A Field Guide To The War On Wind Power (Part Two)
By Mike SeccombeOctober 5, 2012
People living near wind farms have complained of symptoms ranging from excessive scratching to loss of muscle tone. But do wind turbines really pose a credible health risk?
Question: When is a disease not a disease?
Answer: When it’s a syndrome.
The word syndrome is usually applied to a bunch of symptoms indicative of a disorder or disease. In the case of wind-turbine syndrome, however, it is just a bunch of symptoms — a bewilderingly vague and all-inclusive array of alleged symptoms.
To those who say it’s real, wind-turbine syndrome is indicative of the effects of low-frequency sound, so low it can barely be heard, and ‘infrasound’ which is so low it cannot be heard at all.
To those who don’t believe it’s real, wind-turbine syndrome is indicative of either hysteria or NIMBY-ism.
And this dispute takes us back to where we began yesterday’s story, to the verbal stoush between Dr Michael Wooldridge, former Liberal federal health minister, and Dr Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health at Sydney University.
Dr Wooldridge, you see, is a director of the Waubra Foundation, an organisation which exists to publicise the alleged health risks posed by wind turbines. The Waubra Foundation is the “go-to” body for other organisations hostile to wind power, such as the Australian Environment Foundation — the astroturfing, climate-change-denialist organisation we’ve already examined — and the Landscape Guardians, about which we’ll say more shortly.
And Chapman has taken it upon himself to point out, often, vigorously, and sometimes mockingly, that the anti-wind health campaign lacks credible scientific evidence to back it. The professor also doesn’t hold back in his assessment of Wooldridge and the others who run the Waubra Foundation and Landscape Guardians.
They are “landed gentry”, he says, who are cynically fostering “panic” about a non-existent health threat.
“A lot of these people are arch-conservatives who don’t subscribe to global warming and think it’s a lot of green nonsense,” he says. “They just don’t want them [wind turbines] because they think it destroys their amenity,” he says.
Chapman keeps a tally of the claimed dire consequences of wind-turbine noise. As of September 14, he had documented 198 such claims, ranging from brain tumours to heart disease to loss of balance, to the enigmatic condition “loss of bowels” to relationship breakdowns among peacocks. The list makes for entertaining reading.
Chapman says he got involved in the issue because, as a sociologist, he was interested in the history of medical panics.
“These things go back well into the 19th century,” he says, pointing out that in 1888 the British Medical Journal warned of a plethora of diseases attributable to the use of the telephone.
“In this century [there have been similar panics about] TV, electric blankets, microwave ovens…the most recent one of course being mobile telephone towers,” he says.
This wave of hysteria about wind turbines, he says, is being deliberately encouraged by people who have vested interests in stopping alternative energy, who are pursuing political advantage or who are simply looking for cover for their NIMBY-ism.
Chapman has studied the scientific evidence: “17 reviews, collections of what has been published, and all of them have basically said there is no evidence that infrasound is harmful to humans,” he says.
To mention just a couple of the studies: in 2010 the National Health and Medical Research Council found no direct health effects from wind farms that could not be mitigated by existing planning requirements.
And the head of medicine at the University of Adelaide, Professor Gary Wittert, carried out a study of the medical prescriptions issued to people living close to wind farms, compared with others living further away, and found no difference in the medications taken.
Says Chapman: “This is very, very obviously a psychogenic phenomenon.”
And it’s only surfaced in recent times, although wind-generated power has been around for many years. Chapman points out that in some areas, such as Esperance in Western Australia, turbines have long operated without any associated health problems having been reported. Millions of people in Europe have lived with turbines for decades and are untroubled by illnesses that might be attributed to wind farming.
But once you convince people that something poses a threat to their health, they are apt to look for symptoms of illness in themselves and, if they find any symptoms, to attribute them to that thing.
Chapman says the most commonly reported symptoms of wind-turbine syndrome are “sleep problems and high blood pressure”.
To which he adds, “about one-third of the population have sleep problems. High blood pressure afflicts 20 per cent of the population”.
Chapman concedes wind farms may contribute to these kinds of ill health, but not directly.
“If you just don’t like them [wind farms], when you see them going up and you feel powerless to stop them, you say ‘this really makes my blood boil’ — and it kind of does.
“That annoyance can turn into somatic problems — you can worry yourself sick. So if you’re angry or depressed or worried, you can become ill.
“These reviews show the best predictor of annoyance is not anything like proximity to turbines or any measure of noise emanating from them. The biggest predictor of annoyance is pre-existing attitudes which are negative towards wind farms.”
