Don’t Buy the Hype: Wind Turbines Do Not Impact Human Health

Editor’s Note: Today’s post, by Gabe Elsner, is in response to the 3-part series on the Adverse Health Effects of Wind Turbines, by Jerry Punch, Ph.D. & Richard James, INCE, BME. Mr. Elsner was invited to share his opposing views on the controversial subject of the health impact from industrial wind turbines.{{1}}[[1]]Punch & James provide their response to Mr. Elsner’s claims in the comments below[[1]] 

By Gabe Elsner

Gabe Elsner
Gabe Elsner, E&PI Executive Director

Opponents of wind farms have worked to stop the development of wind energy by claiming that it negatively impacts human health. However, courts across the globe have dismissed claims that wind turbines harm human health, repeatedly finding that there is no reliable evidence showing wind farms make people sick. The supposed evidence cited by Jerry Punch and Richard James fails to prove anything, and instead relies on flawed analysis by anti-wind campaigners claiming to be health experts.

In addition, governments in Canada, Australia, and the United States concluded in separate studies that wind turbines do not cause negative human health impacts.

A report released by the Energy and Policy Institute documents how health impacts claims by wind energy opponents have been soundly rejected in court. We studied court cases related to wind farms and health in the United States, Canada, Australia, the British Isles, and New Zealand. Out of the 49 cases that considered claims that wind turbines cause health impacts, courts dismissed 48 as lacking reliable evidence. Since 1998, 48 court rulings in five countries concluded that wind farms pose no threat to human health. The sole outlier is an instructive but unique case in which a turbine had a malfunction when originally installed, causing it to be noisier than usual. The judge in the Falmouth Wind Farm Case accepted medical claims by the complainants at face value, but there is no documentation that any medical experts were brought in as witnesses in the case to corroborate the claims.

Evidence Overwhelmingly Points Against Claims

Governments in Australia, Canada, and the United States studied peer-reviewed scientific research and also concluded that wind farms to do not cause negative impacts to human health. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council stated, “There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impact on humans can be minimised [sic] by following existing planning guidelines.” The Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health in Canada reported, “the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.” And finally, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection concluded, “There is no evidence for a set of health effects, from exposure to wind turbines, that could be characterized as “Wind Turbine Syndrome” and also stated (among other conclusions), “strongest epidemiological study suggests that there is not an association between noise from wind turbines and measures of psychological distress or mental health problems.”

Put simply, governments around the globe have concluded in comprehensive reviews of peer-reviewed research: wind turbines do not cause human health impacts.

Health claims have been debunked by experts
Health claims have been debunked by numerous medical experts. Image courtesy wikihow

Finally, Punch and James cite inexpert “experts” and flawed anecdotal research to claim that wind turbines do cause negative impacts to human health. Over the past several years, anti-wind campaigners without credentials or relevant experience have attempted to serve as expert witnesses in civil suits, Environmental Review Tribunals (ERT) in Canada, and Environmental Resources and Development (ERD) proceedings in Australia.{{2}}[[2]]See: Energy & Policy Institute[[2]]

In total, E&PI has documented that 16 frequently-cited anti-wind campaigners and their testimony were dismissed by courts due to lack of relevant expertise.

Questionable ‘Expert’ Claims

Nina Pierpont self-published a book, coining the phrase “Wind Turbine Syndrome.” Since then, 22 literature reviews on wind turbine health and many point-specific studies on wind turbine noise, vibration, infrasound, and shadow flicker, conducted by public health doctors and scientists, acousticians, epidemiologists, and related specialists considered Pierpont’s book along with other published literature. In every case, they found that her work was lacking in credibility. Recent major reviews have been conducted in Ontario, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Australia with the same results. In a 2013 wind farm hearing in Ontario, her book and testimony was dismissed for lack of expertise in the areas of “brain and ear physiology and pathophysiology, population-level studies in free-living organisms and medical interviewing.”

Nina Pierpont's book: Wind Turbine Syndrome
Nina Pierpont’s book: Wind Turbine Syndrome

Dr. Carl Phillips is also presented as an expert witness at wind development planning hearings, but prior to performing anti-wind work he was a fixture in courtrooms related to tobacco health suits. Following his academic career, Phillips then set up his own research foundation and has attempted to counter peer-reviewed research, specifically regarding wind turbines. In a late 2013 court case related to the Bull Creek Wind Project, Phillips was dismissed because he “provided little rationale for his predictions,” “his conclusions were not based upon any particular adverse event reports,” and “the data he looked at was not organized in a systematic way and he did not break down the data to determine a dose-response relationship between wind turbine operation and the symptoms he described.”

