Friday 7 March 2014

Do wind turbines really harm humans?                                               

     For years, we have been listening to people claiming that wind turbines are harming the health of human beings. Hopefully, I will be able to persuade you that such harm to humans is a myth. I will give you the background of the couple who made a claim that the wind turbines near their farm were harming them and I will also give you the decision of the Environment Appeals Tribunal that heard their complaint and made their decision in December 2013.                
         Shawn and Tricia Drennan (hereinafter referred to as the appellants) filed a request on August 6, 2013 for a hearing before the Environmental Review Tribunal with respect to their complaint about nearby wind turbines harming their health. Their complaint was directed to the 140 turbines located in the Township of Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh, in Huron County, Ontario. These wind turbines had a capacity to provide 270 megawatts. One megawatt is one million watts of power. A large apartment building or large commercial building may use several megawatts in electric power and heat. It follows that 270 megawatts could supply power for a small town.                                                 
      The appellants filed a notice of a constitutional question alleging that permitting the turbines to operate near human beings violates section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the “Charter”) that guarantees that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. I suppose they were suggesting that the turbines were interfering with their right to live without their health being harmed by the nearby turbines.                                                                                                                  
      The main issues are: Issue No. 1: Whether the Appellants’ right to security of person has been violated under s. 7 of the Charter. Issue No. 2: Whether permitting the Project to exist in accordance with the REA (Exposure and Risk Assessments) will cause serious harm to human health.                                           
     Section 145.2.1 (2) states that the Tribunal shall review the decision of the Director and shall consider only whether engaging in a renewable energy project in accordance with the renewable energy approval will cause (a) serious harm to human health; or (b)serious and irreversible harm to plant life, animal life or the natural environment. The person who asked for the hearing has the onus of proving that engaging in the renewable energy project in accordance with the renewable energy approval will cause harm to that person, to others and/or to the environment. This is what the appellants were hoping to achieve.
The Appellants submitted that the evidence heard at the original hearing established that there had yet to be established a safe setback distance or appropriate noise level to protect humans from harm to their health associated with industrial wind turbines. Their evidence was that even at setback distances of 800 metres and noise compliance with 40 decibels. Ontario residents are still exposed to adverse health effects associated with noise emitted from industrial wind turbines.  They therefore submitted that because the legislative scheme for the creation of industrial wind turbine projects exposes the public to a risk to their health, the legislative scheme must comply with s. 7 of the Charter and at present, it wasn’t. Accordingly, they were seeking a revocation of the Director’s decision to approve the project.                  
     Mr. Wrightman, as a participant at the appeal hearing, filed a submission with respect to the Appellants’ s. 7 Charter claim. In his submission, he said that  as a result of the regulatory process, which does not require the project proponent to establish that there are no adverse health effects associated with a wind turbine farm, it is clear that there will be nevertheless health effects that will violate the section 7 rights of the Appellants.  He also said that by reversing the burden of proof in circumstances where there is evidence of adverse health effects is itself a violation of section 7.                                                                            
     The Director submitted that, for a claim to be successful under s. 7 of the Charter, the deprivation or harm complained of must be state imposed.  In this case, he submitted the deprivation outlined by the Appellants is not state imposed.  The Director further noted that courts have held that where there is a proven risk of harm, appellants then must prove that the state action or impugned provisions create an increased risk of harm to the known harm that was already established. The question that had to be answered is; “Is there evidence that would establish that the wind turbines would cause harm to humans etc.?”                                                                                                                       
     The Appellants called four witnesses who have lived near wind turbine projects in the province.  Witness No. 1 lived on a property with the nearest wind turbine 800 metres away.  This witness outlined a number of health impacts attributed by the witness to the wind project, such as sleep deprivation, ringing in the ears, increased blood pressure and heart rate, among other concerns.  The Appellants submit that the evidence of this witness should carry significant weight because the witness moved from the house because of the wind turbine although the family had intended to retire at that location.                                                                                                                                 
     Witness No. 2 had a wind turbine less than 550 metres from their residence and attributed a number of health impacts to the turbines including sleep deprivation, stomach aches, heart palpitations, headaches and cognitive and memory problems. The witness stated that once the family moved away from the wind turbines, the symptoms were relieved. The Appellants submitted that the Tribunal should also give significant weight to this witness’ testimony since there was no other plausible explanation for the adverse health impacts.             
     Witness No. 3 lives near the Melancthon wind farm and testified with respect to the impacts from the operation of the transformer station located approximately 490 metres from the home. Witness No. 3 did not complain about the wind turbines located four to five kilometres from the home.  Witness 3 however complained of poor sleep, shakiness, headaches, pressure in the chest and ringing in the ears which the witness associates with the operation of the transformer.  The witness testified that the health issues persisted despite a number of mitigation measures being undertaken by the approval holder of that project.  The witness did outline a number of pre-existing health issues.  The witness states it was the vibration and humming inside of the home that was the cause of concern, although no evidence was adduced with regard to the cause of the vibration and humming and the associated noise levels.                                                                                                       
     Witness No. 4 lives in a house where the nearest wind turbine is located 724 metres from that house. The witness complained of experiencing headaches, ear aches, trouble sleeping and associated health effects allegedly commencing once the wind farm became operational.  Medical records that relate to the issue only dated from August of 2013.  Witness No. 4 had a number of health issues prior to the operation of the wind turbine.  The witness admitted that a number of the health complaints occur when the witness is in the house, irrespective of whether the wind turbines are in operation or not.                          
