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5-yr wind farm health study begins in Ontario

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Researchers from the University of Waterloo are planning to begin canvassing several Ontario counties this spring, marking the beginning of a multi-year effort to assess health-related changes in the vicinity of wind farms.  The research program in Renewable Energy Technologies and Health will include a wide array of scientific, technological, and health-related topics surrounding wind, solar, hydro, and bio-energy. The health-related surveys will be overseen by epidemiologist Philip Bigelow, who has spearheaded similar projects assessing appropriate noise thresholds for other common community noise sources.

Bigelow“This one is actually a little different,” says Bigelow, “because you have this continuous noise and you have the wind changing, of course, but you have this continuous thumping and swishing, and that’s really irritating to people.”  Bigelow notes that, “when you average it all out, wind turbines are going to be worse than traffic noise for annoyance, and that’s already been well established because of the character of it.”

To balance the study, a group of people who don’t live anywhere near turbines will be included. Bigelow said the team ideally hopes to study people in areas where turbines are planned, then follow up with them after the turbines are up and running. “Those people we really want to follow up with.”

The study will assess low frequency and audible noises as well as vibration; field measurements of turbine noise will take place, with an extensive GPS mapping component, as well. After an initial round of surveys, Phase Two of the research will involve bringing in a registered nurse and physician to head a field study.  “They will actually go talk to residents and administer a symptom and physical impact checklist,” said Bigelow.  “They will then do an assessment and collect some biological materials like saliva to look for biological stress,” including sleep studies that will measure both awakening and non-waking arousals.  Phase Two will involve a smaller sampling of residents identified during the Phase One surveys.

The eventual value of this study will depend on how successful researchers are at achieving a representative sample of local residents.  This will require both researchers and citizens to come at it with as open a mind as possible.  Bigelow’s introductory comments to local newspapers, as quoted above (see the two links in the first sentence for much more), indicate an good understanding of the situation, including the roles of annoyance, stress, and sleep disruption; one comment mentioned in passing needs clarification, though.  The Owen Sun-Times noted that he said he wanted to find participants who don’t have an agenda; while I can understand this concern, due to the extreme polarization triggered by the issue across rural Ontario, I would hope and expect that the study would involve a truly random sample, and not exclude people who are upset because of symptoms that may have cropped up for them.  Equally troubling, at least one other health survey in Ontario was met with widespread distrust among those with health concerns, leading some to urge residents to not participate.  If either the researchers or anti-wind activists limit participation by the significant proportion of the population that has previously been engaged in this issue, the integrity of the survey’s results would likely be affected.


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