By Ketan Joshi, Research and Communications Officer at Infigen Energy. These views are his own.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has wasted no time in excising “waste” from government. While climate programs have borne the brunt of the government’s cuts, one Coalition policy has been left untouched: their promise to conduct a full review into the health impacts of wind farms.
The blades of Australia’s first wind farm began turning 26 years ago, yet the hysteria over claimed wind farm health impacts is recent. The trajectory of how these fringe concerns came to take a central place in policymaking is worth examining.
“Coming Soon to a House, Farm or School near you? Wind Turbine Syndrome, also known as Waubra Disease … Avoid: Living within 5km of a turbine” read an advertisement placed in the Pyrenees Advocate in 2009. The symptoms touted in the full-page ad claim irritability, panic episodes, vertigo and “concentration problems” are all said to result from living within five kilometres of a wind farm.
The ad referred to Waubra wind farm, a development that has become the nexus of the wind turbine syndrome scare, as Sandi Keane reported in NM last year. It was placed in the paper by the “Western Plains Landscape Guardians,” then fronted by Peter Mitchell, a former director of oil and gas companies who found the views from his heritage-listed property near Ballarat threatened by a wind farm development.
Mitchell’s warning came soon after the self-publication of Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Natural Experiment, by US paediatrician Nina Pierpont, the wife of anti-wind activist Calvin Luther Martin. Her book was described by NSW Health as “not scientifically valid, with major methodological flaws stemming from the poor design of the study”. Pierpont wrote:
“I never set out to prove that wind turbines cause Wind Turbine Syndrome. This was already obvious. Instead, I chose to study and document the observations made by people who had already figured it out and proved it on their own … through the rather common-sense means of watching what happened to their symptoms when they left their homes near turbines and came back, or when the turbines were still and quiet, vs. active and noisy.”
The major deficiencies in Pierpont’s book didn’t stop the spread of wind turbine syndrome. The Western Plains Landscape Guardians christened it “Waubra disease”, and on 1 July 2010, the Waubra Disease Foundation Inc was registered.
Three years on, the “disease” has been dropped from the name. An ad agency was brought in for the rebrand, which included removing the wind turbine from their logo. In addition, a raft of improbable new claims were added to their site:
“In the case of wind turbines, in some locations residents have noticed batteries on phones, cars, tractors, and cameras discharging very quickly, fluorescent light bulbs lighting up spontaneously and electricity meters spinning much more quickly.”
The foundation has been very effective. Research conducted by the University of Sydney’s Professor of Public Health, Simon Chapman, found that 98 per cent of complainants made their first complaint after the formation of the Waubra Foundation in 2009. Chapman found a total of 120 complainants, in a population of approximately 30,000, within five kilometres of wind farms.
Few meetings attended by the Waubra Foundation go without the inclusion of passionate personal testimony. The use of anecdotal evidence is a vital method of shifting attention away from the science.
When health fears are raised in this way, any occurrence within a ten kilometre radius of a wind turbine becomes a candidate symptom of wind turbine syndrome. Anti-wind groups prime their audience to respond emotionally rather than analytically.
The low-frequency sound emissions of wind turbines — what called infrasound — have been measured by acousticians. These levels are no different to those found in urban environments. On reviewing the scientific literature, NSW Health, the Victorian Department of Health, theNational Health and Medical Research Council, the Association of Australian Acoustical Consultants, WorkSafe Victoria, Doctors for the Environment Australia, The Climate and Health Alliance and the Public Health Association of Australia all state that there is no evidence infrasound from wind farms can impact adversely on human physiology.
Neil Barrett, a filmmaker and researcher based in Victoria, recently produced a short film interviewing neighbours and landowners near the Waubra Wind Farm. None of the residents had been contacted by the Waubra Foundation.
Obtaining a wider view of community perceptions does not mean those concerned about health impacts ought to be ignored. The Coalition’s proposed research could actually address the concerns propagated by anti-wind groups.
But would a full-scale review of wind farms that ended up clearing the technology of its alleged health impacts sway wind farm opponents? When asked if she would accept results that cleared wind farms of health impacts, Waubra Foundation CEO Sarah Laurie simply stated that “the adverse impacts have been shown by a number of studies, both overseas and in Australia”.
As the new government cuts programs designed to wean society off carbon-intensive electricity generation, the public’s perception of science, especially where renewables are concerned, becomes vital. Given the ease with which wind farms have been associated with sickness, there’s no reason to suspect solar will be spared. Perhaps the research could examine the health impacts of all generation technologies – coal, gas, solar, hydro and wind.
Meanwhile, Waubra wind farm continues to operate. The owners estimate that over the life of the wind farm the contribution to the local Community Benefit Fund will be $1.6 million. The Pyrenees Shire lists the wind farm as a key attraction on their website, and the owners support the yearly Waubra Festival.
The Waubra Foundation is registered as a “Health Promotion Charity”. Donations are tax deductible. On their registration page there’s a field named “Who the Charity Benefits”.