Chapman also doesn’t discount the possibility that some people living close to commercial wind farms are motivated by the hope that the wind power developers will buy them out to shut them up.
Dr Michael Wooldridge, for his part, is surprisingly mild in what he has to say about the health impacts of wind turbines.
“I have no doubt that infrasound exists,” he says, in what amounts to a statement of the obvious. No-one denies it exists; the argument is over whether it could cause health problems.
“I have no doubt it’s a nuisance and should be treated as any other environmental nuisance,” he says.
“I don’t for a moment sign on to every silly thing anyone’s ever said around the world. But I think it can, in some people, have a very substantial effect.
“There is, absolutely, growing evidence, in peer-reviewed articles, that infrasound is deleterious to human health.”
Wooldridge provided The Global Mail with web links to various scientific journal articles. Almost all were from the one publication, the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society. There was, however, one from the British Medical Journal, of which more later.
What really animates Wooldridge is his personal situation, his 120-hectare rural property which now has wind farms abutting two boundaries.
He remembers “standing for hours on the back of a D8 bulldozer while my grandfather cleared the land, 50 years ago,” he says.
Then the “appallingly arrogant power companies” moved in next door; and now “I’ve been prevented from enjoying what is my special spot on the planet”.
He also has “a philosophical problem” with government providing subsidies to energy companies in order to set up wind farms.
But what got him involved with Waubra was a personal relationship with the organisation’s chairman, Peter Mitchell.
“He was president of the national Stroke Foundation when I was health minister,” says Wooldridge.
You will remember Mitchell from Part One of this article. He’s the bloke with the mining background, the advocate of nuclear power and speaker at that AEF conference. Simon Chapman identifies him as the central figure in both the Landscape Guardians and Waubra Foundation.
Environmentalists tend to play up Mitchell’s background in the energy sector as his motivation for opposing wind power. But one of his better-informed opponents, Simon Holmes a Court — a wind advocate who helped set up, and remains chairman of, a small community-owned wind farm at Daylesford, Victoria — does not believe that. He thinks that what drives Mitchell is “wanting to keep turbines away from his family property”.
Mitchell’s family owns Mawallok, a heritage-listed property, west of Ballarat, a few kilometres from a proposed wind farm.
When contacted by The Global Mail, Mitchell is at first reluctant to speak. He doesn’t want to talk to us if we have views like the ABC, or Fairfax media, he says.
He protests that the Landscape Guardians is a “terribly informal, grassroots group”, set up long before wind farms were an issue, by members of the National Trust who were unhappy about developments that “defaced” the countryside.
In contrast, the Waubra Foundation is a group consisting just of its half-dozen office holders, which, Mitchell insists, is not “linked” to the Landscape Guardians.
“‘Link’ is a word which implies that we’re all trying to do something which is probably against the public interest,” he complains.
Sure, he says, Foundation office holders attended meetings convened by various Guardians groups, however Mitchell says this is not a “link”, but a “service” provided to warn people about the effects of turbines.
“It [the Waubra Foundation] is just a small group of people that encourages other people who ring up and say ‘Can you help us?’”
When asked about connections between Waubra and the AEF, he acknowledges his role as a speaker and says he also advises the AEF about health questions.
“We are the go-to people for health,” he says.
In fact, Mitchell was involved in the establishment of both the Guardians and the Waubra Foundation. In 2011 Crikey reported that “The Waubra Foundation, the Landscape Guardians and Mitchell’s investment company Lowell Capital all have the same post office box.”
Perhaps more significantly, Waubra office holders have also been prominent in numerous Landscape Guardians groups, as has been variously recorded, notably by the early investigations of Sandi Keane, and by Labor MP John Murphy in Parliament in February this year.
Speaking with The Global Mail, Mitchell refuses to say whether or not he believes climate change is human-induced. Randall Bell, however, president of the Victorian Landscape Guardians, friend of Premier Ted Baillieu and, like Mitchell, ex-National Trust, when not writing anti-wind opinion pieces for Murdoch-owned newspapers, is a climate-change denier.
After our conversation, Mitchell also sent email links, including the British Medical Journal article Wooldridge pointed us to. And, in fairness, it should be recorded that the BMJ piece referred to several studies in which people living up to 2 km from turbines reported having experienced worse sleep since living near the turbines. Its conclusion, in essence, was that wind-turbine noise, like that of trucks, trains and aircraft, could cause sleep disturbance.
Mitchell, however, says turbines should not be sited closer than 12 km from the nearest habitation, which would put them not just out of earshot, but largely out of sight. And certainly nowhere near his property.
