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OPINION

Wait, Wind Turbines Can’t Give You Cancer?

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?

<p>MARK DADSWELL/GETTY IMAGES</p>

MARK DADSWELL/GETTY IMAGES

The Cape Bridgewater Wind Farm in Warrnambool, Victoria, May 2012

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.

34 comments on this story
by Mark Duffett

Now, if only our polity would apply similarly rational thinking to nuclear energy, the supposed ill effects of which are, like wind, almost entirely to do with fear and almost nothing to do with actual direct impact. Then we might actually start getting somewhere with decarbonisation.

December 4, 2012 @ 9:30pm
by Doug Evans

I am disappointed in Xenophon who (to me) usually seems to make some sense when he speaks but this time he has definitely left his brain in the Parliament House cloak room with his overcoat. Perhaps he's been sitting too close to Madigan for too long.

December 4, 2012 @ 10:59pm
by Richard

- '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' -
Look no further than what is happening in Qld. The LNP are not only trebing the fixed cost associated with the supply of power and reducing the cost per unit of fossil-fuel generated power in order to make alternative power less attractive, but they are also imposing a tariff on households with solar panels. Unbelieveably, this is happening in the state that has the most successful takeup of solar power in the country.

December 5, 2012 @ 9:34am
by Richard Telford

I find it difficult to believe the comment by Mark Duffett. Perhaps he should look at the impacts of nuclear energy on Chernobyl or the lasting 'direct' impact on Fukushima for evidence? Uranium is a fossil fuel, and should not be put in the same basket as wind energy.

December 5, 2012 @ 10:40am
by C.B

Can't beat cheap Japanese atomic power ;)

December 5, 2012 @ 10:43am
by chris gow

Richard Telford; "uranium is a fossil fuel", please explain.
What animal or plant decomposes into uranium?
Is this the level of scientific knowledge acceptable in the anti-nuclear lobby?

December 5, 2012 @ 4:03pm
by Craig

How much more pointless opposition can possibly be mounted against renewables? Now the NSW government are planning to charge windfarms for noise. http://www.smh.com.au/environment/energy-smart/wind-farms-to-pay-fee-and-will-be-regulated-for-noise-20121130-2amhf.html

December 5, 2012 @ 10:41pm
by mikhailovitch

Yes, sorry Richard, but I can't think of any way you could call uranium a fossil fuel. But I do agree that Mark Duffett's defence of nuclear generation shows a deplorable (deliberate?) lack of knowledge of history.

December 5, 2012 @ 10:43pm
by David Painter

Obviously "uranium is a fossil fuel" means that uranium is a non-renewable, geologically formed resource which is dug up and burned or whatever and emits all sorts of nasties. Lets not get sidetracked by hair splitters. The term "fossil fuel" is convenient parlance.

December 6, 2012 @ 12:04am
by Gwyntaglaw

David, can you explain to me how uranium is "geologically formed"? Oh, I'm sorry: am I splitting hairs?

"Burned or whatever". Hmm. No, I don't think you have the hang of this.

"...and emits all sorts of nasties." No. When done properly, nuclear power plants emit nothing but water. Yes, there is the question of radioactive waste, but that is not "emitted".

There is a reason why "fossil fuel" is convenient parlance, but parlance with an actual meaning: it means a carbon based fuel that is formed from organic matter, and gives off CO2 when it is combusted. Uranium is simply in a different order of things.

December 7, 2012 @ 1:54pm
by Liz Aitken

While this is probably not the forum, I would like to point out that developing a nuclear power industry in Australia will be an extremely expensive exercise. Rather than importing technology, operators & specialists, IMHO we would be better spending the money on Geothermal (a'la Hotrocks) for the same energy type of output (baseload, long life) and then exporting that technology to the world.

December 8, 2012 @ 8:26am
by Murray May

The recent report by the Senate committee was essentially what the Chair Doug Cameron wanted. He went on about the nocebo effect a lot at the Senate hearing to explain adverse health effects i.e. read Simon Chapman. Likely physiological causes of adverse health effects were pretty well ignored. Expert witnesses such as sleep physician Dr Chris Hanning and author Michael Nissenbaum MD of a recent study on sleep and ill health near turbines presented a very different picture. The recommendations of the more substantive wind farms report completed in June 2011 still need to be implemented. Christine Milne wrote off the genuine concerns of people from rural communties as being "astroturfing" on behalf of the coal industry. Pretty insulting when these people spend their time with horses, and practising ecologically sustainable management of the land.

