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The answer may not be blowing in the wind

Health Canada announced last week it was launching a study on health complaints involving wind turbines. It is about time.
For the past several years, people living in close proximity to wind turbines have complained about an array of adverse health effects including headache, insomnia, nausea, dizziness and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Some people find the low-frequency noise annoying; others are so totally debilitated by the noise and/or vibration they have abandoned their homes and moved.
The problem is, while there are volumes of reported complaints, there appears to be no medical proof there is – or is not – a health risk connected with the wind turbines. Ontario’s medical officer of health has reviewed existing data and found no direct link between wind turbines and health problems. It resolved nothing, since there is so little North American data on the issue. There is, however, quite a bit of data from Europe, where wind energy is common and widely accepted. Every country has its own set of regulations including setbacks, compensation for loss of property value and numbers of turbines allowed in a wind farm. What works in Denmark or Holland may not work here and vice versa. The Health Canada study should help fill the data gap.
Most of us know Ontario’s Liberal government headed by Dalton McGuinty has been a staunch proponent of wind in its quest to produce non-polluting (green) energy and get rid of coal-burning power generating plants. Wind turbines, while not aesthetically pleasing to most people, are a lot nicer to look at than the open pit coal mines that pock-mark the Appalachians. They do not produce toxic fumes, or a byproduct that has to be stored deep underground in lead containers for hundreds of years. Birds fly into them, as they do with any building, but tapping wind power does not require damming rivers and destroying vast expanses of important fish and wildlife habitat, nor does it take much land out of agriculture – farming can continue in the shadow of the turbines.
On the other hand, there is a sufficient number of health complaints from people living near wind farms they cannot all be put down to anti-McGuinty sentiment. When that many people are that riled up about possible health risks, it only makes sense to conduct a study and get some definitive information. In fact, a good many Ontario residents are of the opinion the study should have been conducted before the government’s strong commitment to this form of energy.
There have been too many cases where possible health risks were disregarded – the thalidomide tragedy is one. Canada allowed the morning sickness drug to stay on pharmacy shelves months after most European countries had banned it, resulting in thousands of Canadian babies born with missing limbs and other severe deformities. The horrifying part of the thalidomide story is the drug was approved in Canada for use by pregnant women after there was evidence it caused birth defects.
The Walkerton water tragedy that claimed seven lives and sickened thousands has been described as the result of a proverbial perfect storm, when a lot of things that could have gone wrong, did. Government cutbacks had left virtually no one to monitor water systems and enforce regulations, and many warned the result could be tragic. It was. Walkerton had a water system and water system operators in desperate need of monitoring – too little chlorine and fudged records, for starters. It had a well vulnerable to runoff contamination. It had a nearby agricultural operation with a deadly strain of E. coli. Then came the torrential downpour. Suddenly the local emergency room was filled with desperately sick people.
The government – any level – that ignores health risks does so at its peril.
We have great hopes for that Health Canada study, but at the same time we realize it is unlikely to resolve the issue on its own. If the study shows there is a risk, it will have to be addressed promptly and effectively. And if it shows the opposite, the McGuinty government would be advised to temper its “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” attitude. Taking local governments out of the approval process may have speeded up wind energy development in this province, but it created a whole set of problems, only some of which are health-related. Those problems need to be addressed. That said, it would also be a shame for politics to scuttle a move to green up Ontario’s energy program, and it easily could.