By Graham Readfearn, journalist.
THERE are very few health symptoms these days which anti-wind power activists and suggestible and anxious residents have not at some point blamed on those spinning steel turbine blades.
According to a list compiled by Simon Chapman, the University of Sydney’s Professor of Public Health and much-awarded enemy of the tobacco industry, wind farms have been blamed for more than 180 different symptoms including weak bladders, cancers, weight gain, weight loss, herpes, kidney damage and, in one case, a woman having not one, but five menstrual periods in a single month.
Apparently, wind farms also cause chickens to be hatched with crossed beaks (and eggs being laid without yolks), cats to produce small litters, horses to get club feet and crickets to disappear.
Chapman noted recently at The Conversation that in Australia health complaints about wind farms have been relatively recent, despite some wind farms having been in operation for almost 20 years. In one area, Chapman said complaints had only been made after “a visit to the area by a vocal opponent, spreading anxiety”.
The Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council has begun its second review of the “evidence” for such claims, examining studies and reports from around the world. The agency’s 2010 review looked at a range of issues which anti-wind groups often cite as the causes of symptoms in people living in wind farm areas. These included noise, low frequency sound and infrasound, shadow flicker, blade glint and electromagnetic radiation.
The review concluded that in each case, there was no evidence that wind turbines could have a direct impact on people’s health. The review said it was possible that people were getting annoyed by their sound, but also pointed out that a wind farm with 10 turbines at a distance of 350m was about as loud as a quiet bedroom. People were more likely to be annoyed by the sound if they also didn’t like the look of turbines on the landscape.
However, the review pointed out that “renewable energy generation is associated with few adverse health effects compared with the well documented health burdens of polluting forms of electricity generation”, and then concluded,
This review of the available evidence, including journal articles, surveys, literature reviews and government reports, supports the statement that: There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines.
The NHMRC is currently reviewing the scientific literature on wind farms in order to update its public statement, which it hopes to publish by May 2013.
To direct the review, the NHMRC has created a reference group which also includes two observers. One is Russell Marsh, a policy director at the Clean Energy Council, and the NHMRC clearly describes Marsh as being a representative of the renewable energy industry.
But the second observer is Peter Richard Mitchell, the founder of the Waubra Foundation, an Australian group which the NHMRC says was formed to “facilitate properly reviewed, independent research”.
Yet in reality, the 77-year-old Mr Mitchell has a long career in the mining and fossil fuel industries. Rather than the “independent research organisation” described by the NHMRC, the evidence suggests the Waubra Foundation has already made up its mind that wind farms are causing a multitude of health impacts, despite all the credible evidence suggesting the contrary.
For example, the Waubra Foundation produced a YouTube video posted in December 2011 in which it claimed categorically that people had left their rural properties “because of serious ill health caused by wind turbines” and that “we still have a lot to learn about why they are making people sick”.
Mr Mitchell’s Waubra Foundation is also affiliated with the Massachusetts-based National Wind Watch group which has a stated aim “to save rural and wild places from heedless industrial wind energy development”. Affiliates are required to “acknowledge their shared mission”, says NWW.
Between January 2007 and December 2009, Mr Mitchell was the registered public officer for the anti-wind farm group the Western Plains Landscape Guardians. During this period, in November 2009, this group placed an advert in local newspaper the Pyrenees Advocate which was guaranteed to stoke fear and alarm over wind farms.
The advert read “Coming to a House, Farm or School Near You? Wind Turbine Syndrome” before listing “rapid heart rate”, “sleep disturbance”, “Tinnitus”, “Headaches” and “Vertigo” as the symptoms residents could expect.
In an interview on ABC Radio National last week, Canadian academic and wind turbine health expert Dr David Colby, of the University of Western Ontario, suggested that it could be these kinds of adverts which are making people sick, rather than the turbines themselves.
All people are suggestible… There’s also a ‘nocebo’ effect. If people believe that a certain stimulus will have adverse effects, then they will start to feel badly as a result of that. People would not be human if they were not effected by these suggestions that some people have [made], that wind farms cause genuine illness. There’s really no evidence to support that at all.
A December 2011 article in the Sydney Morning Herald documented some of the links between the Landscape Guardians and climate sceptic groups. Mr Mitchell, who hasn’t expressed scepticism of climate science, told reporters that his opposition to wind farms was “based on health concerns”.
But in a submission to a 2009 NSW Parliament Upper House inquiry into rural wind farms, Mr Mitchell has used a raft of other arguments to oppose wind farms.
Writing as the chairman of the scientific and economics committee of the Australian Landscape Guardians, Mr Mitchell didn’t bother raising “health concerns” but did conclude that wind farms were a “monumental and total waste of money”.
Last week, it also emerged in Climate Spectator that the Waubra Foundation had been using money raised through tax deductible donations to fund a court case challenging a wind farm development in South Australia.
And what of Mr Mitchell’s own career background? Under the heading “declared interests”, the NHMRC says Mr Mitchell’s “Family members/family company hold shares in a large diversified energy company which is also an owner and operator of wind projects.” The NHMRC doesn’t say exactly which energy company and which wind projects.
Apparently not relevant, is the fact that the 77-year-old Mr Mitchell has a long career in oil, gas and metal mining behind him. The family company mentioned by NHMRC is likely to be Lowell Pty. One Lowell subsidiary is Lowell Capital, an investment management company which runs the “Lowell Resources Fund” which is described as specialising in “emerging mining and energy companies”.
In 2004, when Mr Mitchell was part of the fund’s four-man investment committee, his biography stated:
“Mr. Mitchell was founding Chairman of the Moonie Oil Company Ltd. and Chairman or a Director of related companies including Clyde Petroleum plc, Avalon Energy Inc., North Flinders Mines Ltd., Paringa Mining & Exploration plc. He was also on the Board of the Australian Bank Limited and other public and private companies. His experience is derived from over 25 year’s involvement in companies that explored for, developed and financed gold and base metal mines, oil and gas fields and pipeline systems in Australia and overseas.”
Now, the NHMRC are well within their rights to have anyone they choose around a table to observe their inquiry, including the renewable energy industry and its opponents.
But in my opinion, it should be more honest about the true motivations, background and views of at least one of its observers who has been engaged in a fear campaign that could be a key suspect of so-called “wind turbine syndrome”.