December 8, 2012 @ 10:30am
by eric howard

Nice work Mike, reminds us of the forces of self interest - always there, giving supporters a run for their money and rarely discussed by the mainstream media.
More please.
Eric Howard

December 8, 2012 @ 11:01am
by Ken Rivett

Cape Bridgewater is nearer to Portland than Warrnambool. It is in the electorate of Glenelg once the stronghold of Malcolm Fraser. Portland could have been the heart of the emerging renewable energy industry until the Bailleau Government introduced restrictions aimed at destroying this exciting prospect for Regional Victoria. Keppel Prince, a local business manufactures the towers. Turbine blades were built in the town until the Kennett Government tried to kill the wind energy industry in the 1980,s.
What is the motivation ?

December 8, 2012 @ 11:26am
by Lee

Great to see someone making sense out of the rubbish being put around. Thanks for the article Mike.

December 8, 2012 @ 1:16pm
by Bruce B

It would be great if the report has an impact out in the real world, where the actual alternative to a wind farm is usually an very big open-cut coal mine with associated railway lines, coal dumps, coal washing facilities and so on, or something else equally and permanently destructive of the landscape. Of course, wind and coal regions are usually in different locations, so the nimbyism of the windphobes makes them fair game for manipulation by the fossil fuel industry's trojan 'experts'. Noise, dust, explosions, vibrations, more noise, floodlighting, heavy vehicle movements, incremental and irreversible losses of historic farms and buildings, more noise and dust ... all real effects of the ongoing despoliation of (for example) NSW's Hunter Valley by big coal, but nary a word from my National Trust friends who remain obsessed with anti-windism. I hope they read this report, and try to understand it, but I fear they long ago fell under the spell of denialism.

December 8, 2012 @ 3:47pm
by Marcus

"Likely physiological causes of adverse health effects were pretty well ignored. Expert witnesses such as sleep physician Dr Chris Hanning and author Michael Nissenbaum MD of a recent study on sleep and ill health near turbines presented a very different picture."

Well done, Murray, you've been successfully suckered in by the "Vested Interest" Industry. What matters here is that whilst all these claims are made about Wind Turbines - without any evidence from the scientific literature - this same anti-wind farm lobby are quite happy to promote Coal Seam Gas - an industry with incredibly well documented impacts on human health. I don't doubt that some people, who have also been suckered in by the "Vested Interest" industry really do feel ill effects, but all that does is prove the power of the human mind to make oneself sick. Meanwhile, you've got scores of people living practically underneath the turbines, who've never suffered a single day of illness in their lives. Oh, & I'm sure rampant jealousy plays a part as well. Nothing like living *next door* to the guy being paid to house a wind turbine to create all sorts of "crazy maladies".

December 8, 2012 @ 5:11pm
by Marcus

BTW, Murray, there have been at least *two* epidemiological studies done in Australia that have shown that levels of the maladies described by these "witnesses" are actually no higher, nor any more densely grouped, than they are in areas that are nowhere near a wind turbine. To me, it feels no different to those people desperate to blame autism on vaccinations - horribly anti-science people looking for *anything* to blame!

December 8, 2012 @ 5:13pm
by Murray

Marcus

How are sleep physicians part of the vested interest industry? The rant I heard from Christine Milne that other day in the Senate was trying to suggest concerned rural people were instead coal industry fronts. The rural people I spoke to found it deeply offensive. Can you name the two epidemiological studies you refer to? The Senate wind farms report 2011 recommended that epidemiological research be undertaken, but still no action to implement this recommendation. Instead we've got people running around repeating the mantra that it's "all in people's heads". Simon Chapman's articles repeat the same assertions over and over, and the result is similar to that produced by advertising. I hear people who have hardly looked at the issue parroting this same stuff back to me!

December 9, 2012 @ 8:55am
by George Papadopoulos

Marcus, just a reality check: the people raising concerns against wind turbines are not promoting CSG. Some have such opinions, but the far majority recognise that CSG, open-cycle gas plants are the complimentary evil of wind turbines.

It is time people took their focus off speculative conspiracy theories about motivation behind complaints against wind turbines and focussed on reality: wind turbines are causing distress and illness in many individuals. Claiming that the number of complaints are "small" is not a licence to harm Australia's rural community.

December 9, 2012 @ 9:40pm
by Peter

I am amused by the arguments about the health effects of wind turbines. I understand the positions of the individuals involved but I agree with Simon Chapman's analysis of the facts.

What doesn't amuse me is the arguments defending the efficacy of these machines as a part solution to our long term energy needs. That is pure nonsense, as any sensible electrical engineer can attest. Time Mike to focus on the real issues, and not on the distractions.

December 9, 2012 @ 11:03pm
by mikhailovitch

There is a genuine level of concern in some areas of rural Australia about health effects near wind farms. However, what research has clearly shown is that there is no higher incidence of occurrence of ill health in wind farm areas than non-wind farm areas. The difference is that some people attribute the effects to the proximity of wind farms. And the main reason they do this is probably because their anxiety has been raised by campaigning financed by companies with vested interests to oppose wind farms.
You can say this with some confidence. In many countries where there are many wind farms, but no industry-financed campaigns against wind generation, there are NO (none, zero) reports of people attributing ill health effects to the proximity of wind generators. You can't just assume that this is a coincidence.

