The wind energy movement bills itself as an integral part of efforts to reduce fossil fuel usage and curb climate change while helping build the new green energy economy. But complaints about adverse health impacts – loss of sleep, headaches, depression – have surfaced in communities around the world where wind turbines are located in close proximity to homes, including here on Cape Cod. In their efforts to dismiss claims of adverse health impacts caused by nearby wind turbines, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) comes out looking more like big industry than grassroots environmentalist.
I was a toxicologist in a former career, and I see a lot parallels between this debate and debates about the toxicity – or not – of chemical pollutants. So, here are three reasons not to dismiss complaints about wind turbines drawn from the environmental movement and the science of toxicology.
Argument: It’s all in their heads
An AWEA-commissioned review of the science surrounding wind turbines, sound, and health asserts that the main impact of wind turbine noise is to annoy people:
A feeling described as “annoyance” can be associated with acoustic factors such as wind turbine noise. … Annoyance is clearly a subjective effect that will vary among people and circumstances. … the main function of noise annoyance is as a warning that fitness may be affected but that it causes little or no physiological effect. Protracted annoyance, however, may undermine coping and progress to stress related effects. … The main health effect of noise stress is disturbed sleep, which may lead to other consequences.
And yet, they draw a line between “annoyance” and a health impact: (my emphasis)
There is no evidence that sound at the levels from wind turbines as heard in residences will cause direct physiological effects.
Rebuttal: Immune suppression
AWEA’s argument seems to hinge on dismissing annoyance as a subjective, emotional response and, thus, dismissing the secondary health effects of annoyance. But consider this: certain chemicals can alter the immune system, impairing its ability to fight off infections. This might not be a problem if we lived in germ-free bubbles (i.e. not a direct health problem). But in the real world, the increased risk of infection poses a serious health threat. Not satisfied?
There are also deeper flaws in AWEA’s argument:
- As discussed earlier this week, the word “annoyance” as it is used by several researchers addressing the wind turbine issue has a technical definition that encompasses “a significant degradation of quality of life.”
- Sleep disturbance and deprivation need not be a secondary effect of stress; noise at levels typically produced by large turbines is capable of partially or fully waking a person. Prolonged sleep deprivation constitutes a medical issue in itself, and is also a trigger for other health problems.
- Some residents report physical sensations – like ear popping – not related to stress. There is little or no scientific data to address these claims … a point I’ll get to shortly.
Argument: It only affects a small number of people
Dr. Robert McCunney is an MIT researcher and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He was a member of AWEA’s expert panel that reviewed the available science and determined that there is no evidence that wind turbines directly cause health effects. He has also provided expert testimony in court to that effect. He says it’s important to remember that most people aren’t negatively affected by wind turbines:
… at least in the studies that are available, the percentage of people who report annoyance in the proximity of wind turbines tends to be a relatively low… it’s not the predominant effect, and it’s not a majority of people who report these symptoms.
Furthermore, the AWEA report states that “a small number of sensitive people … may be stressed by the sound and suffer sleep disturbances,” citing above-average sound sensitivity, as well as personality traits and pre-existing negative attitudes toward wind turbines as factors predisposing persons to such impacts.
Rebuttal: Cancer clusters
To only consider impacts that affect the majority of people holds wind turbines to a standard that would be unthinkable for chemical pollutants.
Did drinking water contaminated with industrial chemicals give the majority of children in Woburn, Massachusetts leukemia? Or did chromium give the majority of people in Hinkley, California cancer? Absolutely not. If they had, documenting those cancer clusters would have been far more straightforward. But both were eventually validated and resulted in court settlements (check out A Civil Action and Erin Brokovich this weekend for the full stories, if you’re not familiar).
For that matter, is lead any less of a concern because it mostly impacts young children and unborn babies – a particularly sensitive portion of the population?
The standard is not a majority effect, but rather, a greater than expected occurrence of symptoms in any segment of the population, based on comparison with other turbine-free areas of similar geography, demographics, etc.
Argument: There’s not enough evidence
AWEA doesn’t deny that people living close to wind turbines around the world are reporting negative impacts. However, most of the surveys and case studies that currently exist are what scientists call anecdotal data – personal stories that have not been subjected to rigorous scientific investigation or the quality-control process of peer review. Thus, Dr. McCunney and the AWEA panel insist that there’s not enough scientific evidence to conclusively link wind turbine noise to health complaints.
Rebuttal: Precautionary principle
Here we can draw on an idea long embraced by the environmental movement and the scientific community (although less so industry or government) – that of the precautionary principle. The 1998 Wingspread Conference convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network crafted and adopted the following definition (my emphasis):
Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public bears the burden of proof.
The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic, and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.
In 2005, UNESCO released a report aimed at clarifying when and how the precautionary principle should be applied:
The [precautionary principle] applies when there exist considerable scientific uncertainties about causality, magnitude, probability, and nature of harm;
This would certainly seem to be the current situation with regard to claims of health impacts caused by wind turbines. We do not yet have controlled, peer-reviewed studies that nail down exactly how many people are affected, what their symptoms are, when they began, and at what distances and sound levels they occur. Establishing the who, what, when and where of a problem will be an important first step before moving on to the more intricate questions of how and why. So there’s a long way to go before we reach a rigorous scientific understanding of the relationship between wind turbines and health. But the highly suggestive evidence at hand almost certainly meets the standards of the precautionary principle.
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