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Can wind farms make people sick? Simon Chapman investigates

Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, has been investigating concerns about the safety of wind farms. He writes:

“Last week Kevin Rudd and Peter Garrett were confronted at a Ballarat meeting by angry residents living nearby the Waubra wind farm, 35km north west of Ballarat, run by Acciona.

ABC AM’s report included the following.

‘Belinda Wheel: Mr Rudd, residents are suffering from sleep deprivation, ah, health problems due to wind turbines sited too close to home.

Berni Jannsen: Within weeks of the last ones being turned on I started getting headaches, started getting heart palpitations.

Donald Thomas: Mostly ear pressure, headaches, heart palpitations, high blood pressure.

Samantha Hawley (reporter): Donald Thomas lives about three kilometres from the wind farm.

Donald Thomas: Before the wind mill started operating there was none of this.

Samantha Hawley: Last week the company bought a property from one of its most vocal critics who is now subject to a confidentiality agreement.’

With often clanking windmills having been around for 5,000 years, what are we to make of such claims, particularly since the affected residents were reported as living some 3km away from the wind farm?

Are they calculated displays from a few people seeking to cash in on hopes of land sales or compensation? Do they reflect genuine health effects actually caused by the noise from the windfarm?

Or are they equally genuine health effects caused by residents’ anxiety about the towers?

The noise generated by modern wind turbines at distances between 300-600 metres is generally within 40 to 50 decibels, the equivalent to the sound of light traffic at 50 feet or the sound in a normal living room with ordinary conversation. So at 3km, the turbines would be virtually inaudible. Suggestions that the reported health problems are due to “low frequency” noise or “changes in air pressure” have been made.

A large review of the scientific evidence, commissioned by the American and Canadian wind energy associations, AWEA and CanWEA, is available here.

It concludes “Following review, analysis, and discussion of current knowledge, the panel reached consensus on the following conclusions:

• There is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.

• The ground-borne vibrations from wind turbines are too weak to be detected by, or to affect, humans.

• The sounds emitted by wind turbines are not unique. There is no reason to believe, based on the levels and frequencies of the sounds and the panel’s experience with sound exposures in occupational settings, that the sounds from wind turbines could plausibly have direct adverse health consequences.”

The authors discuss the likelihood that the “nocebo” effect comes into play with community concerns about adverse effects producing a worsening of mental or physical health, based on fear or belief in the likelihood of adverse effects.

Dr Tim Driscoll from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health has a long history of investigating community concerns about various environmental hazards.  He says: “If the people truly are worried about their health (as they may be) or about their property values (as they may be), then they might well become anxious, which in turn might put their blood pressure up, give them headaches and make their heart race.  These are genuine health effects arising from their worry, which in turn arise from the thing they are worried about, even though the thing they are worried about may not objectively be a risk to health.”

Risk communication researchers have long identified elements of risk perception which are likely to amplify community anxiety and outrage about alleged environmental hazards. When a hazard is natural, anxiety is low compared to when it is industrial or artificial. We rarely hear of communities living in windy locations describing symptoms caused by the sound of wind. But with wind farms the sound is artificial. Natural fluoride occurring in water bothers no one, but the same levels added by local governments can incite anxiety.

Hazards that are imposed as opposed to voluntary exposures increase outrage. Skiiers voluntarily expose themselves to high level risk without complaint. But there are legions of examples of extremely low level risks “imposed” on communities that cause mild panics.

Similarly, the “new” can provoke anxiety. Mobile phone towers went through a phase of concerning citizens who daily walked past surburban electricity substations and TV towers without a care in the world.

Wind farm turbines are now generating pathology, but where are the queues of suffering Dutch from living near the sound of traditional windmills?

The fact that the report referred to above was industry funded will undoubtedly cause some to instantly dismiss it as being a snow job by the dastardly wind energy industry. Indeed this is another factor: trustworthy versus untrustworthy sources.

