Are wind turbines bad for our health?

IT’S as inevitable as death and taxes – we are going to have more wind farms as the Government strives to meet renewable energy targets.

Energy Minister Eamon Ryan recently said Ireland is on target to generate 40% of electricity from renewable sources, with wind being pivotal, by 2020. That is optimistic and we will be among the best in Europe if we hit that target.

There are signs of opposition to such developments, with communities raising health and safety issues and the visual intrusion of ‘out of place’ turbines on scenic, elevated landscapes. We’ve heard visitors complaining about turbines on the hills of Cork and Kerry. There’s no shortage of them on the mountains that divide the counties, and in north Kerry, especially. There are 150 wind farms in the Republic. Donegal tops the list with 29, followed by Cork, 17, and Kerry, 14.

A key issue is the distance turbines should be kept from houses, schools, and other buildings of public resort, with calls for strict guidelines. There have been protests in Co Donegal, where wind-energy production is expected to reach 690MW in ten years. Local objectors claim that every hilltop in Donegal will be covered in wind turbines, and the attendant pylons and high voltage power lines will destroy the landscape and endanger health.

The feeling is that turbines have been allowed too close to where people live, work and do business. A group of people in west Clare have started a campaign to increase the distance between their homes and large wind farms.

They have sent a petition with more than 350 signatures to Clare County Council, asking that the set-back distance between homes and wind turbines be increased from 400 metres to at least 1,000 metres, for safety reasons and to protect property.

While not opposed to wind farms, the residents feel turbines should be set back two kilometres, in line with international best practice. Their view is that 400 metres is inadequate, and a distance established at a time when turbines were much smaller than they are today.

“At present, there are also no national or local guidelines regarding density of wind turbines. In the rush to generate sustainable energy, planners are allowing multiple wind farms, which will have an enormous cumulative effect on local residents,” the west Clare group, including people from the Coore and Miltown Malbay areas, said in a statement.

As wind farms get bigger, they are being viewed more as large-scale industrial developments not suitable for populated, rural areas.

Up against both national and EU energy policies, which are strongly pro-wind power, people in quite isolated areas are finding it difficult to make their voices heard.

Landing a wind farm on top of a community that hitherto had only the noise of bleating sheep and barking dogs to contend with can lead to disruption. Residents are faced with the combined effect of noise, increased traffic on bad roads, pylons, possible contamination of ground water, property devaluation and even landslides.

In countries such as Canada, some wind-turbine manufacturers tell operators and technicians to stay at least 1,000 metres from an operating turbine for safety reasons – over three times its total height – unless absolutely necessary.

In February, 2008, a 10-year-old turbine with a total height of less than 70 metres broke apart in a storm. Large pieces of the blades flew as far as 500 metres.

Both the French Academy of Medicine and the UK Noise Association recommend a minimum of one mile (or 1.5 km) between giant wind turbines and homes.

In a survey, Dr Amanda Harry, a British physician, found that 13 out of 14 people living near a 16-turbine installation reported an increase in headaches, and 10 reported sleep problems and anxiety. Other symptoms included migraine, nausea, dizziness, palpitations, stress, and depression.

Noise can induce dizziness and loss of balance in people with a previous history of noise-induced hearing loss, since, when people damage their hearing through too much exposure to loud noise, the balance organs in the inner ear may also be damaged.

Sleep deprivation, by the way, also causes anxiety and depression. Older people, who often sleep less soundly, are more likely to have their sleep disturbed by turbine noise, Dr Harry said.

Other studies have shown that, under certain conditions, the turbines could be heard up to two miles away.

Measurements made by a sound engineer near a more recent, 30 MW, 17-turbine installation on the Dutch-German border, found that residents living 500 metres, and more, from the turbines were reacting strongly to the noise, and residents up to 1,900 metres away expressed annoyance.

Legislation has been put before the House of Lords for a compulsory, two-kilometre setback from turbines in Britain.


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