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Wind turbines might be stressing people out

Study of hair to provide scientists with clues

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OTTAWA -- Having a bad hair day? Wind turbines could be to blame.

The amount of the stress hormone cortisol found in people's hair could help scientists understand the potential health impacts that may arise from exposure to low-frequency noise and vibrations from wind turbines.

Starting in May, the federal government plans to study the hair of up to 1,200 people who live near wind turbines. The results could tell scientists if wind turbines are linked to health problems, such as chronic stress.

"The objective of the contract is to analyse hair cortisol concentrations from hair samples collected during the community noise and health study," says a contract notice posted Friday.

"The hair cortisol concentrations will be added to the data file for this survey and analysed in relationship to other measures of health and respondent demographics.

"Specifically, the hair cortisol results will be used to assess if there is a relationship between levels of systemic stress and distance from wind turbines."

The adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol. Stress -- either psychological or physical -- causes cortisol levels to spike. In small doses, that's not so bad. A brief jolt of cortisol sends a quick burst of energy through the body, heightens memory and numbs sensitivity to pain.

Prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol, however, can lead to health problems.

Statistics Canada and Health Canada are collaborating on a study to measure people's health in up to a dozen communities located within 10 kilometres of wind turbines.

Besides hair cortisol, scientists will also measure people's blood pressure, heart rates and sleep patterns.

David Michaud of Health Canada, who is leading the study, said his team will go door-to-door to ask people for hair samples.

Each centimetre of hair gives a one-month average of cortisol levels, he said. His team will ask people to provide a single, three-centimetre sample, giving researchers the average levels of cortisol for a 90-day period.

Michaud stressed the study will not definitely link wind turbines to health effects.

"We cannot say that, no matter what the cortisol value looks like, that it's being caused by the wind-turbine noise," he said.

"What we can say is that when we look at the average values in people that live, say, in the higher areas versus the lower areas, there is or there is not an association in terms of the concentrations.

"So we can draw a line through those averages and apply statistical modelling and see whether or not the association is there. But at this point, it's only an association. You haven't established causality."

The research is needed because scientists don't know a great deal about the potential health effects of wind turbines. Some people who live near the turbines complain of sleep disorders, headaches, depression, anxiety and even blood pressure changes.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 A26

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