Above: A wind turbine, part of the Bagmoor Wind Farm, located near houses in Drangonby, England (Ian Paterson)

Around the world, one of the fastest-growing sources of electricity is wind energy. Canada is currently generating enough energy from wind to power over 1.5 million homes and businesses – that’s 6568 megawatts of electricity!

Although wind energy supporters hope this number will continue to grow, opponents often raise health concerns. These opponents have coined the term wind turbine syndrome to describe symptoms including include headaches, insomnia, anxiety, and dizziness. And while reasearch is ongoing in various parts of the world, recent studies suggest that negative health impacts may have more to do with anti-wind energy campaigns than with wind energy itself.

Did you know? As of June 2013, there are 162 wind farms in Canada. There are wind farms in every province and territory except Nunavut.

Wind energy projects face opposition for a wide variety of reasons. For example, problems cited by a group called Ontario Wind Resistance include safety risks, the questionable viability of wind power, costs of production, the devaluation of homes, and negative impacts on wildlife and scenery.

Furthermore, negative health impacts are often associated with the sound that turbines produce. When air passes over the blades of a wind turbine, it causes lift, moving the blades and causing the rotor to turn. This turning starts a generator and creates electricity. During this process, there are two sources of audible noise: the mechanical parts in the gearbox and generator, and the sound of the blades pushing against the air.

To date, no peer-reviewed study has identified a conclusive link between wind turbines and the negative health effects described by wind energy opponents. However, there are a number of books and articles that describe symptoms experienced by people living near wind turbines. Furthermore, some scientific research has suggested a link between wind turbine noise and sleep disturbances.

Some recent studies also point to something called the nocebo effect. This describes a situation where something harmless has actual harmful effects, thanks to the power of suggestion. It’s similar to the placebo effect, where a simulated medical treatment yields actual positive results. In the case of wind turbines, it may be those promoting the idea of wind turbine syndrome, and not the turbines themselves, who are causing the symptoms being reported.

For example, an article recently released by the David Suzuki Institute describes the results of a research study in New Zealand. There, researchers found that people who live near wind farms are more likely to exhibit adverse health effects if an anti-wind power campaign is active in their area.

Did you know? In Canada, electricity production using wind turbines instead of fossil fuels will prevent 3,900,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being produced each year over the next four years.An Australian study found that, with only one exception, all health complaints related to wind turbines were made after March 2009. Previous to 2004, anti-wind farm campaigns did not even raise the issue of adverse health effects. The researchers concluded by saying that psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbines and health problems.

Meanwhile, the ongoing production of energy from fossil fuels has a huge impact on human and environmental health. In 2008, the Canadian Medical Association reported that air pollution in Canada caused 21,000 premature deaths, 92,000 visits to the emergency room, and 620,000 trips to the doctor’s office. Moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy, including wind energy, is one way to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently, wind energy supplies about 3% of Canada’s electricity needs. The Canadian Wind Energy Association is aiming to have wind power meet 20% of the country’s demand for electricity by 2025. If this goal is achieved, electricity produced by wind power instead of fossil fuels would offset Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by 17 megatonnes!

Since large-scale electricity generation is a relatively new use of wind power, research into its risks and benefits is ongoing. If any negative impacts can be minimized, wind power has the potential to make a significant contribution to cleaner energy production and a healthier future.

References

General news and science websites

10 Incredible wind power facts (Lance Looper, How Stuff Works)
Do Wind Turbines cause health problems? (Julia Layton, How Stuff Works)
Health Canada including residents near Summersides wind farm in health study (Mike Carson, The Guardian PEI)

Government publications

The Potential Health Impacts of Wind Turbines (Chief Medical Officer of Health Report, Government of Ontario)

Scholarly publications

Nissenbaum MA. 2012. Effects of industrial wind turbine noise on sleep and health. Noise & Health. 14(60):237-243.

Environmental websites and blogs

The Nocebo effect: Are Wind Turbine Health Problems Real? (Stu Campana, Alternatives Journal)
Wind power opponents may be blowing hot air (David Suzuki, David Suzuki Foundation)

Industry publications

List of Wind Farms (Canadian Wind Energy Association)
Powering Canada’s Future (Canadian Wind Energy Association)
Why Wind Works (Wind Facts)
WindVision 2025 (Canadian Wind Energy Association)

Wind energy opponent websites

Ontario Wind Resistance
Wind Turbine Syndrome

Chantelle Lafleur

Chantelle has a B.Sc in Life Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication. For a short time, she worked with the Let's Talk Science Outreach team at the National Office and loved being able to share her passion with others. Chantelle seeks out any opportunity there is to share cool science with other and she loves learning about new research, medical advancements and environmental issues. 

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