Wait, Wind Turbines Can’t Give You Cancer?
By Mike SeccombeDecember 4, 2012
There are times, like last week, when you despair at the capacity of our politicians to obfuscate. But there are times, too, when the political process can be refreshingly clarifying.
One great example of that is a report delivered on Wednesday by the Senate environment and communciations legislation committee, which did a lot to clear the air on wind turbines. It didn’t get much attention of course, because the Parliament and media were obsessed with the pointless point-scoring of the week’s non-scandal about Julia Gillard and that ancient slush fund.
But the report really was an interesting and revealing one. So let’s get back to it, shall we?
The committee was charged with examining a piece of proposed legislation, the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012, put up by a couple of the Parliament’s lesser lights, Senators Nick Xenophon and John Madigan.
As you might gather from the bill’s title, its intent was to hobble the nascent wind power industry with new regulations.
And what the Senate committee did in considering — and ultimately rejecting the bill — was dismiss the claims made by opponents of wind farms about the health effects of turbines.
We’ve written about these before. The alleged negative effects on both humans and animals are many and varied. Opponents allege the existence of something called “wind turbine syndrome” and attribute it to very low-frequency noise — much of it below the threshold of human hearing, so-called infrasound — generated by turbines.
Simon Chapman, professor of public health at University of Sydney, has chronicled a couple of hundred of these alleged manifestations of wind turbine syndrome — they range from stress and headaches to brain tumours, heart problems, bowel complaints, nose bleeds, you name it .
He believes them to be manifestations of a type of hysteria, encouraged by people who object to wind turbines for other reasons, and are using the health concerns as cover.
There is good reason for this suspicion; we’ve also previously detailed some of the links between the organised opponents of wind farms and people and organisations with vested interests in denying climate change and opposing alternative energy.
Anyway, the committee received about 165 submissions from people on all sides, studied the documentation, heard from the witnesses, and produced a report that makes reassuring reading.
The report found that even though there were about 1,345 turbines operating in 59 areas around the country: “The number of health-related complaints about wind farms is small in proportion to the number of people living near these facilities. The numbers also vary greatly from one facility to the next, for reasons not apparently related to the number of residents in the area.”
There was “no evidence to suggest that inaudible infrasound (either from wind turbines or other sources) is creating health problems’’.
In contrast, there was evidence that the reported health problems were “psychogenic” — that people were, in effect, worrying themselves sick.
The committee expressed concern that health complaints were being generated by “the reproduction and dissemination of claims about adverse health impacts — claims not grounded in the peer-reviewed literature currently available’’.
It cited some interesting academic work, in which people were presented with information “designed to invoke either high or low expectations that exposure to infrasound causes specified symptoms’’.
Then some were subjected to infrasound and some were subjected to “sham infrasound”.
Those who expected to suffer symptoms did so, whether the sound was real or not. Meanwhile, the report noted “there were no symptomatic changes in the low expectancy group’’.
The senate report conceded there probably were some people experiencing real problems with wind turbine noise, but that “potential adverse health effects appear confined to the audible sound range...”.
Furthermore, the bogus claims were “obscuring the focus on assisting properly the small number of people whose cases do need attention’’.
It analysed the various regulatory regimes applying around the country and found they were adequate and broadly consistent with those operating successfully elsewhere in the world.
That is not to say the committee has ruled a line under the whole business. It noted further work being done by the National Health and Medical Research Council into wind turbines.
And the three Coalition senators on the committee called for even more research, including “adequately resourced epidemiological and laboratory studies of the possible effects of wind farms on human health” as well as the environmental and social impacts of wind farms.
But all except the original two proponents, Xenophon and Madigan, rejected the proposed legislation.
And anyway, the Coalition members’ caveats need to be seen in context. They in essence amounted to a nod to the climate change deniers and anti-wind vested interests which make up part of the conservative support base.
So-called think tanks with historical connections to the Liberal Party and the fossil fuel lobby have played a big part in drumming up opposition to alternative energy in general and wind power in particular.
All things considered, the senate report amounts to a big win for reason and clarity over fear and obfuscation.