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Experts reject allegations - Turbine noise not harmful, say doctors

NORTH AMERICA: The sounds generated by wind turbines are not harmful to human health, according to an international panel of medical doctors and acoustics professionals.

Report rules that turbine noise does not cause wind turbine syndrome (pic JH Lancy)
Report rules that turbine noise does not cause wind turbine syndrome (pic JH Lancy)

The panel, which reviewed existing scientific literature on the subject for the American and Canadian wind energy associations, concluded there is nothing unique about the sounds emitted by wind turbines.

"The fundamental message is we were unable to demonstrate that there was any evidence in the literature of potential adverse health effects, either directly measured or theoretically, of concern," Dr Robert McCunney, a research scientist in the department of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the authors of the 85-page white paper, Wind Turbine Sound and Health Effects: An Expert Panel Review.

Low frequency

"One of the concerns raised by people who feel there may be health effects is that the frequency distribution of sound from wind turbines is different, that there may be more low-frequency sound and infra-frequency sound and those frequencies may have an adverse effect on human health as a result of vibration," McCunney says. "Frankly, we weren't able to find that."

The panel did find that a "small minority of people exposed to wind turbine sound report annoyance and stress associated with noise perception". But it added that annoyance "is not considered an adverse health effect or disease of any kind".

As part of its review, the panel also looked at the evidence for what some people call "wind turbine syndrome" and concluded that its theoretical underpinnings are based on a misinterpretation of physiological data and that its symptoms, which include sleeplessness, headaches, anxiety, dizziness and ringing in the ears, are common. "No evidence has been presented that such symptoms are more common in persons living near wind turbines," the panel concludes.

Some critics, however, are not convinced. Dr Robert McMurtry, an orthopaedic consultant and former dean of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, argues the panel was too quick to set aside the health implications of annoyance. Annoyance can cause stress and sleep disturbance, he says, which can then lead to a range of health issues.

"I find the conclusion that it's not a problem to be simply inaccurate," says McMurtry, a consultant for Wind Concerns Ontario and a vocal opponent of wind power in the province.

Call for independent study

McMurtry takes issue with other conclusions in the report and argues that the evidence on both sides of the debate remains inconclusive. He believes there should be an independent epidemiological study to determine whether there are causal links between wind turbines and the health concerns that people living near them have reported. "It should be done by a third party, independent of government, the industry and, for that matter, of NGOs like us," he says.

The panel, McMurtry says, did not conduct any original research. And because their work was funded by the industry, he adds, it cannot be considered independent.

But McCunney says the panel members were completely independent in reaching their conclusions. "No one told me what to say or what conclusions to draw," he says. "People should critique the paper on its own merits. Every reference we reviewed and discussed is cited. People can review the references and draw different conclusions if they'd like."

Panel members agreed that the small number and unscientific nature of cases of alleged adverse health effects is insufficient to justify funding for further studies.

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