Ideally the wind industry should have given the money to a University and asked it to take full control of the review process, with no involvement by the industry in the selection of  the independent expertise. The wind turbine industry is not exactly an industry with a reputation for mendacity, but trust is fragile commodity.”

Update

Meanwhile, Dr Stephen Corbett reminds us that there is a long and established literature on the threats posed by windmills:

Foretold by Cervantes?

……They immediately come upon thirty to forty windmills that appear as giants to Don Quijote. He tells Sancho that he is going to kill them all; keeping their treasures for themselves and doing God a favor by removing their evil from the earth. Sancho tries to convince his master
that these are windmills, but to no avail as Don Quijote charges at them amidst Sancho’s screaming.

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselvescould have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.”

“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”

-Part 1, Chapter VIII. Of the valourous Don Quixote’s success in the dreadful and never before imagined Adventure of the Windmills, with
other events worthy of happy record.

Comments 56

  1. An interesting piece Simon. The AWEA/CWEA review is a credible but limited a piece of work. By dismissing concerns that aren’t related to traditional health protection issues as “nocebo” effects they’re missing the point. There’s quite a lot implied in statements in the report such as:

    “The resulting stress, fear, and hypervigilance may exacerbate or even create problems which would not otherwise exist. In this way, anti-wind farm activists may be creating with their publicity some of the problems that they describe.” p4-4

    A few health impact assessments have been conducted on wind farm developments internationally. Almost universally the affected populations’ underlying concerns relate to loss of visual amenity and loss of control over their own physical environments, more than issues such as light flicker and vibration.

    A precautionary approach to addressing concerns would be more constructive than a “my evidence trumps your evidence” approach. I know this isn’t as simple as it sounds – investigating siting options and changes to projects almost always involve costs. But it might enable a shift from an adversarial/dismissive approach though, and go some way to addressing people’s concerns about loss of control over their local environments.

    A potentially more useful rapid review of the health impacts of wind energy is available from:

    http://j.mp/c1l1og

  2. Bogdanovist says:

    What would ‘a University’ do with any money devoted to the question of whether wind farms cause heart palpitations at 3km?? On second thoughts this is a good idea, the Uni could spend the money on something useful and a year later present there astounding findings that the notion is nonsense.

    I think you’re a little bit too kind on the community here, we aren’t going to get anything done unless people are prepared to think just a smidge and coddling them that it’s okay to hold irrational notions that cause great harm to the rest of the community does not help.

  3. simon.chapman says:

    Ben, 3km away??!!! From where I sit at Sydney Uni, that would make them around Circular Quay. I could just as easily argue that the flapping of the massive flags on the Harbour Bridge kept me awake at night. Or the sound of trains (about 300m from my house) which I can hear some days.

    In my book this is a candidate to be added to the list of famous mass hysteria episodes (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_hysteria). This sort of NIMBYism is so often the most self-absorbed, small picture nonsense.

    Public health people can elect to sit around holding hands with local communities over their trivial “loss of control” in such instances as or we can point out the cost to the whole community of delaying clean energy development by having to factor in the sensitivities of people who are frightened of any change.

    Someone sent me this earlier today about a report earlier in the year from South Africa:
    http://mybroadband.co.za/news/Wireless/11099.html

    At the meeting Van Zyl agreed to turn off the tower with immediate effect to assess whether the health problems described by some of the residents subsided. What Craigavon residents were unaware of is that the tower had already been switched off in early October – six weeks before the November meeting where residents confirmed the continued ailments they experienced.

    “At the meeting in mid-November residents claimed that full recovery of skin conditions could take as long as 6 weeks. Yet, the tower was switched off for more than 6 weeks by this time,” said Van Zyl. “At this point it became apparent that the tower can, in no way, be the cause of the symptoms, as it was already switched off for many weeks, yet the residents still saw symptoms that come and go according to their proximity to the area.”

  4. john2066 says:

    Typical nimby garbage. The silent majority overwhelmingly support wind farms, Waubra had an open day a few months ago and hundreds turned out to tour the farm. It time we saw through the selfish whining of people who dont want their ‘view’ spoiled.

