turbines began operating.

Chapman’s study, still not peer-reviewed we understand, has been widely touted by the wind industry but also been the subject of extensive criticism for its poor (ie non) scientific method.”

When your own publisher refuses to publish your work because they have serious concerns about it, I think that’s a clear indication of just what kind of garbage it is.

Suzuki (et al) owes wind victims worldwide one very large apology for deliberately helping to promote misleading information about this serious problem.

Apr 24, 2013
9:20 PM

I live in a small town that is roughly equidistant between major coal mines, and Canada’s first wind farm. It’s obvious which energy source* kills more birds, kills more people, causes more noise, dust, pollutants and is a bigger eyesore than the other — hint, it’s not the wind turbines.

I ask the people of Ontario, where do you want your power to come from instead? Do you realize that for every new hydro dam that is created, thousands of acres of land is flooded to accommodate it? That entire communities are relocated and their traditional lands drowned so that people far away in the cities can flick on a light switch and not worry? Why do you think it is okay to ask other people to suffer so that you don’t have to deal with the eyesore of a wind turbine?

If there are so many health issues associated with wind turbines, why don’t people out here in the Chinook Belt know about them? I’m not trying to be snarky here, I’m genuinely curious. Perhaps it’s because we’d rather put up with a bit of noise than see every single square acre of our prairies drilled for those hydrocarbons.

I don’t feel that wind power is the perfect source of power, but I think it’s the closest thing we have to perfect right now. They don’t require new mining to get new metals like solar panels require, nor is there the possibility of nuclear damage or contamination. No flooding of pristine land is necessary, actually no damage of anything but the cylinder of the tower base is really needed. Here in Alberta, crews use rig matting when erecting new towers so they don’t even destroy unnecessary cropland. Sure, wind turbines kill birds and might screw up bats but I’d rather see turbines erected and efforts made to minimize this than sit back and burn coal or flood forests while waiting for the technology to be perfected.

*Our coal isn’t used for power but is rather prized coking coal. For the sake of this discussion, I’d like to believe that a mining for power grade coal would be very similar to this.

Apr 24, 2013
3:09 PM

I am not as concerned with the potential health effects of wind power (fossil fuels are far more dangerous) as I am with the way it is being implemented. We must protect our eco system and I do not see many or any environmental impact studies out there. My main concern however is the money driven approach to this. Of course a small amount of people are getting rich on the backs of tax payers again. I am very concerned that we are moving ahead with as many wind turbines as possible while our fragile outdated electrical grid most likely can’t handle the load and effectively distribute the power generated. I am completely in favour of alternative energy but lets do it right so future generations can look back and thank us for our foresight.

Apr 24, 2013
9:35 AM

Talk about “false arguments”! The conclusions drawn in the University of Auckland study on wind turbines and health that you cite are completely fallacious.

Both groups in the study were led to expect something. The results showed that both groups met their expectations. Only one group (guess which one) was labelled “high expectancy”. Half of the subjects were shown footage of people complaining that wind turbines made them sick, and the other half were shown footage of experts saying the opposite. The first group was labelled “high expectancy” because the information they were given “led them to expect they might experience certain symptoms.” Shouldn’t the second group have been give exactly the same label as well, because they were also led to expect an outcome, in this case no symptoms? And wonder of wonders, each group performed according to expectations! This study simply confirms that there is such a thing as power of suggestion. It does not prove anything one way or the other about the adverse health effects of wind turbines. The researchers conclude that psychological expectations COULD explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints. This doesn’t mean that the results DO explain anything other than the phenomenon of suggestibility. It would be extremely misleading to reference an unsophisticated study like this in order to strengthen the wind industry’s claims that there are no real adverse health effects from their industrial turbines.

The problem is that in Canada we don’t appear to have any credible studies of the health effects of wind turbines. Apparently the Canadian and Ontario governments are each working on one but the results won’t be available for years. Meanwhile, with the provincial government’s blessing and generosity funded by the taxpayers, wind turbines are growing like weeds in Ontario, including in the most populated rural regions, environmentally sensitive areas (and also directly beside Important Bird Areas, which under the law have no protection from industrial turbines, making a mockery of the idea of “green” and the province’s Green Energy Act).

We love it when proponents of the wind industry generously concede that “At worst, there is some evidence that wind installations may cause annoyance and sleep disruption.” Is this how YOU would like to live? Are you seriously suggesting that this does not, in and of itself, represent and cause serious health problems in the long run?

Pushing so-called “green” wind turbines in the absence of rigorous, credible scientific study of their effects on health, environment, community and quality of life, and doing so in the face of apparently abject, costly economic failure (see the Fraser Institute’s report*) is deeply irresponsible and stupid.

*http://www.fraserinstitute.org/uploadedFiles/fraser-ca/Content/research-news/research/publications/environmental-and-economic-consequences-ontarios-green-energy-act.pdf)

Apr 23, 2013
6:48 PM

How many wind farms are there currently on Vancouver Island Mr. Suzuki? I see one that is in the far northern area of the island and it hasn’t come online yet. When your island become home to 100’s of turbines online then you may tell us and the residents in the area that it only in their heads about the side effects of living with them.

