Wind turbines: unsightly and expensive, but are they also a health risk?

David Atherton catches up with Professor Carl V. Phillips for an exclusive interview on the health effects of wind turbines

Wind turbines don't look great, but are they also dangerous?
David Atherton
On 4 September 2012 13:36

I have a small confession to make; I am a bit of a closet green. My rubbish is carefully sorted out for recycling, I walk and cycle to the shops and the bulldozing of the British countryside for buildings makes me feel uneasy. There is a strong case for renewable energy in that it will make us a lot less reliant upon oil from the politically unstable Middle East. And who knows, it may have prevented the invasion of Iraq from happening. The UK is the windiest place in Europe and gives the country an unlimited source of energy.

Just before you think I am writing love letters to Caroline Lucas (or indeed, Natalie Bennett), one of James Dellingpole’s Watermelons, there is much to detract from wind farming. The costs of generating 1 Megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity is £65 for gas, £62 for coal, and £95 for nuclear. Onshore wind ranks in at £90 and offshore wind an eye watering £150.

It is of course possible that, like mobile and smartphone batteries, research and development could make them more efficient. As mentioned here by the Montana Environmental Information Center:

“Turbines…[have a] 33% increase in average capacity in just three years. Today's…turbine has a 2.3-megawatt capacity; 7-megawatt turbines will be available soon.”

However a disturbing paper from The King Juan Carlos University found in 2009 that “Spain’s experience cited by President Obama as a model reveals with high confidence, by two different methods, that the U.S. should expect a loss of at least 2.2 jobs on average, or about 9 jobs lost for every 4 created, to which we have to add those jobs that non-subsidized investments with the same resources would have created.”

As I previously mentioned, I have concerns about concreting the countryside – and wind farms are more than capable of inciting NIMBY sentiments. UKIP’s Energy Spokesman Roger Helmer is a leading critic; they have also attracted the opprobrium of the National Trust, its Director Of Conservation Peter Nixon saying, “We have a duty to protect beautiful places, and believe that any wind energy proposals should be located, designed and on a scale that avoids compromising these.”

And now wind power has a major new headache in the shape of the health of the people who live in the vicinity of wind farms. To explore this new challenge further, I caught up with Canadian Professor, Carl V. Phillips, for this exclusive interview:

DA: Perhaps you could give The Commentator a background to your career so far?

CVP: I was a professor of public health for about 15 years, working on a combination of epidemiology, public policy, and environmental health. Before I went to graduate school, I did some work for the electric power industry. Currently I run my own university-style research shop, and do economic and epidemiologic consulting. I have been working on the Industrial Wind Turbines (IWT) issue for about 2.5 years.

I understand that there may be health risks associated with living near wind turbines. Can you expand on that?

There is a consistent pattern of many people who live near IWTs suffering from a class of diseases caused by chronic stress reactions: insomnia, fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate, mood disorders (e.g. depression or being quick to anger), and the like. It is likely that this reaction creates cardiovascular problems too. It is not too surprising that this occurs, since some (not all) people will have an ongoing "fight or flight" reaction to certain types of noise, and IWTs produce types of noise (cyclic and low-frequency) that are known to be especially disturbing.

There are other alternatives proposed for the causal pathway, such as non-stress-mediated effects via the ears (both hearing and the balance system), which might explain particular symptoms like balance problems and tinnitus. But whatever the causal pathway, the effects are quite clear.

In terms of severity, a large portion of the exposed population apparently experiences some of the problems to a bothersome extent, and a few percent experience problems so severe that it basically destroys their lives. Or it forces them to flee their homes. Their homes then end up selling at prices well below what they would be worth if there were no nearby IWTs, if they can sell them at all; that loss in value is a good measure of how substantial these negative effects are to people.

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