Wind energy will be an important part of Nova Scotia’s cleaner, greener future. But in the rush to set up giant wind-powered turbines to fight global warming, we shouldn’t discount growing evidence that they can significantly harm the health of their neighbours if built too close to homes.
Premier Rodney MacDonald’s government and Nova Scotia Power are eager to show themselves taking action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. They’ve embarked on an aggressive campaign to see the number of turbines operating in the province grow from 40 to more than 250 by 2013.
Their public-relations goals don’t justify giving short shrift to the potential health hazards of what’s being called “wind turbine syndrome.”
Theories about what’s causing the condition – including low-frequency vibrations and sound too low for humans to hear called infrasound – are tough to wrap your head around. That plays into the hands of governments and businesses that want to ignore the issue.
After all, if you can’t hear a sound, how can it hurt you?
Well, you can’t see ultraviolet light, and it can hurt you plenty.
Daniel d’Entremont, his wife Carolyn and six children know the terrifying truth of living next to a wind farm. They started experiencing problems in early 2005 after Atlantic Wind Power installed 17 massive turbines near their home in Lower West Pubnico. The closest tower is little more than 300 metres from their home; all 17 are within 1.6 kilometres.
“Immediately, we noticed ringing in the ears,” d’Entremont said. “The children began acting differently. Their behaviour changed. They weren’t doing well in school. Things like that. My wife developed high blood pressure.”
Over time, it got worse. Carolyn began experiencing blurred vision. One adult son would go blind in one eye or the other for a few minutes at a time. It would clear up, then after a day or two it would happen again. Some mornings when getting out of bed, the same son would have trouble convincing his legs to move.
“I get this pulsating feeling in my chest – a feeling I don’t like, but I can’t get rid of,” d’Entremont said. “I can’t shake it off, unless I get away from the turbines.”
In February 2006, the d’Entremonts moved to Carolyn’s parents’ home 30 minutes away. Their problems resolved, some quickly, some more gradually, although Carolyn’s blurred vision hasn’t completely cleared yet.
The d’Entremonts never wanted to leave their house, which they built in 1982. But d’Entremont, a former fisherman who now works part-time at Wal-Mart, said they can’t live there anymore. They haven’t found anyone willing to buy it.
“Nobody in his right mind will move here,” he said.
Nina Pierpont – the pediatrician, brain specialist and evolutionary biologist who named wind-turbine syndrome – has studied the d’Entremont family’s case. She said the d’Entremonts are victims of an industry that tries to discredit or diminish complaints about noise, infrasound and health problems.
“The current approach of the wind industry is to deny that the problems exist and to do nothing about them,” Pierpont said.
The industry relies on acoustics consultants, who base their conclusions on engineering principles, as opposed to audiologists and physicians who consider the effects of sound and vibration on the human body.
Pierpont said wind turbine syndrome is very real, and can cause a host of problems including insomnia, headaches, dizziness, unsteadiness, nausea, exhaustion, anxiety, anger, irritability, depression, memory loss, eye problems, tinnitus and problems with concentration and learning.
There may not be just one sole cause of the syndrome. It affects some people, but not others. It may have to with the configuration of individual homes, or the geology beneath them, Pierpont said.
“It’s unclear whether it’s infrasound or the vibration getting transmitted through rock… Certain people, houses, geological structures, whatever it is causes there to be particularly bothersome forms of noise or vibrations.”
Receptors in our extremities that sense vibration and the stretching of muscles respond to inaudible infrasound. Those receptors are tied in neurologically with our sense of equilibrium. Equilibrium can impact balance and vision. Additionally, infrasound can also stimulate the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause high blood pressure.
Pierpont, who practises in rural New York about 30 kilometres from the Quebec border, is one of a number of doctors researching health problems caused by wind turbines. She intends to publish her study in six months and establish a clinical definition of wind turbine syndrome.
Pierpont recommends turbines be erected at least two kilometres away from the nearest home. In Nova Scotia, only four municipalities have bylaws governing turbine setbacks. The common standard is just 500 metres. That’s less than the distance from Halifax City Hall to Spring Garden Road.
Tuesday, provincial Energy Minister Bill Dooks announced his department will help the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities hire a consultant to develop best-practice guidelines for wind-turbine bylaws.
“We’re very serious about putting towers in the right place,” Dooks said. “We want to make people who live in their communities comfortable about this.”
It’s crucial that they fully consider the human health impacts, but I’m not optimistic. The Energy Department’s website includes no discussion of health concerns and places great faith in the wind energy industry. In fact, for Nova Scotians seeking more information, it links to industry websites.
One department official I spoke with Tuesday claimed infrasound fears have been disproved, and referred me to industry research conducted by engineering consultants.
Environmentalists don’t seem worried about wind-turbine syndrome, either. The need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions has created an atmosphere where it’s tantamount to sacrilege to raise concerns about turbines. Complaints are dismissed as NIMBYism.
Remember, though, governments and business rejected the science of climate change for decades, producing their own reports in rebuttal. We’re seeing the same reaction on a smaller scale to warnings that wind turbines are injuring their neighbours.
Have we learned nothing? In trying to remedy one problem, we shouldn’t ignore signs we’re creating another.
By David Rodenhiser
David Rodenhiser thinks the energy minister should move his family into Daniel d’Entremont’s house for a year, then consider policy.
23 September 2007