Wind Power Blues: Toronto doctor warns that, if not properly controlled, the noise from wind turbines could make people sick -- literally
By Lorrie Goldstein
21 June 2009
Since the debate over wind turbines and whether they negatively impact on human health is heating up in Ontario, let’s talk to an expert on the relationship between noise and stress.
Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Wolkoff is a recognized authority on this subject and has testified on it as an expert witness in court.
(Full disclosure: Dr. Wolkoff and I are friends, but his professional views are his own.)
Wolkoff notes there has been little independent, credible research on the specific issue of wind turbine noise and what, if any, impact it has on human health. That research should be undertaken immediately, he said.
However, much is known about the impact of noise in general on health, so it’s not as if we’re starting from scratch.
The first thing people need to understand about noise and stress, Wolkoff said, is that many factors now being hotly debated — low versus high frequency noise, precise decibel levels, whether one person compared to another finds a particular noise stressful — aren’t the key ones.
“When it comes to noise and how it potentially affects human beings, the two main ’stressors’ are whether the noise is meaningful or meaningless to the person hearing it, and whether or not the individual can control it,” Wolkoff explained.
He uses a familiar example to illustrate the point.
“Say I’m in my home playing my favourite music loudly,” Wolkoff said. “To me, the noise isn’t stressful because it’s meaningful — I like it — and I can control it .
“But my next-door neighbour may be very stressed by my music, because it’s meaningless to him — it’s my favourite record, not his — and because he can’t control it.”
NOT EVERYONE AFFECTED
Similarly, some people living near wind turbines and wind farms could genuinely find the noise stressful, even if others don’t.
To tell those affected by the noise “it’s all in their head” would be true in the sense the brain affects the body, Wolkoff notes, but the added implication that the stress they are feeling must be imaginary, is incorrect.
In fact, people could be genuinely stressed even if, as the government describes it, the decibel level from the turbines is similar to “a quiet office or library,” particularly because wind power is intermittent and the turbines start and stop unpredictably.
On the other hand, these affected residents could have friends visiting with them who aren’t stressed by exactly the same noise, because it’s meaningful to them — perhaps they support generating energy from wind — and because they can control it, if by no other method than driving home.
However, when noise does cause genuine stress, Wolkoff emphasizes, the adverse health effects are well known .
Even short-term exposure can result in sleeplessness, irritability, impaired functioning and inability to concentrate.
In practical terms, Wolkoff says, parents stressed by noise will not be able to care for their children as well as they otherwise would. Similarly, children under stress will not be able to concentrate, or learn, as well.
The long-term effects of exposure to unwelcome, uncontrollable noise can be extremely serious, Wolkoff said.
Prolonged stress triggers the release of too much adrenaline and hydrocortisone in the body.
Adrenaline raises blood pressure and can eventually result in arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Hydrocortisone suppresses the immune system and can lead to a greater risk of infections and even cancer.
On the issue of wind turbines themselves, Wolkoff is an agnostic.
He’s seen well-designed wind farms on the tops of mountains in Spain that were clearly built to minimize any potential negative impacts on people. On the other hand, he once visited a wine-growing region in Austria where a single wind turbine had the locals up in arms about its perceived negative impacts on their town.
“All I did was mention I thought it was great they had a wind turbine generating electricity and the response from these normally calm, lovely people was utter fury,” Wolkoff said. “It took me completely by surprise.”
Premier Dalton McGuinty, who originally warned he would not tolerate NIMBYism (”not-in-my-back-yard-syndrome”) in the growth of renewable energy in Ontario, has recently taken a somewhat less confrontational approach, proposing, under Ontario’s Green Energy Act, a minimum setback for wind turbines of 550 metres, and up to 1.5 km, depending on numbers and noise levels.
As Wolkoff puts it: “Making electrical power out of thin air sounds like a beautiful dream. But it must not be allowed to become a nightmare for the real people living near wind turbines.”