Wind-turbine power is far healthier than coal or nuclear

Hamilton Spectator: Gideon Forman - July 2, 2010

If we take seriously the protection of human health, we have to phase out coal- and nuclear-powered electricity.

Coal kills hundreds of Ontarians and triggers more than 100,000 illnesses (e.g., asthma attacks) annually. It is also the most climate-destructive fuel around, emitting twice as much carbon as natural gas does. Whether the issue is respiratory disease or global warming, coal is a catastrophe.

But nuclear is extremely unhealthy as well. A scientific review by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment found all functioning reactors release radioactive materials on a routine basis. A 2008 German government study showed children (younger than five) living within five kilometres of a nuclear plant are at elevated risk for leukemia. And Scientific American recently reported nukes harm the climate: "Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered."

But to phase out conventional power we need to use less energy and switch over to renewables, including wind turbines.

Lately there's been a certain amount of antiwind sentiment from some Ontarians. This is unfortunate because turbines are a far healthier source of power than their competition.

Dr. Arlene King, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, released a scientific literature review on wind and health in October 2009. In the document, she explains that "while there are anecdotal reports of symptoms such as sleep disturbance, headaches, dizziness, anxiety, concentration and learning problems, and tinnitus, there is no scientific evidence, to date, to demonstrate a causal association between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects."

In May 2010, King released the results of a second scientific literature review. Again she concluded that "the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects."

But what about concerns besides noise? A January scientific review from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control examined claims that turbines might create electromagnetic fields, potentially cause epilepsy, and possibly throw ice. The study's conclusions:

* "Wind turbines are not significant sources of EMF (electromagnetic field) exposure."

* "Shadows caused by wind turbine rotors can be annoying, but are not likely to cause epileptic seizures at normal operational speeds ..."

* "Risk of injury (from ice throw) can be minimized with setbacks of 200 to 500 m ..."

The verdict: wind turbines are not perfect. They need to be carefully sited and allow for appropriate setbacks. But the current science -- from Ontario's top doctor -- suggests they do not threaten human health. Unlike coal, they are not destroying our climate and killing hundreds of Canadians every year. Unlike nuclear, they are not associated with cancer -- nor do they condemn the next 1,000 generations to the menace of radioactive waste.

Gideon Forman is executive director of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (