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Indefensible that windfarm plans don’t factor in human health

I read with interest Michael Clifford’s article of July 26 (‘A blustery reception for wind turbines as locals voice their opposition’) which reported that a local woman, Marina Reilly from Castletown, Co Meath, was given an assurance by the Taoiseach that health problems would be taken into account in the review of the 2006 Wind Energy Development Guidelines.

Following a public consultation, the review of these guidelines is currently being considered by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG). An official of that department advised me recently that the review should be finalised by October.

DECLG had consulted the Department of Health in September/October last year for its views on the health impacts of wind turbines, but as the health department failed to provide a coherent position for inclusion in the consultative document issued to the public in November, it seems that DECLG had the bright idea of stifling debate by saying in that document that human health aspects did not “fall within the remit” of the guidelines. It thus appears that whereas DECLG has every concern – and rightly so – for the health and wellbeing of birds, bats, etc living near wind turbines, similar concern does not in its view extend to people affected by their operation.

As I have said in a submission to DECLG, this is a nonsense. DECLG’s failure to consult the public on the health issue is a breach of the Aarhus Convention [on access to information concerning decisions on environmental matters] and this can be remedied only by a public consultation specifically dealing with the health issues. Any such consultation would have to be informed by the results of an independent on-the-ground study on the lines of the Canada Health study referred to below.

The Department of Health provided preliminary views to DECLG in December 2013 (to be updated later) which said that “wind turbines do not represent a threat to public health. However there is a consistent cluster of symptoms which occur in a number of people in the vicinity of industrial wind turbines. There are specific risk factors for this syndrome and people with these risk factors experience symptoms. These people must be treated appropriately and sensitively as these symptoms can be very debilitating.”

An update on these preliminary views has since been provided to DECLG by the health department. There is no particular drawing back by the department from the worrying advice about the potentially debilitating symptoms that wind turbines can cause. However, the update does in effect retreat from the stark claim that wind turbines do not represent a threat to public health, by making the very important point that there is a grave shortage of robust studies on [their influence] “on human emotional and physical health” and that this needs to be addressed.

The update relies heavily on a recent Australian review [which stresses] the dearth of studies on the health issue and call for a precautionary approach, a point which is very relevant of course in the context of planning guidelines. The update does not mention that the Australians found no studies that specifically looked at possible effects on human health of infrasound and low frequency noise from wind turbines … distinguished academics such as Professors Alun Evans of Queens University Belfast and Colin Hansen of Adelaide University have voiced serious concerns about the adverse health effects of these.

Neither does the update mention that the Australian review did find that wind turbines have been associated with annoyance, sleep disturbance, and poorer quality of life – even if the review is somewhat critical of the quality of these studies.

The update makes no mention of a major on-the- ground study and investigation into health effects of wind turbines by Canada Health which is running over the two years 2013 and 2014 at a cost of C$1.8m [€1.23m]. An indication of the sheer size of this study is that there is direct involvement of 2000 homes in the vicinity of eight to 12 wind turbine installations. The impetus for this study came from public concern with health effects and a glaring inadequacy and paucity of existing studies… one of the criticisms by Canada Health was that “no study to date has quantitatively measured sleep disturbance in populations living in the vicinity of wind turbines”.

It would be reckless in the extreme if the State were to go ahead with revisions to the 2006 guidelines in the absence of results from a comprehensive on-the-ground study of the health effects of wind turbines, now that the Department of Health’s advice is in effect that not enough is known about these effects and that this needs to be addressed. It is imperative that in the meantime, planning authorities should be instructed to adopt a precautionary approach specifically in relation to proximity and to noise (including low frequency noise and infrasound) emissions. It is indefensible that current planning applications for windfarms continue to be dealt with under guidelines which take no account of human health.

Tom Duffy,
The Pass
Co Offaly