     The Director argued that the Tribunal should not rely on the evidence of the post-turbine witnesses. For the first witness, the Director said that no medical professional has linked the turbine projects to any of these health issues and that all of the clinical tests, such as hearing, stress and cardiology tests were found to be normal.  With respect to the second post-turbine witness, the Director said that the medical records submitted contained virtually no notes of the health issues raised by the witness and that no medical professional has linked the turbine project to any of the health issues. The Director further noted that all four of the witnesses admitted that they were self-diagnosed. A previous hearing with respect to another appellant ruled that where the Tribunal stated that the witnesses’ own evidence was not and could not be found to be confirmatory of causation in the absence of expert medical evidence confirming causation and conclusive measurement of sound pressure levels. The complaints from the post-turbine witnesses did not provide sufficient evidence to make a diagnosis since the complaints were self-reported, there were incomplete medical records and the witnesses had not been examined by a treating physician.                                                                         
     The Director also noted that the witnesses did not provide noise level measurements so that the Tribunal could determine whether the health complaints arose from noise levels below 40 decibels.                                               
     It would appear that those four witnesses had self-diagnosed themselves with Wind Turbine Syndrome and yet many of them exhibited pre-existing conditions that suggest other underlying conditions than those caused by the turbines.                                                                                                                                
     Mr. O’Neal was called by the Director and qualified by the Tribunal in this proceeding to give opinion evidence as an expert acoustician with expertise in low frequency noise.  Mr. O’Neal gave evidence that it was his opinion that infrasound and low frequency sound will not impact people at distances as close as 305 meters from the nearest wind turbine. He further testified that the work he conducted and the literature he reviewed led him to the conclusion that infrasound and low frequency sound levels from wind turbines were below the criteria for various standards organizations with respect to the impacts on the health of those people living those distances from the turbines.                       
     Another witness, Mr. Coulson was called to give evidence and was qualified as an expert witness by the Tribunal to give opinion evidence as a noise engineer.  The Mr. Coulson reviewed the noise assessment prepared for the Project.  Mr. Coulson concluded that the noise assessment prepared for the Project was in compliance with the Ministry’s Noise Guidelines and thus disagreed with the deficiencies listed by Mr. James in his evidence. He also said that he didn’t believe that there is anything unique about infrasound from wind turbines in that there are many natural sources of infrasound and they are consistent with the infrasound from wind turbines.                                            
     Dr. Mundt was called to give testimony and was qualified by the Tribunal to give opinion evidence in epidemiology, which is the study of the causes of disease in populations.  Dr. Mundt had undertaken a review of the available thirteen peer-reviewed scientific studies with respect to wind turbines and human health and concluded that there is no convincing evidence that residential exposure to wind turbines causes harm to human health although the literature reports an association between sound pressure levels and annoyance. Dr. Mundt’s conclusion was that while some individuals may experience annoyance from wind turbine noise, there is no indication of a correlation between annoyance from wind turbine noise and adverse health nor does the noise affect the health of humans and further, in those studies there wasn’t any indication of serious harm to humans.                                           
     Dr. Mundt concluded that the evidence of the post-turbine witnesses was insufficient to determine a causal connection between their health and exposure to wind turbine noise; and that the health impacts complained of by the post-turbine witnesses could not be extrapolated to any other group.            
     It is my respectful opinion that the only conditions consistently complained of with respect to wind turbines are annoyance. There is a difference between disease and annoyance and annoyance is not classified as a disease.                     
     Dr. Mundt’s view was that there is a possible explanation for the reporting of adverse health effects by some people. It is called the ”nocebo effect”; that is, when persons are presented with first-person accounts of symptoms attributed to wind turbines, they tend to report more deviant health  symptoms and greater intensity of symptoms regardless if they are exposed to wind turbine infrasound or other sources of infrasound.                                                                 
     Dr. McCunney was called as a witness and was deemed to be qualified by the Tribunal to give opinion evidence as a medical doctor specializing in occupational and environmental medicine with particular expertise in health implications of noise exposure.  Based on his assessment of the noise assessment report for the Project, the relevant scientific literature and the evidence presented by the Appellants, he concluded that the Wind Turbine Project would not cause harm to human health if operated in accordance with the standards of the Exposure and Risk Assessments.  Dr. McCunney further reviewed the relevant literature and concluded that there is no scientific support for a direct causal link between chronic noise exposure of less than 40 decibels and adverse health effects. Dr. McCunney also concluded that infrasound and low frequency sound from wind turbines with conditions similar to the REA are not at levels that are harmful to human health. He also said that the nonspecific symptoms complained of by the post-turbine witnesses are common to the general population, and sleep disorders are also common in the population and have multiple causes. He further said that the World Health Organization’s Night Noise Guidelines for Europe established that noise levels lower than 45 decibels are not associated with significant sleep awakenings.
