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Health Effects of Wind Turbines on Nearby Residents  

Author:  | Australia, Health, Noise

Summary of my scientific opinions

It is my learned opinion that there is ample scientific evidence that wind turbines sited near residences cause serious health problems for some people living in those residences. However, we do not have enough of the systematic population-based research that is needed to estimate the portion of the population that is vulnerable to the effects, the effects of exposure variables (e.g., how risk varies depending on how far away from a residence the turbines are), and the effects of other variables. In addition, we do not yet understand the pathways that lead from cause to effect.

It is possible to make rough estimates of the portion of the exposed population that will suffer serious health problems from turbines within one or two thousand meters of their residences, based on adverse event reporting and our limited systematic data: It is more than trivial (that is, it is at least a few percent of the exposed population) but fairly clearly a minority. This is obviously a wide range, but it does exclude the possibility that the effects apply to only a few rare individuals, let alone that they do not exist.

We would like to be able to better estimate this figure, especially as a function of intensity of exposure (distance from the turbines and other characteristics of the facility) and personal characteristics. We would especially like to know if particular types of people are at much higher risk. Moreover, we would like to have a better list of exactly which health outcomes are caused by the exposure; we have strong evidence about some, but others are more speculative. Additionally, it would be extremely useful to know which of the several candidate causal pathways (noise, shadow flicker, etc.) leads from the existence of the wind turbine to the health outcomes; without that knowledge, it is not possible to assess the options to mitigate the effects. However, the fact that we do not have such knowledge does not diminish the actual epidemiologic knowledge we have. That is, we know there is a serious problem, we just do not know exactly why it happens or how prevalent it is, let alone what steps (other than completely eliminating the exposure) could mitigate it.

If this were a pharmaceutical exposure, the manufacturer would have been required to do research to try to document the “side effects” and clear up these unknowns. Unfortunately, no entity with sufficient resources has been required to or has chosen to do that research for wind turbines, so the information can only trickle in as fast as various under-funded – often self- funded or community-funded – researchers can produce it. Still, even without sufficiently financed research and with the unknowns I have noted, one thing is quite clear from the science that has been done: There is no way that someone can claim that there is not evidence to support the claim that there are serious health effects.

To support these conclusions, my analysis follows the following logic, which is expanded upon below:

1. There is substantial epidemiologic evidence of health effects on residents from nearby wind turbines, including numerous adverse event reports (case studies), many of which are case- crossover studies, and a few population-based systematic studies.

2. When the nature of the situation and evidence is carefully considered, it becomes particularly convincing. It stands up well to criticisms and concerns that have been leveled at its validity.

3. The health effects that have been reported are serious and have important implications for people’s well-being. Attempts to dismiss these as “not real diseases” are inappropriate and contrary to widely accepted definitions of disease and health.

4. The causal relationship between exposure and disease is quite plausible and requires no great imagination. Wind turbines produce audible noise, noise at sub-audible frequencies, and shadow and light flicker, and all of these affect people’s minds and bodies. The noise and light are cyclic rather than constant, which can be particularly bothersome. We are not sure how much of the outcome results from particular causal pathways, but there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the epidemiologic evidence based on a lack of plausible pathways.

Beyond the core analysis, I include two appendices, reprinted from previous reports I have filed:

5. In the course of making the above points, I offer a general rebuttal of some of the points that are most often made in pro-industry reports (ones that are not already inherently part of the previous points, and thus already covered). Since all the pro-industry reports contain very similar claims, this approach covers most of them. I have been asked to write point-by-point responses to various reports written by industry supporters that were considered of particular interest in specific cases. The one such report that seems to be most frequently cited by industry supporters is the North American industry’s main report (Colby 2009). I was also once asked to comment on two pro-industry documents published by the government of Australia, which may be of particular interest in the present forum. Thus I include what I previously wrote, as rebuttals of the claims in those documents. I will note that these were written in a scientific, not a political style, which unfamiliar readers might find a bit unusual; while political discussions call for a certain gentility and diplomacy, serious scientific argument requires calling something naïve, misguided, or wrong, if it deserves such judgment.

Submission to the Australian Senate in the matter of The Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms
9 February 2011

Download original document: “Health Effects of Wind Turbines on Nearby Residents

This article is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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