TORONTO - Opponents of wind farms are hailing Health Canada's decision to study the possible connection between noise generated by the towering turbines and adverse health effects reported by people living close to them.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced Tuesday that Ottawa will conduct the study, which "is in response to questions from residents living near wind farms about possible health effects of low-frequency noise generated by wind turbines."
The $1.8-million study will initially focus on residents in 2,000 dwellings near eight to 12 wind-turbine installations. There are about 140 such land-based wind farms in Canada, most of them in Ontario and Quebec.
Sherri Lange, CEO of North American Platform Against Wind Power (NA-PAW), said she is encouraged to see the federal government is finally undertaking a study on the safety of wind turbines.
"I hope it will be independent and at an arm's length" from the government, said Lange, whose opposition to wind farms began with a fight to stop a proposed installation of the energy-producing towers in Lake Ontario, offshore from her east Toronto neighbourhood.
The study is being conducted by a team of more than 25 experts in acoustics, health assessment and medicine, including four international advisers.
"This study will contribute to an area of ongoing global research," Health Canada said.
"Currently, there is insufficient evidence to conclude whether or not there is a relationship between exposure to the noise from wind turbines and adverse human health effects, although community annoyance and other concerns have been reported to Health Canada and in the scientific literature."
Lange contends that exposure to low-frequency noise and vibrations ó in particular, inaudible infrasound ó from wind turbines can lead to sleep disorders, headaches, depression, anxiety and even blood pressure changes.
"The house vibrates, it becomes like a guitar. The noise and the vibration enters the home and it actually increases the effect," she said.
"People have to go in their basements to sleep or they have to take a pup tent and sleep in the yard. But they can only go on doing that for so long," she said, noting that up to 40 families in Ontario have left their rural homes as a result of turbines erected nearby.
Lange said she hopes researchers conducting the study will listen to the stories of people, many of them farmers, who say they are suffering ill health linked to wind-energy towers.
"During the process of the study, they need to go and talk to these people as I have," she said.
"These are ordinary, hard-working people. They would not make up these stories in a million years. They're trying to protect their land, their homes, their children, the legacy that they've built and received from their families."
Health Canada said researchers will be conducting face-to-face interviews with residents, as well as taking physical measurements such as blood pressure and heart rate, and assessing noise levels both inside and outside some of the homes.
Some residents will be fitted with devices to monitor sleep disturbances for seven consecutive nights, and hair samples will be taken to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol over the previous 90 days, said a Health Canada scientist involved in the study.
The Canadian Wind Energy Association, representing organizations and individuals involved in the development and application of wind energy products and services, said scientific evidence "clearly demonstrates" that energy-capturing turbines do not have an impact on human health.
"CanWEA supports the responsible and sustainable development of wind energy in Canada and we continue to monitor ongoing scientific research in this area," president Robert Hornung said in a statement.
"Health Canada's new study will contribute to the scientific literature and our knowledge base, and we appreciate the opportunity for stakeholders to review the draft methodology and study design and we look forward to undertaking such a review and providing our feedback."
Jane Wilson, president of Wind Concerns Ontario, welcomed the study announcement and called for an immediate halt to approvals for large-scale wind-turbine projects in the province.
"We have been saying this for years as people in Ontario exposed to turbine noise and infrasound are being made ill," Wilson, a registered nurse, said in a release Tuesday.
"We have demanded health studies, we have demanded research to back up the province's assertion that its setbacks are safe. And yet the province issued approvals for these projects with no scientific evidence to prove they were safe. Now, Health Canada's admission that research is needed is confirming that."
Ontario PC Party energy critic Vic Fedeli also called for an immediate moratorium on further wind power development in Ontario.
"Iíve been to dozens of town halls across the province and have heard the painful stories of those who've reported these adverse health effects," Fedeli said. "The fact the federal government feels this study is necessary is reason enough to put a halt to any more wind turbines being built in Ontario right now."
During Ontario's last legislative session, the Conservatives put forth a proposal calling for a moratorium on wind turbines, but it was rejected by the Liberal government and the NDP.
The proposed health-effects study design is posted on Health Canada's website for a 30-day public comment period, and feedback will be reviewed by the committee putting together the study. Canadians can voice their opinions at: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/consult/_2012/wind_turbine-eoliennes/index-eng.php.
Specific details about study locations and timing will be made public on Health Canada's website upon completion of the study, with results expected to be published in 2014.