Don’t Buy Into the Hype

In conclusion, Punch and James have made unsubstantiated claims and have not provided unbiased evidence from legitimate experts. Meanwhile courts and governments in countries around the world have concluded that wind farms do not harm human health. In courtrooms and in comprehensive, peer-reviewed studies, governments and courts have rejected the claims made by anti-wind campaigners. Punch & James’ recent series, Adverse Health Effects of Industrial Wind Turbines, is unsubstantiated and not supported by credible evidence or scientific research, and their continued efforts to attack wind energy should be properly labeled anti-wind propaganda.

epinstGabe Elsner is the Executive Director of the Energy & Policy Institute, a pro-clean energy think tank that provides research, reporting, and analysis on the influence industry, lobbyists, and front groups working to expand our reliance on fossil fuels and slow the development of the clean energy industry. According to Mr. Elsner, “Through investigative research and strategic communications, E&PI provides intelligence to ensure we have an honest and transparent debate on energy policy.”

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4 Comments

  1. The gross conclusion drawn by Mr. Elsner in his report that the courts do not recognize the impacts of wind turbines on human health is erroneous. To begin, most of the cases he cites involve challenges to permits where projects were not yet constructed. Most jurisdictions, with some exception (Burch v. Nedpower Mount Storm, LLC), frown on nuisance claims filed prior to injuries being experienced.

    Falmouth was the only court case he cites involving a ruling AFTER the turbines were operational. Mr. Elsner complains that the court did not hear from experts but omits mention that Falmouth’s zoning board twice declared that the turbines created a nuisance prohibited by the town’s code and directed the Building Commissioner to “take all necessary steps to eliminate the nuisance caused by the operation of the wind turbines”. Mr. Elsner’s insistence that Falmouth was an outlier due to an initial malfunction of the turbine is a meaningless distraction on his part. The court decision was years later, after the minor error was corrected.

    In multiple instances in his report he utterly misrepresents the court outcomes, including a case in Maine and another in New York where the courts made determinations against the wind projects. In several other instances he ignores the underlying laws relied on by the courts and, instead, presents his own interpretation of the outcomes. I question if Mr. Elsner even read the court decisions he cited and, if he did, whether he understood the facts in the cases.

    Finally, the bulk of Mr. Elsner’s report (more than 50% of the pages) focused on petty, personal attacks of professionals including Richard James. Most in the popular press that picked up on his storyline ignored the attacks. It’s unfortunately that he found a platform for his attacks here.

    1. I agree, but anyone who looks beyond the surface of this article can plainly see that–unlike those he claims aren’t experts– Mr. Elsner has no legitimate scientific or research background himself.

      Punch and James are not what this author paints them to be–unqualified to speak on matters of acoustics and hearing health. Richard James has an extensive background and expertise in acoustics. Jerry Punch, for example, is highly respected in his field and has a long career of research and peer-reviewed publications within the audiology profession… Mr. Elsner, ironically, is anything but unbiased–his organization is nothing more than a mouthpiece for AWEA and the wind industry.

  2. Gabe Elsner’s critique of Nina Pierpont links to a June 2011 article in “The Checks and Balances Project” which has as their ironic motto “Holding government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.” This is deliciously ironic, especially when you see their “About” page:

    “Our founder, former television reporter Andrew Schenkel, started the Checks & Balances Project (C&BP) to help address the decline of the media’s investigative reporting capacity. His vision was to create a watchdog effort focusing on the overlap between energy, sustainability and policy.”

    Unfortunately, Schenkel, Elsner, and his cohorts including Tom Steyer are no more than Crony Capitalists with their hands out in Washington looking for subsidies paid for by the US taxpayer (or more accurately, money from IOU’s payable to the Chinese) for their uneconomical, unreliable wind and solar power generation schemes and related Rube Goldbergian contraptions that, by the way, also can easily destabilize today’s power grids; and also destroy avian wildlife, especially our vulnerable raptors.

    On average, as they have found out the hard way in California with it’s legislatively-mandated “renewable energy” requirement — A hidden tax on every consumer in the State — that it costs approximately $200 per megawatt-hour (20¢/kWh) for wind-generated electricity; while for coal & natgas it’s about $40/mWh (4¢/kWh).

    What’s more, although electric power generated by a windmill is usable when looking at it in a vacuum, when it is hooked into the grid it is not of baseload capability, not only because the wind may die down, but also due to the necessarily low rotational inertia of the actual low-RPM generator and it’s ability to absorb upsets of the generation-load balance out on the grid, as evidenced by the abnormally high transient reactance X’ on the generator nameplate. [The generator transient reactance rating is used for system stability calculations, and differs from the lower subtransient reactance X” used for fault calculations, and synchronous (or “spinning”) reactance X used for load flow calculations.] Put another way, the typical 3600 RPM steam turbogenerator in use for the last 80+ years stores about 3 to 4 times the nameplate capacity in rotational inertia, and this is used to “smooth out” upsets out on the grid, acting as a cushion against “islanding.” Unfortunately, even with inefficient up-gearing, wind turbine alternators are only running at a few hundred RPM with almost no stored rotational inertial energy, so it cannot be relied upon to smooth out the operational bumps that occur every day out on the grid.

