Wind Power Pollution

Wind Power: Pollution and Health Risks to Workers

Wind energy has been in use for thousands of years. During the Age of Sail, it was initially exploited for the navigation of ships, and early wind powered machines were used for grinding grain and pumping water. However, interest in wind to generate electricity advanced substantially during and subsequent to the end of the two world wars. Policymakers’ interest in wind energy further solidified following consecutive energy crises between 1970 and 1980 (Kaldellis, 2012). Given the serious environmental difficulties our planet presently faces, utilization of wind energy may be considered a relatively environmentally friendly method of covering energy requirements, compared to conventional energy sources such as nuclear, coal, and oil. In contrast to mining and other kinds of fossil fuel extraction, such as extraction from tar sands, wind energy does not produce particulate emissions and leaves a minimal “footprint” on the surrounding land. Wind power offers a number of economic advantages as well. For instance, it can provide new income to rural economies and is more cost-effective than energy sources that involve mining or transporting resources. Domestic wind energy production can potentially free a country from dependence on imported energy sources.
Yet despite its being more environmentally friendly than some other options, there are pollutants and other negative impacts that derive from wind power as an energy source. Impacts on biodiversity, for instance, must be examined. For example, birds can be killed or crippled by collisions with wind turbines, especially at night, in inclement weather, and when large flocks of migratory birds move through a wind farm (Ledec, Rapp, & Aiello, 2011). Eagles and other raptors are particularly at risk for mortality. Bats are likely to be killed at higher rates than birds, as apparently they are actually attracted to wind turbines, though the reasons for this are as yet unknown. Marine life is also impacted by the noise of turbines for offshore wind farms and by turbine construction (Bailey, Brooks & Thompson, 2014). Natural habitats can be lost or degraded when they are cleared to create wind power facilities, which often poses substantial risks to biodiversity. Scarce, highly localized plant and animal species can reside in wind-swept micro-climates and can be disproportionately affected by the presence of wind turbines and their connecting roads. The process of constructing access roads to previously remote wind farm sites can lead to the ruin of natural habitats. Road construction can result in erosion and the improved access itself can lead to increased land clearing and other disruptive human activities (Bailey, Brooks & Thompson, 2014).
Governments approving the placement of turbines within a community should take into account a number of factors to keep pollution and nuisance to a minimum. Negative visual impacts can be an important social impact in wind power development. Although old fashioned windmills are usually considered pretty and quaint, large wind turbines can be an eyesore to those living nearby, and can be visible from up to 30 km away (Ledec, Rapp, & Aiello, 2011). Both light flicker and noise nuisances can be a source of irritation for individuals working on and residing near wind turbines as well. Further, cultural impacts should be considered when deciding upon the placement of wind turbines. The location of wind farms should respect the people whose property they border. In some areas populated by indigenous peoples, for instance, it may be important for turbines to be located away from sacred spaces such as cemeteries. Additionally, wind turbines can interfere with radar and telecommunications lines. Therefore, they should not be installed within the line-of-sight of radar or telecommunications facilities.
The noise of wind turbines has led to what has been termed “Wind Turbine Syndrome”, an association of symptoms said to arise from exposure to wind turbine noise that includes dizziness, nausea, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleeping disorders and headache, among other effects. There is however some dispute as to whether the symptoms reported are actually attributable to exposure to noise or to a combination of factors such as annoyance with and fear of wind turbines. A 2014 systematic review examined articles written in English, German and Scandinavian languages that mentioned health effects from wind turbine noise exposure (Hvass Schmidt & Klokker, 2014). The researchers found that exposure to wind turbines increases the risk of both annoyance and self-reported sleep disturbance in a dose-response relationship. However, no conclusive evidence was found regarding the relationship between wind turbine noise and the numerous other claimed health effects of Wind Turbine Syndrome. One obvious limitation to this study, for which 36 articles met inclusion criteria, is that only articles in the specified languages were reviewed. Another evaluation of studies reported the presence of a possible “nocebo effect”, whereby the expectation of suffering symptoms from something such as an unfamiliar or new technology becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy despite no clear link between exposure and symptoms (Rubin, Berns & Wessely, 2014). The researchers note that personality is an important contributing factor influencing who will be concerned about or annoyed by a stimulus. Personality variables such as frustration discomfort, a state defined as “an inability to cope with distressing stimuli”, negative affectivity and neuroticism have been demonstrated to correlate with attributing symptoms to wind turbines. Yet clearly, those experiencing psychosomatic-related symptoms likely feel that the suffering they experience due to their symptoms is real, irrespective of the source.
Further evidence suggests that wind turbines directly cause numerous negative health effects for workers involved in wind energy production. For instance, a 2015 study of wind turbine farm workers in Iran found that maintenance workers had significantly more annoyance, sleep disturbance and general health effects from wind turbine noise than did security and official wind farm staff (Abbasi et al, 2015). Maintenance workers, whose job it is to repair and regulate wind turbines, can be exposed to an extremely high level of noise and are the most severely exposed out of the three occupational groups.
In addition to these concerns, the issue of shadow flicker is not merely a visual annoyance to those affected. For individuals with photosensitive epilepsy, shadow flicker poses a risk of epileptic seizure given a combination of specific meteorological conditions, distance from the rotors, and speed of rotation. This risk is small, however, and can be mitigated by susceptible individuals’ looking at the ground or covering one eye (Smedley, Webb & Wilkins, 2010).
An additional health issue potentially encountered by wind turbine workers is that of occupational contact allergy and dermatitis. Turbine blades were traditionally composed of styrene-based reinforced plastic, but to gain technological and environmental benefits, some companies have shifted to epoxy-based reinforced plastics. During the course of the production process the blade mold is coated manually with an epoxy-based paint. A study of 603 Dutch production workers at a wind turbine plant found that the workplace prevalence of dermatitis was 62.4% (Rasmussen, 2005). A study of workers in Spain, the world’s fourth largest producer of wind energy, discovered dermatitis in all participants (Lárraga-Piñones, Heras-Mendaza, & Conde-Salazar, 2012). Dermatitis affecting the face, eyelids, forearms, and hands was discovered to be due to sensitization to epoxy resins and bisphenol F resin. Dermatitis from contact with fiberglass was also found.
A number of other occupational health and safety hazards have been reported by wind turbine technicians. These include falls from as high as 500 feet, severe burns, electrical shock, crush injuries, and oil, lubricant, and dust exposure (Moynihan, 2013). Further, the risk of illness or injury can be exacerbated by changes in the thermoregulatory process of the body from exposures to excess cold or heat in workers who service turbines year-round.
The expansion of green jobs in the wind industry is being propelled by the worsening of climate change concerns. Yet as the industry develops, so too must awareness of and measures to prevent and mitigate the worker safety issues and environmental hazards presented by wind energy production. Safety awareness, and the use of personal protective equipment are essential. Additional protective measures include appropriate clothing, hydration, respites, and working during mild temperatures (Moynihan, 2013). Further, the population level consequences and cumulative impacts of wind turbines on affected species and habitats must be considered as the number of wind farm developments continues to increase.

