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Health unit hears results of study of people living close to wind turbines

By Valerie MacDonald, Northumberland Today


Ontario's Green Energy Act, encouraging development of alternative renewable energy to feed into the existing power grid of hydro towers, lines and transformers which crisscross this province, has affected rural residents most significantly. Here in Northumberland County, meetings about the impact of green energy have taken place and are continuing to be scheduled. Hamilton Township, for instance, is organizing a public meeting with speakers to ascertain whether it should declare itself an "unwilling host" for future mega-wind and -solar projects. A grassroots organization, The Alliance for the Protection of the Northumberland Hills, has held its own meetings related to wind power, going so far as to file a lawsuit against a proposed Grafton wind farm development that has now been called off. And at the same time, the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit is hearing from experts on both sides of the wind power question before deciding whether to petition the Province of Ontario for a moratorium.

The following is the second in a series of three stories about wind power as viewed by various organizations and experts.

As board members of the local health unit grapple with taking a position on wind power and whether to petition the Ontario Government to impose a moratorium while awaiting further study on possible health affects due to wind turbines, they are updating their research through a series of speakers. Having already heard from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment which supports industrial wind power generation, at last Thursday's Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit board meeting they also heard, via teleconference, from Dr. Jeffery J. Aramini of Intelligent Health Solutions. His was a study undertaken with two other researchers into industrial wind turbines in Maine and one of the authors he described as a "sleep specialist."

The preamble to the study published last fall, in conjunction with Michael Nissenbaum and Christopher Hanning of The Society for Wind Vigilance, states that "industrial wind turbines are a new source of noise in previously quiet rural environments.

"Environmental noise is a public health concern of which sleep disruptions is a major factor," the study states.

Aramini, who lives north of Fergus where a wind farm is proposed, said he was asked to get involved in the matter by his neighbours. As an epidemiologist who previously worked in public health for a decade, he undertook a study during the spring of 2010 of "risk factors and health outcomes" with 40 people living within 1.5 kilometres of turbines and the same number living between 1.5 and five kilometres from turbines. The turbines were to generate 1.5 megawatts of power.

Members of both groups were asked a set of questions related to their condition before wind turbine installation took place, and after.

Those living closer had "markedly worse sleep," Aramini said. And 47% more people living 1,400 metres away were "at risk of clinical depression" when compared to those living three kilometres away.

Current Ontario standards for wind turbine setbacks are 550 metres.

Another finding was that 9% of the group living closest were diagnosed with anxiety, compared to none of those living three to seven kilometres away from the wind turbines.

The results of the study found that sleep and mental health were adversely affected the closer people lived to industrial wind turbines, he said.

Aramini noted that the study involved small numbers of people (no children) and "clearly there are a lot of questions remaining" such as bias against turbines, although he said a poll had found that, in this case, 90% of the residents had been in favour of the wind development before installation.

Attitudes had, however, changed for some after the turbines started up, he said.

More industrial wind turbine farms must be studied to determine issues such as cases in which no adverse effects are reported, and how these compare in turbine size, placement and the topography where they are located.

Just like seasickness, some people are affected by wind turbines and others aren't, he said.

And contrary to the presentation made by Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment executive director Gideon Forman to the health unit which concluded that wind power was far less dangerous to people than coal, the issue is one about "establishing safe distances" and any other comparison "is disrespectful to those living close" to wind turbines, Aramini said.

Another issue he raised is the separation of direct and indirect health effects.

"We don't do that for drinking and driving… or poverty," he said.

"Health effects are health effects, period."

When health unit board member Heather Stauble asked if Hanning was the sleep specialist who did the study with him, Aramani said that he was. She asked if the study found that the current setback of 550 metres put people at risk, and Aramini replied that those closer even, at 350 metres, were affected.

Only at a distance beyond two kilometres "does it appear there wasn't an effect," he said.

Should a better distance for setback be determined then? health unit board member Sandra Jacks asked.

"It seems reasonable to me," Aramini replied.

Board member Gil Brocanier queried how valid the study of such a small group actually was and the Aramini said the “probability" was 95% although, as previously stated, he suggested the need for more study. Instead of two sites, 100 sites would be better to "tease out the differences between sites and what we can learn from that," Aramini said.

He agreed that with increased information circulating about industrial wind turbine farms there is increased bias and this can be an issue in studying effects.

Whether wind turbines are on the ground yet or not, those living in this area are experiencing anxiety about them.

"That could be said of anything," health unit board chair Mark Lovshin said.

But in this case, wind turbines are being forced on people at specific distances, risking health by not using a two-kilometre setback due to political and monetary reasons, Aramini offered.

Lovshin asked whether the fact that older people have more trouble sleeping was looked at in the study.

No one under 18 was part of the study and the ages of the groups were comparable, Aramini said.

The conclusion of the Aramini, Nissenbaum and Hanning study found, in part, that "current regulations seem to be insufficient to adequately protect the human population living close to industrial wind turbines" and that adverse effects are found over one kilometre while current government set backs are 550 metres.

Further research is needed, the study urges.

Two wind farm developments proposed by Clean Breeze in the Grafton and Centreton areas have been halted according to the company's website but Stauble cautioned that the Ontario Power Authority has not confirmed this, and the proposals could be moved to other county sites.

The third and final part of this series will look at the impact of low frequency sound which is to be a subject presented at next month's health board meeting.

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