Apr 20, 2013
3:51 PM

We live near to locks in the Welland Canal and they are far more disturbing as a sustained noise as they sit in the lock and we live between the old and new canal. The reverberation that sets up often gets things rattling in our house, and it used to disturb us. We have stopped near one of the windmills along lake erie (High Banks) and it was nothing as grating as the ships low rumbling motors which vibrate through the ground. We lie about 200 metres from the canal in a straight line.

Apr 20, 2013
11:42 AM

One recent meta analysis indicates that community involvement and community benefit from wind turbines also influence local opinion and incidence of reported health problems. The paper is entitled: ‘Developing a Framework to create Community Leadership using Wind Energy Projects’ authored by Laura Santry for her Masters of Business Administration thesis in Community Economic Development at Cape Breton University.

Apr 20, 2013
9:40 AM

I’ve always been in favour of wind power and don’t really know anything about health problems that might be associated with them. But I’ve read similar descriptions of tests that supposedly show people who are affected by various kinds of EMFs (WIFI, cell towers, “smart” meters, etc.) aren’t really, and I don’t buy those. I’ve seen the effects of those on my daughter.

Apr 19, 2013
12:37 PM

Wind power or turbines is a very big mistake and like suicide, can never be undone!!! In Ontario we have no need for wind power as the Bruce power plant creates more power than we can use!

Apr 19, 2013
11:15 AM

While I sympathize with the main thrust of this, I think we have to be more careful and more considerate. The same kind of discussion is taking place over RF radiation from cell, TV transmission, WiFi, “smart meters,” etc, and there I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that this high energy radiation is indeed doing serious damage, and there is a mass of science supporting that view. So I remain a little sceptical over the validity of such small scale and very short term studies as those reported here. Maybe the set-back distance needs to be substantially increased—low frequency energy can travel long distances—look at the reports of communication by the large whales over thousands of kilometers! And low-frequency continuous infrasound may prove to have physiologically disturbing effects that are not immediately apparent to consciousness. Let us be careful, in the necessary quest for green energy, not to sell health and comfort issues short. Chris Heppner

Apr 19, 2013
10:02 AM

Infrasound does indeed have an affect on the human organism. Constant sounds of traffic, or running water, or the hum and vibration of industrial machinery has been shown to cause stress on the body. This in turn can potentially cause the symptoms listed in this article “such as pain and stiffness, diabetes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease and headache/migraine.”

This article also trivializes the effects of disrupted sleep, which can also cause many stress-related disorders. “At worst, there is some evidence that wind installations may cause annoyance and sleep disruption.” As someone who is diagnosed with a sleep disorder, all of my medical pracitioners have maintained that noise as well as light disturbances while at rest can dramatically affect sleep patterns, sleep research has proven that regular sleep disruption can also cause or increase the risk of all of the previously listed symptoms and conditions.

I agree that much of the opposition surrounding alternative energy sources is only “hot air.” The World Health Organization has a fairly comprehensive article online explaining the effects of electromagnetic energy on the human body. Let’s move forward with wind energy and keep in mind the holistic mentality that every aspect of our environment interacts with every aspect of the human organism in some way. — even ways we may not fully understand.

Apr 19, 2013
9:25 AM

I am a supporter of sustainable energy and all things better for planet and people. My only concerns with regard to the wind power is when the companies choose to put up the wind mills in areas that disturb natural habitats (in our area a bald eagle’s nest and the tree it was in were destroyed to prepare for the installation, according to news reports) and is it not true that it takes great amounts of concrete to erect one of these. How is that good for the soil?

Local residents in our area that are being considered for a wind farm are concerned about their property values, views of the beautiful natural landscape that they chose to live by and health concerns (which your article seems to have addressed with what appears to be a small study group.)

Is there a reason that we are really focused on wind energy over solar? It has also been suggested that the wind energy is inconsistent and often needing to be sold at a loss to the US. Do you have any information about that (the information was provided to me in an e-mail from a politician, so I take it with a grain of salt).

Would love to get some different perspectives and really be educated about all aspects so that I can feel I am indeed informed and not just persuaded.

Thanks!

Apr 19, 2013
7:37 AM

Thanks for discussing this topic and providing strong references for additional reading.

Suncor recently posted a blog about energy companies investing in renewable energy (full disclosure – I am a Suncor employee). Coincidentally, the Suncor blog also draws upon recommendations from the Pembina Institute. http://osqar.suncor.com/2013/04/why-oil-mixes-with-wind-solar-and-ethanol-too-.html

So, my question is what is required so that renewable energy development can continue across North America, while still recognizing the local, community and individual concerns?

Thanks

Apr 19, 2013
6:09 AM

April 18, 2003 Since last night we have had very strong winds out of the south. South of us are 22 large turbines 2.5 km away, the next mountain over. I feel the thrum inside my ears. My dog has been behaving the same way he does when we have a thunderstorm. Hiding, won’t eat or play. He is not influenced by what anyone has said about infrasound. Just because we can’t see it, or it is not easy to prove yet, does not mean it is an issue. They used to think asbestos was not harmful. The tobacco companies dismissed the relationship between smoking and cancer as ‘only’ correlational.

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