    My challenge to Elsner, Steyer & their ilk is on economic grounds: If your wind turbines are so wonderful, why do you need billions of dollars in government subsidies and waivers from the Endangered Species Act in order to build them?

  3. Mr. Elsner’s criticisms of our three-part article should be evaluated in light of his position as Executive Director of the “Energy & Policy Institute, a pro-clean energy think tank.” It also is helpful to remember the words of Upton Sinclair, who stated in 1935 that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Elsner’s blog borders on plagiarism, as much of it is taken from the talking points repeatedly relied upon by the wind industry to bolster its case that wind turbines are harmless. We could have written the piece ourselves, using wording from various Internet sites and reports written or sanctioned by others allied with the industry.

    It appears that as the Institute’s Executive Director, Mr. Elsner carries out his charge by defaming individuals who have served as expert witnesses in legal proceedings that challenge the wind industry’s mission of installing wind farms wherever allowed by local and state jurisdictions. He misses the point that in court the judge has considerable discretion as to whether to accept an expert’s opinion as qualified or junk science. Both of the authors of the article that Mr. Elsner tries to defame have been accepted as qualified experts in their fields through examination at a Daubert hearing. While Mr. Elsner may not find it acceptable, the courts understand that experts can and do often disagree. That is why there are juries and appeal processes. The outcome of a hearing or lawsuit does not prove that one or the other of the experts is correct and the other wrong. If Mr. Elsner were old enough to remember the court battles over whether cigarette smoking causes cancer, he would understand that when experts present scientific testimony, it can take years before the courts rule in agreement with the experts who were the whistle blowers. He would also be aware that business interests always have a group of “esteemed” experts who are willing to testify in support of the interests of that business.

    In his article, Mr. Elsner demonstrates the same bullying tactics used in other such cases. The criticisms he expresses are founded on speculation and parrot the writings of Mike Barnard, another member of the Energy & Policy Institute (http://www.na-paw.org/barnard-revealed.php). As stated on the Institute’s website, Elsner’s “…primary focus is digging into the organizations and individuals behind attacks on clean energy policies.” That website (http://www.energyandpolicy.org/), is sufficiently libelous in its content and tenor to warrant legal action against him. The degrading tone of Elsner’s comments about Dr. Carl Phillips illustrates the type of comments directed on his Institute’s website toward a large number of expert witnesses who have testified about the harmful effects of wind turbines. Those witnesses include independent researchers, physicians, and professional acousticians who have provided data or testimony most damning to the wind industry’s claims that wind turbines do not pose health risks when located near homes. It is perhaps understandable, though indefensible, that the Institute is resorting to character assassination in an attempt to turn the tide in its favor.

    To take Dr. Phillips as a case in point, he holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a PhD degree in public policy, with an emphasis on economics-based decision making, also from Harvard University. His dissertation was on environmental policy and economics, and he completed two post-doctoral fellowships, one at the University of Michigan and one at the University of Minnesota. He has spent most of his career as a professor of public health and currently runs his own independent research institute. He has taught at the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas, University of Alberta, and at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His research and academic focus is on making optimal public policy decisions based on scientific evidence and properly analyzing epidemiological data. He has done research on epidemiological methods, environmental health, science- and ethics-based policy making, and the nature and quality of peer review. He has received multiple teaching and research awards. His recent emphasis has been on wind turbine noise as a source of adverse health effects in humans, and he is currently studying the issue of tobacco harm reduction. His epidemiological pursuits include the study of uncertainty and bias, analysis, and of translating statistical results into decision-relevant information. He focuses not only on epidemiology—with methodology at its core—but also on epistemology, the science of turning data into real-world solutions, such as whether a particular policy is a good idea or not, in light of a particular societal goal. Had Dr. Phillips’ opinions and testimony been in line with Mr. Elsner’s opinions, would he have been so harshly criticized? Or would Dr. Phillips have been embraced by the Institute and Elsner?

    We hope that Dr. Phillips chooses to comment on Elsner’s shamefully derogatory remarks, although we would understand if he chooses not to dignify them with a formal response.

    Elsner describes our series in HHTM as “unsubstantiated claims,” stating that we have not provided unbiased evidence from legitimate experts. Apparently, he considers experts to be legitimate only if they provide opinions that support the industry’s views. A word limitation of 1,000 words per installment did not allow us to include references, and, as we pointed out in a footnote, we are drafting a comprehensive paper that will include bibliographical references and which we plan to submit to a peer-reviewed journal. We assure Mr. Elsner, as well as other interested readers, that those references will include many studies by unbiased scientists whose findings will support our HHTM report.

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