Health Canada is drafting national guidelines for electricity-generating wind turbines that will establish a recommended minimum safe distance between the structures and homes.
Across Canada many are concerned about “wind turbine syndrome,” a suite of symptoms suffered by some living in close proximity to wind turbines. Anxiety, sleeping problems and headaches are among the negative health effects some think are caused by the low frequency hum emitted by wind turbines.
“Health Canada has been working in collaboration with the provinces and territories to draft voluntary Canadian Guidelines for Wind Turbine Noise,” wrote Health Canada spokeswoman Olivia Caron in an email.
“The voluntary draft guidelines are health-based, and focus on minimizing potential impacts such as sleep disturbance by recommending noise limits, sound measurement standards and minimum setback distances from homes and occupied dwellings.”
Right now, there is an incomplete patchwork of regulations on wind turbines in Canada, with some provinces – such as Ontario – already having guidelines already in place.
“There were some requests from provinces to help create these guidelines,” said Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. “Its similar to what we do with air quality, noise pollution, cellphones and fluoridation of water.”
Health Canada says it is studying the guidelines put in place by the provinces, as well as those in foreign jurisdictions, to inform the upcoming federal recommendations. Scientific studies are also being examined, Caron said, in an attempt to “to mitigate the possible health impacts of wind turbine noise on residents living near wind turbine projects.”
Dr. Moira McKinnon, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, has seen the draft national guidelines and says they will closely match those in place in Ontario. In Ontario, provincial rules say turbines can be located no closer than 550 metres from an inhabited building.
“At this stage, they’re looking very similar to Ontario,” said McKinnon. “There will only be minor discrepancies (to Ontario’s regulations).”
Health Canada said consensus has not yet been reached on an appropriate setback distance to be included in the federal guidelines.
The Health Canada guidelines will deal with noise and shadow flicker, and will account for the power of the turbine, the size of the blade and local geography, McKinnon said.
Dr. David Colby, medical health officer in Chatham-Kent, Ont., and a professor of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, said health concerns have been overblown by opponents. There is scientific consensus that setback distances in place in Ontario, some of the most stringent in the world, are more than sufficient. Countless studies and literature reviews have shown there are no direct adverse health effects, though the turbines can be annoying, he said.
“What it all comes down to is basically turbines don’t generate enough acoustic energy to adversely effect human tissue,” Colby said. “You can’t get away from that. The idea that inaudible sound can make you sick is not supported by the scientific community.”
Dr. Robert McMurtry, head of the Society for Wind Vigilance and the former dean of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, said guidelines should be set at more than two kilometres to be safe. He says larger human-scale studies need to be undertaken to determine if there are health effects from turbine exposure.
“At this point the best science says you should be two kilometres away,” McMurtry said. “I’m a clinician. The proponents have not engaged with people who have suffered.”
Health Canada says the draft guidelines will undergo a public consultation phase prior to their finalization.
McKinnon says the guidelines will be re-evaluated if new evidence comes to light.
“If the public is feeling there are effects we need to look into that,” McKinnon said. “There has been an extensive consultation process for these guidelines, but the work doesn’t stop in terms of continually examining the evidence.”
McKinnon says the government is taking the right approach by putting in place guidelines, rather than regulations.
“The way forward is a partnership with industry,” McKinnon said. “The industry is generally willing to comply with guidelines rather than regulations, which involve a lot of taxpayer money.”
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