  5. Simon I agree with you – I’m just explaining where local opposition usually comes from. My sense is that people usually complain about the potential health effects because that’s seen as a legitimate basis for complaint, whereas “I don’t want to look at one of those things” is not.

  6. Doctor Whom says:

    I happen to know someone up at, over at, down at, Waubra.

    No one who is getting an income from the wind farms is getting the mysterious illness. No one who has the illness is getting an income from the wind farms.

    Disclosure: I must admit I get heart palpitations, all sorts of irritations and feel ill for hours afterwards when I listen to bloody Macca on a Sunday morning.

  7. Doctor Whom says:

    On the other hand – the women with the breast cancer cluster at the ABC Brisbane Studios were treated with a bit more care and seriousness.

    But they are part of the ascendency – tertiary educated, professional AND with media access and skills.

  8. After I wrote my last comment I was reminded of a bloke who contacted me a couple of years ago, trying to organise opposition to wind farms in his local area based on his concerns about noise and bird strikes (the issues he raised). After speaking with him for a while it came out that his real concern was that the windmills were being
    built on a neighbour’s property. The neighbour was getting some sort of payment for them (lease or something similar) and the bloke I spoke to wasn’t. He clearly resented this, as he felt he had to bear the downside with no benefits, apart from, and as Simon points out, his lights working.

    It’s worth unpacking what motivates people to protest against wind farms. My sense is that health is usually a lower-order concern.

  9. M Thatcher says:

    The anti-WF groups are well aware that the more vocal they are the more fear and uncertainty they create in communities that were perfectly happy until they moved in with their rent-a-crowds. If you ever attend a meeting of these people take note of where they come. Rarely are they local to the WF they are opposing. Their scare-mongering is what causes headaches and heart palpitations and they well know it; it benefits there cause. As Ben notes above, they can’t just come out and say they don’t like them – that sounds too NIMBY (and dare I say selfish) so they plant seeds of uncertainty and fear. By the way, I’ve been to Waubra and it’s simply not noisy.

  10. Frank Campbell says:

    “Wind farm turbines are now generating pathology, but where are the queues of suffering Dutch from living near the sound of traditional windmills?”

    This is the most childish, anti-scientific piece I’ve ever read on Crikey. And think of the competition.

    Chapman seems utterly unaware of turbine infrasound. Unaware also of the fact that multiple wind turbines cause complex resonances and vibrations which have nothing to do with standard decibel measures. He’s made no effort to examine the growing evidence of serious health effects linked to turbine sound. Relying on wind propagandists is like trusting tobacco companies.

    I doubt Chapman has ever spent time next to industrial wind turbines or “Dutch” windmills (which of course were all over Europe) operating. I’m familiar with both. Traditional windmill noise, for obvious reasons of scale and technology, is nothing like a 140 metre high turbine with a span approaching that of the MCG. That’s right, 80 or 90 metres. With nacelles (turbine housing) the size of a bus. Batteries of them, across the landscape. 128 around Waubra alone. Hundreds more coming soon.

    To patronise sufferers as “nocebo” whingers is insulting. This isn’t mass hysteria, nothing like high-voltage lines or mobile phone towers. Many supported windfarms and even had turbines on their land. They were lied to by the wind companies and the government, who know all about the crippling physiological effects of turbine sound. (And about blade flicker also.) These include tachycardia and other cardiovascular problems, vertigo,tinnitus, migraines, sleep deprivation, nausea, headaches, etc. But extreme secrecy, intimidation, bribery, lying and contractual gagging are standard wind company practice. As the wind fraud is exposed abroad, provincial Australia is being suckered by these carpetbaggers. Driven off the coast, wind spivs now target politically weak, poorer inland areas: western Victoria being the worst affected. The insulation scandal was merely incompetence. The wind fraud is conscious and deliberate.