Abbasi, M., Monazzam, M., Akbarzadeh, A., Zakerian, S., Ebrahimi, M., (2015) Impact of wind turbine sound on general health, sleep disturbance and annoyance of workers: a pilot- study in Manjil wind farm, Iran. Journal of Environmental Health Science & Engineering 13:71.
Bailey, H., Brookes, K., Thompson, P. (2014) Assessing environmental impacts of offshore wind farms: lessons learned and recommendations for the future. Aquatic Biosystems, 10:8.
Hvass Schmidt, J., Klokker, M. (2014) Health Effects Related to Wind Turbine Noise Exposure: A Systematic Review. PLoS One, 9(12): e114183.
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Ledec, G., Rapp, K., Aiello, G. (2011). Greening the Wind: Environmental and Social Considerations for Wind Power Development. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank Group.
Moynihan, M., (2013) Wind Energy Presents New Challenges for Worker Health and Safety. Workplace Health and Safety, 61(5):232.
Rasmussen, K., Carstensen, O., Ponte, A., Gruvberger, B., Isaksson, M., Bruze, M. (2005) Risk of contact allergy and dermatitis at a wind turbine plant using epoxy resin-based plastics. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 78: 211–217.
Rubin G., Burns M, Wessely S. (2014). Possible psychological mechanisms for “wind turbine syndrome”. On the windmills of your mind. Noise Health, 16(69):116-22.
Smedley, A., Webb, A., Wilkins, J. (2010). Potential of wind turbines to elicit seizures under various meteorological conditions. Epilepsia, 51(7):1146–1151.

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