December 9, 2012 @ 11:14pm
by Keith Thomas

Chances are we have a bit of truth on all sides of this issue, with those from each side preferring to ignore their inconvenient bedfellows for fear of undermining their black (or white) position.

I would be surprised if some of the complaints of health effects are not valid. We therefore need serious field research to specify the valid complaints and their parameters. I am also convinced that many of the claims of ill-health are totally without foundation and may even have been fed into the debate to drag the plausible complaints down with them.

There are, undoubtedly, vested interests – like the fossil fuel industry and like the more excitable climate change sceptics (I say “like”, because I have no evidence of specific instances) who have aligned themselves with people opposed to turbines on health grounds. On the face of it, it is unfair, unscientific and bullying to dismiss and mock the rural people whose health concerns deserve scientific investigation, just because they appear to be aligned with vested interests who come along for the ride on their coat tails.

Professor Simon Chapman says he has chronicled a couple of hundred alleged manifestations of wind turbine syndrome, but his list hardly counts as research, though it could be used as a pointer to research. Who knows – we may find the hysteria he posits and we may find real physiological effects on some people in some circumstances. We have found recently that sounds produced by certain naval operations can interfere with normal cetacean behaviour from much further away than humans appear to be able to detect those sounds.

So, please, good research and less bullying, more science and less prejudice.

December 9, 2012 @ 11:42pm
by Anthony Harris

When Electricity pylons started to criss cross the countryside after the WW2'was there the same level of hysteria that there is about Wind Turbines,considering how harmful it is to live under said Pylons.
Perhaps some of the places Wind Turbines have been situated and the way that local residents concerns about placement of said Turbines have been ignored is pretty typical of corporate behaviour that unfortunately gives the whole alternative energy industry an unecessarily bad name.
This is obviously not a good enough reason to hold back this technology because this could be remedied by government oversight and guidelines to respect local residents that have to live close Wind Farms.
Australia is a big place,surely Wind Farms could be placed in locations that address all the reasonable concerns residents might have.The point is that when another better form of sustainable energy production comes along if the Coal Lobby could ever be made to behave itself,these Wind Farms can be removed with little or no lasting effect to the locations they were installed.Sorry but you can't say the same for coal,nuclear or even hydro whose pollution,maintenance of waste and damage to the environment,fauna and flora is somewhat more permanent.
I for one as an ordinary citizen find it mystifying why there is so much resistance to Wind,Solar and other forms of free sustainable energy production,it begs the question,who is really running this country,the miners or the government.

December 11, 2012 @ 12:33pm
by shane hurford

keith thomas....
interesting...
YOU'D be surprised... therefor we need... huh?
so because you cast doubt, we need more research? a bit wacky....
but that's most of the problem..... the doubters cast their doubt, weather warrented or not and others hear the doubt and go "wow but what if his is true? i need an answer" the same tactic cigarette companies used for years... "the jury is out the the health effects of cigarettes because as you can see there is still millions of dollars of research being done" the trouble was the research was being funded by the cigarette companies so they could say "look there's still doubt"
it's nonsense.
A spinning turbine is only a danger to coal fired powerstations.....

December 11, 2012 @ 12:58pm
by Marcus

"Some have such opinions, but the far majority recognise that CSG, open-cycle gas plants are the complimentary evil of wind turbines. "

Oh what a bunch of unmitigated *garbage*. There are plenty of other ways of ensuring Wind Turbines can produce base-load without having to resort to CSG-(like Run of the River Hydro Power, gas from landfill & sewerage treatment plants, Vanadium Redox Batteries etc). Yet when you track these anti-wind groups back to their source, you find strong links with organizations like the Institute of Public Affairs (a known supporter of CSG & Nuclear Energy). Of course, such a well funded organization is easily able to buy off a handful of "specialists", & a few locals who are jealous that they missed out on direct money from the wind turbines. This little clique then work to create fear amongst the general population, which leads in turn to the so-called "nocebo" effect. It's a very well run scam-one run along identical lines to those in the US & the UK. It seems that some contributors here have also fallen for this scam. Given that, do you mind if I pass your name onto this Nigerian General who contacted me via e-mail?

December 11, 2012 @ 1:03pm
by Murray

Marcus

Re your previous comment "BTW, Murray, there have been at least *two* epidemiological studies done in Australia etc." am still waiting to know what these are, as I would like to read and assess the quality of them, Will not be be looking at the web for a few days, but will be interested to check in a few days for your response. I need enough info to look the studies up via web or library, as in authors, title, year and so on.

