Health Canada has released its long-anticipated findings in the landmark Wind Turbine Noise and Health Study (the Study) – the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind in the world. The findings, which are preliminary pending peer review and publication, found no association between, on the one hand, exposure to wind turbine noise and, on the other hand, illness, chronic disease, stress and sleep quality for those individuals who live near wind turbines.
By way of background, Health Canada, in collaboration with Statistics Canada and other external experts, launched this multi-year research study in July 2012 to explore the relationship between exposure to wind turbine noise and the extent of health effects reported by, and objectively measured in, those living near wind turbines.
In light of the increasing development of wind energy generation resources, the Study sought to:
- investigate the prevalence of health effects among a sample of Canadians exposed to wind turbine noise;
- apply statistical modeling to the data to derive exposure response relationships; and
- investigate low frequency noise and infrasound from wind turbines as a potential contributing factor towards adverse community reaction.
Twelve wind turbine developments in Ontario and six in Prince Edward Island were sampled. All potential homes within 600 meters of a wind turbine were selected for inclusion in the Study, with a random selection of homes within 600 meters and 10 kilometers of a turbine also included. One person between the ages of 18 and 79 from each household was then randomly chosen to participate. In total, data was collected from 1,238 households (out of a possible 1,570 qualifying households) using the following tools:
- an in-person questionnaire, which was given to randomly selected participants living at various distances from the wind turbines;
- a collection of physical health measures that assessed stress levels (e.g., hair cortisol, blood pressure and resting heart rate) as well as sleep quality; and
- more than 4,000 hours of wind turbine noise measurements.
According to the Study, its key findings include:
- Illness and chronic disease: No evidence was found to support a link between exposure to wind turbine noise and any of the self-reported illnesses (e.g., dizziness, tinnitus, migraines) and chronic conditions (e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes).
- Stress: No association was found between self-reported stress or multiple objective measures of stress (e.g., hair cortisol, blood pressure, heart rate) and exposure to wind turbine noise.
- Sleep: No association was found between wind turbine noise and self-reported or measured sleep quality.
- Annoyance: An association was found between increasing levels of wind turbine noise and individuals reporting to be very or extremely annoyed, and a separate potential link was found between long-term high annoyance and health effects such as blood pressure, migraines, tinnitus, dizziness and perceived stress. However, the Study is clear that it establishes no causal link between wind turbine noise and such potential health effects, noting that these potential associations were not dependent on noise levels or distance from turbines. The Study further explains that it has no way of knowing whether these self-reported and measured health conditions pre-dated the wind turbines, and thus were influenced by pre-existing and confounding factors other than the wind turbines, or whether the conditions were possibly exacerbated by exposure to wind turbines. Most importantly, nothing in the Study suggests that the health effects correlated with “annoyance” are anything other than normal. In fact, the Study observes the same sort of health effects associated with road traffic noise annoyance. Certainly, the Study does not conclude that any of these health effects amount to serious harm to human health.
- Quality of Life: No association was found between wind turbine noise and overall quality of life and satisfaction with health, as assessed through the World Health Organization’s Quality of Life scale.
Legal Significance of the Study’s Findings
The Study represents a concerted effort by the Government of Canada to understand the relationship, or lack thereof, between wind turbines and health effects. Consequently, it may have considerable significance for industry stakeholders across Canada in the renewable energy sector.
The Study’s preliminary findings reinforce the recent decision of Justice Leitch in Dixon v. The Director, Ministry of the Environment, 2014 ONSC 5582, in which an injunction to bar the construction of the K2 Wind Power Project was refused by the Court due to a lack of irreparable harm. Moreover, the Study’s preliminary analysis corroborates the Environmental Review Tribunal’s consistent findings in multiple Renewable Energy Approval appeals that there is no conclusive evidence that wind turbine developments would cause serious harm to human health or serious psychological or physical harm.
Going forward, given that the Study finds no correlation between wind turbine noise and illness, chronic disease, stress or sleep quality, and given the absence of conclusions on either causality or any serious impacts to human health associated with wind turbine “annoyance,” it appears unlikely that the Study will serve as evidence for wind farm opponents looking to claim “serious harm to human health” within the meaning of Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act or a breach of section 7 of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Any party challenging a wind turbine development – whether in court at common law, before an expert administrative tribunal, or under the Charter – will still be required to meet significant evidentiary hurdles on a case-by-case basis.