Wind turbines cause distress among people who live near them, but more and better studies are needed if there’s to be a policy shift in Ontario, the Grey Bruce Board of Health was told Friday.
The board was presented with a report cultivated from a comprehensive review of the most current and credible studies around the world on the effects from wind turbines. The board requested the review last fall after a plaintive appeal from local residents who said they were suffering ill health from the massive turbines and wanted help.
Medical officer of health Dr. Hazel Lynn and research assistant Dr. Ian Arra, a medical doctor with a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology, spent the last few months conducting the review.
“There is no one (study) that didn’t find an effect of distress,” said Arra of the 18 peer-reviewed studies he focused on. “All of these studies basically found that there is an association. You cannot prove anything in research, you can only disprove the opposite, so there is no research that there is no association. That leaves us with association.”
He joked to the board about the science jargon. “A double negative is poor English, but it’s really good for research.”
Arra began his study with the null hypothesis that that there was no association between the turbines and distress in people who live near them. He looked only at studies that concentrated on noise issues related to the turbines.
He said later that he was surprised by the results. “When I started the research, I had no conclusion at all, so yes, I was basically expecting both sides.”
As 80 to 100 people looked on from the audience, Arra cautioned the board that associating wind turbines to distress is not the same as hard evidence of cause and effect.
But Lynn said people’s distress can still be mitigated without knowing the exact cause.
“If you can’t measure the exposure accurately, you can’t mitigate it,” she said. “So that’s part of the problem. But we know if you move farther away from wind turbines, there is less distress.”
Three of the studies Arra looked at showed dose response, which means they looked at the link between ill effects and the distance to turbines, “and they actually showed that the closer the person (to the turbine), the more distress there is,” Arra said.
Both Arra and Lynn said the problem with current studies is that they are not at a high enough evidence-based level to effect a change in government and industry policies. That could take another 15 or 20 years, Arra said.
The University of Waterloo is currently studying wind turbine effects, and Health Canada is about to embark on a similar study, but they won’t be complete for a few more years. Lynn said the two studies will not be of a complexity that will meet the highest level of evidence-based studies.
Lynn and Arra said there’s at least enough evidence to suggest larger setbacks than the current 550 metres in Ontario are needed. Health board member and Bruce County Warden David Inglis said he thinks the setbacks should be at least two kilometres. Lynn said Australia is considering setbacks of between five and 10 km.
Lynn and Arra will attempt to get their study peer-reviewed and published in medical journals, which could take six months to a year. Lynn said the Ministry of Health has asked for a copy of the report, and that it will also find its way to the office of Ontario’s medical officer of health, Dr. Arlene King.
In 2010, King released a report that said there was no evidence to suggest that wind turbines were causing the symptoms people living near them reported, such as dizziness, headaches and sleep disturbance.
Lynn said turbines aren’t going away, “but we can make them safer.
“Harnessing the wind for energy is a really good idea. I just don’t like it when it hurts people in my area.”
Board member and Owen Sound city councillor Arlene Wright said she’ll talk up Friday’s report with Premier Kathleen Wynne next week at the Ontario Good Roads Association and the Rural Ontario Municipal Association combined conference.
“I’m hoping a fresh ear will listen. I think she’ll listen,” Wright said.
She’s not optimistic, she said, that the report will effect any real change at the political level. “On the other hand, this has been a legitimate study and has been done by a legitimate person, and so I think someone will have to listen to it. I do think they’re going to pay some attention to it.”
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