December 11, 2012 @ 7:46pm
by Keith Thomas

@ shane hurford
Step back a mo, mate. I am used to seeing this sort of response from climate change denialists and from acolytes of shock jocks who swallow the line that scientists (who disagree with their prejudices) are corrupt. Religious fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists are also similarly impervious to rational science. I can appreciate your desire to stop the stuffing around, but I can't see that we are at the point where that's a prudent choice.
Although people and companies associated with "coal fired power stations" may be calling for wind power to be down-played, it's a non sequitur to go from that point to dismiss arguments about the health effects of wind turbines.
I could equally accuse those who argue that wind should play a larger part in Australia's energy mix as being opposed to energy-conservation measures. But I'm not going there.
I'm not arguing for research that is seeking a non-existent needle in a haystack. Just for good science, conducted by conventional academics.
I'd also appreciate - from you - less of a dismissive, know-all response. Can we use the same tone that Mike Seccombe adopts in his article? This is a serious issue and we won't get far abusing each other from our computers. Let's get out in the field with measuring instruments and see what we can find. Then, we can meet and discuss the findings.

December 11, 2012 @ 8:21pm
by George Papadopoulos

Marcus just some figures that might interest you (from http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/PolicyandLegislation/RenewableEnergy/tabid/394/language/en-AU/Default.aspx)

The NSW Government recently released figures on renewable energy in NSW in its “Renewable Energy Action Plan”. I list the output of the four groups: Hydro, 3690 GWh; Bioenergy, 813GWh; Solar, 684 GWh; Wind, 652 GWh.

Do you note how wind energy comes lucky last, yet there are more gas plants (open-cycle) going up in various locations (no talk of more hydro, solar farm at Lismore scrapped, and no noise about more bioenergy)? Why isn’t any other renewable energy source supplanting or stopping the development of more CSG/gas back up?

One example: Construction plans are in place to put a retrofitted jumbo jet engine (open-cycle gas plant) down at Dalton, NSW to help back up the wind turbines in the region. It is being installed in an area where there is not even a reliable source of water. Why? Because, unreliable wind energy creates “funny money” moments for those able to make most of the energy shortfall when wholesale electricity prices skyrocket.

One of the major issues with CSG and gas energy production is low frequency noise. That is why the chief organisation in Australia, the Waubra Foundation, which has been raising awareness over wind energy developments and health, has felt the need to blow the whistle on CSG and gas energy plants.

Surprisingly even the “right wing” Alan Jones has slammed the CSG industry repetitively on his radio show.

In case you are not aware CSG wells tend to go in areas that are rural areas, amongst populations that tend to vote for the Coalition.

Meanwhile can you give me any examples which demonstrate that even a significant majority of the “anti-wind” people in Australia support gas or CSG?

December 11, 2012 @ 8:56pm
by Phil Gorman

A rare breath of fresh air and clarity. Good news that should have made the headlines.

December 13, 2012 @ 11:22pm
by Bartholemew LeNoir

There is absolutely no need to worry about ill-health caused by wind turbines. Give it another couple of years and the miners will have bought all the farmers out or driven them off for CSG drilling. No people, no problem.

December 18, 2012 @ 4:29am
Show previous 31 comments
by Billy

Perhaps you would like a wind farm next to you? Not all the noise is ultrasonic. They are ugly and are efficient at chopping up the local birdlife. They blight the countryside and affect property prices More importantly they are not cost effective. Do you research and look at the latest data. I suspect there is a lot of money to be made in wind power but little in the way of net energy gain.

January 10, 2013 @ 1:36pm
by chris

Well the UK has invested heavily in this and their energy performance is pretty poor. On going maintenance costs are very high and they just can't meet the countries energy needs. Of course the wind turbine companies have done very well out of this with their government particularly of the former UK Labour government. You need to get your head out of the sand on this Mike and look what's happened overseas!

January 24, 2013 @ 8:59pm
by punch

It is really important Australians openly debate and begin to understand the implications of climate change and advantages/disadvantages of alternative energies. I believe we have the perfect big island country to harness all alternative energies with our vast, diverse landscape, extreme heat and access to oceanic rhythms. I also feel the political debate should exentuate the reality of climate change, the importance of preserving our environment and the technological advancements which will make this possible without breaking the bank, since so many people care more about the short-term dollar than the long term quality of life. Thank goodness Gillards Labor got a carbon price in place as its just the beginning; but a good beginning. The alternative is frightening. For all those who are 'not in my back yard' - I suggest you travel through rich rural land which has been and continues to be devastated by the unbridled mining boom. Recently in conversation a mining infrastructure engineer told me he felt the Australians lacked the experience or imagination to understand the devastation of their country - out of sight out, of mind or aerial views without having a sense of scale or being told the financial benefits outweigh the hidden negatives. Its time for a big, strong, measured, open conversation.

February 16, 2013 @ 9:48pm
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