    Read Pierpont’s book “Wind Turbine Syndrome”, and Paul Etherington’s “The windfarm Scam”, which has a chapter on health effects.

  11. Doctor Whom says:

    Ben – The income from a wind farm is at least $10,000 per machine per annum. And you can still run stock and even crops on the land.

    So you can see that even at only 10 wind turbines you have a guaranteed income of at least $100,000 per year – forever, and you can still farm the land. Whats not to like.

    And as a bonus you can claim the high moral ground as a greenie.

    Theres farmers with windfarms up at Waubra going around talking renewable energy and etc who 10 years ago would have gladly drowned a greenie in a tank of diesel or choked ’em with a brown coal emission.

  12. simon.chapman says:

    Nina Pierpont’s authority on the health issues raised might be considered against her research track record: it appears she has exactly zero publications in the peer reviewed literature, on “wind turbine syndrome”, or indeed on any subject. (go to http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ and search for “Pierpont N” — it won’t take long I promise. Stand by for conspiracy theories and Galileo metaphors about how the scientific establishment have all got together and kept her research out the scientific literature.

  13. Doctor Whom says:

    The quoted price in one South Australian area is $8,500 pa income/lease for a turbine.

    I believe that in EU the Energy/Windfarm companies have factored in % payments to neighbours who don’t have turbines and that this has meant that all the locals share in the windfall income. (heh windfall!)

  14. M Thatcher says:

    Does anyone notice a pattern here with anti-WFarmers like Frank? Hostile? Sensationalist? It’s really not helping anyone. If I hear one more person quote “never published Nina” I will gag.
    Calmly show me a doctor who will support the theories and some peer reviewed literature (without the histrionics) and I might just be convinced. ‘Til then….

  15. @Doctor Whom That sounds like a sensible thing to do given the peculiarities of topography mean that you won’t want to put turbines on every property in an area. I think some sort of reduced payment to neighbouring owners with no turbines could be an effective way of minimising opposition.

  16. @Simon Chapman I did as suggested and looked into Nina Piermont’s track record. She doesn’t seem to have gotten any traction in the peer reviewed lit.

    I happened across her website, which referred people to this Victorian ABC Stateline report from last Friday:

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/video/2010/02/19/2825235.htm

    This made me wonder, is there an ABC Local reporter/producer who’s getting mileage out of keeping this story going, given the ABC AM story you linked to as well?

  17. Doctor Whom says:

    ben – I think its more than just minimising opposition.

    It seems to me its some acknowledgement that it is an accident of topography that the wind – which is free – is caught say 500 metres from your land and hence you miss out on an assured income for no work.

    It could also be looked upon as compensation if, as alleged, the windfarms lower the price of land adjacent.

  18. Frank Campbell says:

    “Stand by for conspiracy theories and Galileo metaphors about how the scientific establishment have all got together and kept her research out the scientific literature.”

    This is nonsense. No one has kept Pierpont out of anything. Chapman misses the point entirely. Pierpont is similar to the St Helen’s GP who exposed aquatic toxins: it’s a first line of inquiry, generated by apparent clusters of medical problems. I’ve followed the St Helens case for years- they were vilified and ridiculed in the the same manner as we see in this Crikey piece. It’s now been publicised on Australian Story. Much more research is needed, but they’ve proved that a highly toxic plantation compound exists in the water supply. Pierpont is similar- she investigated anomalies.A Johns Hopkins PhD and a pediatrician, Pierpont’s work has been well-reviewed by many scientists. And she’s just one of many who have observed clinical abnormalities which can’t be dismissed as psychosomatic.

    The deeper malaise here, which I see all over Crikey comments (such as here), is a dismissive contempt for peoples’ suffering. It a very macho thing- disparage motives, deny experiences, deny loss. You’re saving the world in the abstract: forget the collateral damage. There are huge financial losses for those near windfarms. None of you urban pontificators would dream of living near a windfarm, would you? None of you ever investigate the claims of wind propagandists critically- you just lambast “nimbyism” and cry “hysteria”.