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Opposition to windmills often centers on health effects, but what is it about wind power that causes people to feel ill? According to recent research, it may not be the infrasound from wind-energy installations but, oddly enough, the warnings from opponents.
For a study published in the American Psychological Association’s Health Psychology journal, researchers from New Zealand’s University of Auckland showed readily available anti-wind-power film footage to 27 people. Another 27 were shown interviews with experts who said infrasound, such as that created by wind turbines, can’t directly cause negative health effects. Subjects were then told they would be exposed to two 10-minute periods of infrasound, but were actually only exposed to one.
After both real and “sham” exposure, people in the first group were far more likely to report negative symptoms than those in the second. In fact, subjects in the second group reported “no symptomatic changes” after either exposure. According to the researchers, “Results suggest psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints.”
Another study, which has yet to be published, shows people living near wind-power installations report more health problems during anti-wind campaigns. Researchers from Australia’s Sydney University found only 120 complaints from people living within five kilometres of the country’s 49 wind farms between 1993 and 2012. But 68 percent were from people living near five wind farms targeted by anti-wind-farm groups, and 82 percent occurred after 2009, when wind-energy opponents started highlighting health scares in their campaigns.
The power of suggestion can be extremely effective, especially when it comes to human health. Unfortunately, in the case of wind energy, this can delay or even stop wind-power installations that are a necessary part of the shift from polluting fossil fuels to clean energy, as has happened recently in Canada.
In fact, science shows that wind energy does not negatively affect human health in any significant way. An independent panel convened by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection reviewed the available research and released a report last year. It found no scientific evidence to support most claims about “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” infrasound effects and harm blamed on wind power such as pain and stiffness, diabetes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease and headache/migraine.
At worst, there is some evidence that wind installations may cause annoyance and sleep disruption. But most of the resulting minor effects can be overcome by regulations governing how close windmills are to residences. In Ontario, the required setback is 550 metres. At this distance, audible sound from windmills is normally below 40 decibels, which is about what you’d find in most bedrooms and living rooms.
On the other hand, we know that using fossil fuels for energy has profound effects on human health—and on the economy. The Canadian Medical Association reports that in 2008 air pollution in Canada was responsible for 21,000 premature deaths, 92,000 emergency room visits and 620,000 visits to a doctor’s office. And a new study by the Pembina Institute found that “health impact costs associated with burning coal for electricity in Alberta are close to $300 million annually.”
According to Pembina researchers, “Coal plants are a major source of toxic air contaminants, including mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter. The study shows that in Alberta each year this pollution contributes to over 4,000 asthma episodes, over 700 emergency visits for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and around 80 hospital admissions, with chronic exposures resulting in nearly 100 premature deaths.”
Factor these costs into the equation, and coal and other fossil fuels don’t seem like the bargain they’re purported to be—especially considering the sector is subsidized by about $1.9 trillion a year worldwide, according to the International Monetary Fund. With the costs of renewable energy coming down, and the technology improving, more and more research shows that switching from fossil fuels to clean energy is feasible.
When it comes to wind power, we have to be careful to ensure that impacts on the environment and on animals such as birds and bats are minimized, and we should continue to study possible effects on health. But we must also be wary of false arguments against it.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
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A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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