      Dr. Moore was called as a witness and was deemed to be qualified by the Tribunal to give opinion evidence as a physician with expertise in family and emergency medicine, public health and preventative medicine. He explained the importance of complete medical histories for the post-turbine witnesses in order to form a medical diagnosis.  Dr. Moore outlined that the relationship between health effects and exposure can only be drawn by taking into account a variety of factors, including habits, diet, past illnesses, medications being used and the occupation of the witnesses. In this particular hearing, neither of the witnesses were examined by their family doctors in this manner so it follows, that their self-diagnosis was of no value to the tribunal.  Dr. Moore submitted that the concept of “Wind Turbine Syndrome” is not a medically accepted diagnosis and that there is no evidence for such a set of health effects from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized in such a manner.            
     Dr. Moore testified that he reviewed the medical records of the four post-turbine witnesses and concluded that, given the limited exposure information, limited medical histories provided, the possible bias he identified, and the wide array of symptoms that are common to the general population, it would be irrational, indeed not biologically plausible for many of the adverse effects alleged by the post-turbine witnesses to be attributed to any one etiology (the study of the causes of diseases).  There is no doubt in my mind that the four complainants believed that the wind turbines created problems for them, at least in their minds. But perhaps there were hidden motives that were the underlying factors behind their complaints.  Here are some of them that I believe existed in all or at least some of the minds of the complainants.                
1.      some of the post-turbine witnesses have made lifestyle choices that could explain their alleged symptoms, especially those relating to sleep;   2.    some of the post-turbine witnesses have health complaints but have not communicated them to their doctors or medical professionals;  3.    there are possible signs of bias in respect of each witness in that they may have concerns with respect to loss of property values and because of their participation in or support of groups opposing wind turbine projects. 4.     they have heard stories of other people suffering from the effects of wind turbines they believe are similar to their complaints.  5.      they don’t like looking at wind turbines.                               
I am not really convinced that wind turbines that are at least 300 metres (984 feet) away from a house can cause health problems for those living in them or working near them. My wife and I once stood a mere 100 meters 328 feet from the base of a wind turbine and all we heard was the faint swishing noise of the blades as they turned far above us.  I remember when we bought our first home that was a mere hundred feet from high tension wires. We were warned that we might suffer from health problems if we lived that close to those wires. Nonsense! We lived in our home for twenty years and neither I nor my wife and our two daughters suffered from any  deviant effects of those wires. Naturally, we would have preferred to have a house overlooking a lake or river or mountains in the distance but we settled for the house we bought until we moved into a better one twenty years later.                                                             
      There were approximately 750 complaints alleging health effects with respect to noise from wind turbines or transformers were received. When I consider those complaints, I automatically think of what took place in October of 2006 when two teenage girls at Girls Town school, which is near Mexico City, claimed that they were suffering from muscle atrophy and nausea. At one point it appeared that nearly fifteen percent of the students were suffering from these symptoms. None of them actually were suffering from atrophy and nausea.  They were actually suffering from mass hysteria.                                        
     Mass hysteria is the sociopsychological phenomenon. It is describes as the manifestation of the same hysterical symptoms by more than one person. It is also referred to as collective hysteria. It may begin when a group witnesses one individual becoming hysterical during an extremely stressful or a traumatic event. A potential symptom is group nausea, which happens when a person becomes violently ill and triggers a similar reaction in other group members.     
     I honestly believe that when wind turbines began appearing on land, some people who didn’t want them near their property began experiencing symptoms which they attributed to the wind turbines but were not actually caused by the wind turbines.  They told their neighbours and friends what the wind turbines were doing to them and then they too began experiencing the same symptoms.  But it was all in their heads.  Mass hysteria is really collective obsessional behavior. It is collective delusions of threats to society that spread rapidly through rumors and fear.  But the threats are not real. They are myths. 
     The tribunal concluded that the two complainants and the four witnesses who had similar complaints no basis to complain at all and therefore the Tribunal rejected their complaints.                                                                                 
     Now if the government built coal-fed turbines a few hundred meters from their homes, I could see legitimate grounds for complaints but wind turbines are not as harmful as these kinds of people portray so complaining about them is futile especially when they are at least 396 meters from one’s home.  I realize that it would be better if the wind turbines could be placed out of sight but that isn’t always possible. They are placed where they can get the best wind at the most time as possible.  If that means placing one 400 meters from your home, learn to live with it. If it built in one of your fields, enjoy the rental fee you will get from the government.                                                                                                 

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