Simon Holmes a Court, along with Chapman, has put a lot of work into unravelling the sociology of the anti-wind movement. There has even been produced a “network analysis”, a diagram of 40 or so key people and organisations, showing the multiple links between them.
Holmes a Court can recite a sort of genealogy of the conservative establishment in Victoria — up to and including Premier Ted Baillieu — who have worked to stop wind-farm construction near their “special spots on the planet”.
Their opposition, in his view, has nothing whatever to do with health issues. It’s pure NIMBY-ism. They don’t want bloody great turbines spoiling their idyllic views.
He believes it is very much a matter of partisan politics.
“Every Labor state government has decided they [wind turbines] are a good thing; every conservative government has decided they are a bad thing.”
Holmes a Court says he sees signs of American Tea Party-style “astroturfing” in the way the anti-wind-farm lobby constructed — a not unreasonable conclusion to draw given the involvement of the likes of Cory Bernardi, the Institute of Public Affairs, and their United States associates further up the chain of denialists and wind-power opponents.
“They have a model — the Karl Rovian model really — of creating outrage through a denial of science or denial of critical thinking or a denial of calm discourse.
“It’s incredibly effective, but we end up with a crap society as a result,” Holmes a Court says.
How crappy? According to one recent estimate, coal-fired power causes lung, heart and nervous-system diseases which cost Australia $2.6 billion a year, while the health cost of pollution from oil-fuelled vehicles is $3.3 billion a year.
In any case, the analysis shows a remarkably incestuous group of people with overlapping involvement in Waubra, the Landscape Guardians, and conservative think tanks, particularly the IPA, the AEF and the Liberal Party.
“I would be surprised if Landscape Guardians is actually more than about 50 core people,” says Holmes a Court.
“But they’ve got a huge footprint because every time they hold a town-hall meeting, 50 or so people come along and shout and scream.”
He also obtained — and presented to a Senate inquiry into wind power a couple of years ago — a damaging email from the head of the AEF, offering logistical help to the Guardians in organising protest action. Holmes a Court also presented photographic evidence of violence at the ensuing protest.
(The inquiry was a hotly contested but inconclusive one; it received 535 pro-wind submissions and 468 anti-wind submissions, and its ultimate decision was that more research was necessary.)
Holmes a Court told the inquiry: “The email is basically a run sheet for the protest and includes the artwork for the signage held by the rent-a-crowd you will see in the photo.”
“It was an ugly protest... Cars were beaten with placards. Cars were shaken. My children heard a man yell, ‘I hope you all die of cancer,’” he said.
Holmes a Court called the protesters “rent-a-crowd”, but it’s quite likely many are just people frightened about the perceived health problems wind turbines might cause their families, and the possible decrease nearby wind farms might cause in the value of their properties.
The alleged evidence of the deleterious health effects of wind farms is regularly presented in detail to community meetings by another doctor, albeit a non-practising one — Sarah Laurie. She also became active after a wind farm was proposed near her home in South Australia.
She is the CEO of Waubra. The interesting thing about Laurie is that she is not at all like most of the other people behind the anti-wind movement. She is not a climate change denier. She is not a member of the wealthy establishment, she is not a political conservative; indeed she readily admits to being something of a leftie. She is the kind of person all such movements need — someone fired by an almost religious conviction about their particular issue, be it fluoride in the water or sugar in kids’ diets, or wind power.
Laurie is a zealous and implacable believer in the manifold dangers of turbines.
And she’s concerned not just about wind turbines, but also about other industrial sources of infrasound. And coal-seam gas exploration. And corporations in general. And she has a point. There is no reason to assume the corporate developers behind most wind farms are any more concerned with the effects on local communities than any other big corporations are, when local concerns are at odds with maximising value for shareholders.
Laurie is full of anecdotes about people driven to such despair by their fear of, or experience of, infrasound that they have abandoned their properties.
Even Holmes a Court, who dismisses most of the leaders of the anti-wind movement as cynically manipulative NIMBYs, concedes she is sincere.
“Sarah Laurie is absolutely genuine,” he says.
And so are most people now concerned about wind turbines. They are genuinely, but not necessarily rationally, concerned.
And that’s the essential problem here. There are rational arguments to be had about the siting of wind farms, but this issue has gone way past the point of rational discourse.
And it’s gone that way because of a very successful scare campaign by people who would rather hide their real motives.
See Part One of this story for more on the bitter disputes over wind power in Australia.
And read more from The Global Mail on the mine that's just been approved in a critically endangered habitat, and the former adviser to John Howard fighting Woodside Petroleum over its plans for a $40 billion gas hub in the Kimberley.