May 17, 2013

Wind Turbines: Health Risk or Annoyance?

The May issue of Canadian Family Physician includes a (peer-reviewed) commentary, "Adverse health effects of industrial wind turbines", by Roy Jeffery, Carmen Krogh, and Brett Horner of the Society for Wind Vigilance, "an international federation of physicians, acousticians, engineers, and other professionals who share scientific research on the topic of health and wind turbines". On line, there are two replies, each of which illustrates a typical response in the effort to diminish the health problems caused by industrial-scale wind energy: changing the subject; and straw man or paper tiger argument.

First is from Gideon Forman, Executive Director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment:
Virtually absent from this article is any discussion of the hazards posed by other forms of energy generation. ... No one argues wind mills are perfect but they stack up rather well when compared with other sources of electricity. Wind mills do not cause cancer; do not release toxic waste; do not produce smog; do not produce elements of acid rain; and do not contribute to climate change. Indeed, they help us to phase-out energy sources which do cause these adverse effects.
Second is from Roger Suss, physician, University of Manitoba:
Dr. Jeffrey and his colleagues conclude in their article that "industrial wind turbines can harm human health". Unfortunately the remainder of their commentary provides no evidence that this is so. Their argument can be summed up as follows: 1) The sound of wind turbines annoys some people. 2) Annoyance diminishes quality of life. 3) Diminished quality of life is a health issue. This argument is bulletproof. The trouble is that it is also banal. There is no question that sounds can be annoying. There's also no question that annoyance can contribute to anxiety, depression, poor concentration, dizziness, nausea, and sleep disturbance. I see patients daily who are feeling ill because of a variety of things that annoy them. Their relatives, neighbors, telemarketers, Microsoft, crows, and bad weather could all be considered harmful to their health. If we define health broadly enough, then its meaning disappears entirely and all human experience is "health". ... Noise pollution could indeed be considered a public health problem, but the evidence would depend on how many people were affected, and how much they were affected. It would require some attempt to look for a control or reference population. Dr Jeffery and colleagues make no attempt to provide us with any of that information. ...
Forman evidently thinks that pointing to a greater harm absolves a lesser harm, and that paying attention to the lesser harm somehow implies a denial of the greater harm. Back on the subject, he also claims that the lesser harm helps to eliminate the greater harm, despite no evidence whatsoever of wind energy even significantly reducing, let alone helping to eliminate, fossil and nuclear fuel use.

Suss latches on to the word "annoyance" and can't let go. The original article, however, lists annoyance as only one of the complaints about nearby wind turbines. Suss thus creates a paper tiger which he then mocks at length. Though Suss claims otherwise, the article reports that many people have measurable physical symptoms. Suss also completely ignores the seriousness of chronic sleep deprivation, the most reported effect of nearby wind turbines, which unlike the other "annoyances" he lists, never take a rest. In many places, turbines have to be shut down at night because they violate even modest noise regulations. And then he, too, changes the subject, demanding controlled studies and using their absence in these early days of study to excuse dismissing any evidence of harm.

It is disturbing that these two physicians lash out so irrationally to the simple information that as more wind turbines go up, doctors need to be aware of the well documented set of symptoms that many people experience when living near them. Telling their patients to accept their suffering, which is essentially what Forman and Suss are proposing here, is certainly not what most people would consider to be a desirable model of care.

wind power, wind energy, wind turbines, wind farms, human rights