Bruce County residents living near wind turbines can expect to hear soon from a team studying the health effects of the massive wind-powered generators.
University students will be fanning out across the area over the next month putting surveys in hundreds of mailboxes. It’s one of the first steps in a five-year, $1.5-million study being conducted by the Ontario Research Chair in Renewable Energy Technology and Health, which is based out of the University of Waterloo.
Along with the surveys, the study team will also target people living near the turbines for more extensive testing, said Waterloo professor Philip Bigelow, who is one of the study’s investigators.
The team wants to measure noise levels, both audible and low frequency, at the houses near turbines. As well, the team wants a few dozen participants who will agree to have their sleep habits monitored. That entails the participant wearing a device on their wrist that detects movement while they’re sleeping to show if their sleep is being disturbed, Bigelow said.
While the study of wind turbines is new, the protocol and technology are not, said Bigelow. Noise studies have been done for years around airports and highways. But the turbines are different because they emit a continuous noise, Bigelow said.
“This one is actually a little different because you have this continuous noise and you have the wind changing, of course, but you have this continuous thumping and swishing, and that’s really irritating to people.”
Bigelow said noise is more annoying at certain continuous sound pressure levels, and “when you average it all out, wind turbines are going to be worse than traffic noise for annoyance, and that’s already been well established because of the character of it.”
To balance the study, a group of people who don’t live anywhere near turbines will be included. Bigelow said the team ideally hopes to study people in areas where turbines are planned, then follow up with them after the turbines are up and running. “Those people we really want to follow up with.”
A couple of dozen researchers in total are working on the study. One of the study’s components uses geographic information systems, which involves exact locations and distances of homes in relation to turbines. Another area involves connecting microphones to detect low frequency noise in various places and linking them to the speed of the turbines, Bigelow said. “It’s very fancy stuff.”
Another researcher is working on a model that tracks and predicts noise exposure using a software program called Wind Pro.
“You can actually do this modeling of what a bedroom would be like given if the turbine was this far away and it’s got this sound power level,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow said the study is considering “whole body effects” from the turbines and not just specific health issues, like vestibular effects such as dizziness. “We’re really looking at the broader implications of these things.”
The study is looking at other types of renewable energy as well, but most of the resources are going into wind turbines, Bigelow said, “because it’s an issue more than the other ones are.”
Hundreds of wind turbines have popped up across the province over the last half dozen years, and opposition has been steadily growing. Several anti-wind lobby groups have sprouted, the biggest being Wind Concerns Ontario. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which represents about 37,000 farm families, has lent its political weight to the anti-turbine movement as well.
Dozens of municipalities have called on the government to halt further turbine development until more is known about their health effects. Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson has a bill before the legislature calling on a moratorium on wind turbines; it’s to be voted on this week.
Bigelow said he’s aware it’s a political hot button issue. “I’m aware of the political landscape, that’s for sure. We get out there and talk to people and get lots of calls . . . so yeah, we’re very aware of it.”
He wants participants who don’t have an agenda, he said. As well, he said the researchers are objective and have no personal interest in whether the study shows any negative health effects or not.
“For us it doesn’t matter one way or the other. We want to enough statistical power to be able to see some health differences in people with exposure to these wind turbines versus not exposed to turbines,” he said. “And that is our issue we need to deal with, and to do that we need enough people to participate, we need the right measurement tools that we use in the field, and also we need people to fill out the surveys as properly as the can.”
Bigelow said once the study is completed, he expects it to be a tool policy makers will use in making future decisions about turbines. “I’m sure it will go into the mix of how they’re going to make decisions in the future.”
In 2009, the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) issued a call for proposals to all universities in the province for the establishment of the research chair on renewable energy, with funding provided by the Ministry of Environment. The chair was awarded to the University of Waterloo, with Dr. Siva Sivoththaman as the chair holder.
The study began in late 2010 but the first year was spent assembling the research team.
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