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Robert McMurtry before the Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines  

Author:  | Australia, Canada, Health

CHAIR:  I now welcome Dr Bob McMurtry by teleconference. For the Hansard record, will you please state your name and the capacity in which you appear.

Dr McMurtry:  My name is Robert Younghusband McMurtry. The capacity in which I appear today is as an independent witness: I am Professor Emeritus of Western University in London, Ontario, and I have been researching and reviewing this topic for the past eight years; I probably have put in over 10,000 hours over those years. In addition, I have been in communication with or – more to the point – people have been in communication with me who are suffering adverse health effects. I have detailed my curriculum vitae and its summary. I will stop there.

CHAIR:  Thank you. Could you please confirm that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you?

Dr McMurtry:  I can confirm it has.

CHAIR:  The committee has your submission. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Dr McMurtry:  Thank you for the privilege of presenting to this committee. I will make 10 points that are in my executive summary on the assumption that the material has been read. First, adverse health effects have been reported globally in the environs of wind turbines for more than 30 years with the old design and the new. Second, the wind energy industry has denied adverse health effects, preferring to call it ‘annoyance’ even though annoyance, however, is an adverse health effect. Certainly it is a non-trivial effect when sustained because it results in ‘sleep disruption’, ‘stress’ and ‘psychological distress’ – those are direct quotes from others’ research. Third, annoyance is recognised and was treated by the World Health Organization as an adverse health effect, which is a risk factor for serious chronic disease including cardiovascular and cancer.

Fourth, experts retained by the wind energy industry have preferred the diagnosis of nocebo effect to explain the adverse health effects, but the claim does not withstand critical scrutiny as there is a dose-response effect and nocebo does not have a dose-response effect. And there is a clear correlation between exposure and adverse health effects. Researchers have talked about dose-response. I should also comment that making that diagnosis without a comprehensive evaluation of a person or patient would qualify as non-practice, and I know that has been said in this committee before.

Fifth, the regulations surrounding noise exposure are based upon out-of-date standards ETSU-97, which fail to evaluate infrasound and low-frequency noise, preferring instead to use DBA. The issue of ILFN is a problem and it has been confirmed by numerous acousticians including Paul Schomer, a leading international acoustician. Sixth, the setbacks for wind turbines are highly variable across jurisdictions and here is the key point: there is no evidence base in human health research for the setbacks. The turbines have gone ahead without an evidence base.

Seven, there is an urgent need for human health research to provide evidence based guidelines for noise exposure. Eight, the call for third-party research and evaluation has been made by many including in France by the Academy of Medicine of France in 2006 and many times since. As I detailed to you, I made it before government bodies in Canada. Nine, there is an urgent need to monitor the health effects of people exposed to turbines over time and that has been missing virtually in all jurisdictions. Tenth, third-party evaluations of the economic and social benefits of wind energy are needed as suggested by the findings of the Auditor-General of Ontario – I sent his reports to you including highlights – and more recently by the Northern Ireland Assembly committee, and I understand that is part of the charge of this committee. With that, I would be very happy to answer questions.

CHAIR:  Is it correct to say that in your experience there are different streams of opposition to wind turbines in the wider public? For example, one stream opposes the technology outright but another supports the use of technologies as long as they are appropriately regulated to safeguard people and the environment. Which stream are you in, Dr McMurtry?

Dr McMurtry:  I am in the stream that says positioned safely and on an evidence base with, as I mentioned, guidelines. I think that is fine. There are clear applications for wind turbines when they are appropriately deployed, which is not happening currently.

CHAIR:  There is a growing community of medical experts, doctors and acoustic engineers questioning the adverse health impacts of wind turbines and inadequate regulatory standards. On the basis of your knowledge on an international level, how are the opinions and standing of these professionals treated publicly by the wind energy industry?

Dr McMurtry:  I am afraid there is a routine strategy that proponents of wind turbines, including the industry, on websites will name people and pillory them basically, assail their reputations. That is something that has been seen internationally, most specifically towards Dr Nina Pierpont from the United States, and towards Dr Sarah Laurie in Australia. But I have certainly experienced it personally to a lesser extent. It seems to be: if you do stick-up and say something or you have concerns about the wind industry then you can expect to be attacked.

Senator BACK:  We know that.

CHAIR:  Your submission comments on researchers in the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT undertaking research for the Canadian Wind Energy Association and also providing expert testimony to wind farm developers in its planning tribunals. I note you say here, however, they did not declare an interest when the research was published. You describe this behaviour as ‘odd’ in your submission. From a professional perspective, what does ‘odd’ mean? What are the professional requirements or etiquette when publishing research and declaring an interest?

Dr McMurtry:  The key is to declare a conflict and that was done in the sense that they described their engagements with the wind turbine industry, especially Dr McCunney the lead author, and Dr David Colby. So that was done. But it is only a first step when you declare a conflict. There are many other things you should do to manage the potential conflict of interest, in particular take special care to control for bias. There are various ways of doing that.

I do not want to say negative things about Dr McCunney; I am sure he is a very capable person does good work in this field. The wind industry put the money before MIT and it was from that funding that the research was carried out. It was from funding of the wind industry an earlier part he participated in with the Canadian Wind Energy Association. He appears frequently on behalf of the wind industry and he references his work in both the papers I have cited. I view that as stretching things. I think some better management of the conflicts ought to be carried out. Two points, for example, could be: bring it before an ethics committee or at least get that kind of advice.

CHAIR:  Finally, later in your submission I note you discuss the origins of nocebo. I presume from that discussion, you are aware of Prof. Simon Chapman and his work?

Dr McMurtry:  I am aware of Prof. Simon Chapman, yes.

CHAIR:  Prof. Chapman has also provided expert testimony to a wind farm developer in a planning tribunal but does not declare his interest in subsequent publications. Is there some sort of professional amnesty that allows researchers to withhold disclosure of their interest? How do researchers and practitioners like yourself perceive that kind of behaviour amongst your peers? And what impact does this have on the professional standing of researchers more generally and the tenor of the debate and understanding in the industrial wind turbine area?

Dr McMurtry:  There are a lot of elements to that question. The key consideration is that you should always declare a conflict of interest and manage it appropriately so that there is no discomfort being experienced by colleagues from whom you want to seek their opinions. As I said, an ethics committee would be included in that consideration. More importantly, the WHO and many other bodies have found that research sponsored by industry does not have the objectivity that characterises independent research. That has been described time and again with industry. I believe Dr Chris Hanning spoke to that in some detail at his presentation, the sorts of difficulties that you get into. As far as peers are concerned, when you are receiving money and it is a substantial amount for each appearance then I think ought to be extremely cautious about declaring and making a statement as he did in this most recent paper, ‘I declare no conflict of interest.’ That was what I found to be particularly odd. That quotation is included in my submission.

Senator LEYONHJELM:  Thank you for your submission. I found it extremely illuminating, very thorough and you addressed many questions that I had in my mind so I really do appreciate it. What I am curious about though is you are a very experienced medical doctor. You have come down fairly clearly in support of annoyance as being the source of the adverse complaints that people have about wind turbines. We have heard from other witnesses who have suggested a vestibular effect, an effect on the vestibular mechanism and others who have suggested either the middle ear or perhaps inner ear. Why have you nominated annoyance as the source? Have you discounted the others? Or is there something else?

Dr McMurtry:  Not at all. I do not mean to discount the other symptoms. I have referenced the diagnostic criteria for being exposed to wind turbines and suffering adverse effects. It was most recently in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in the fall of 2014. Those sorts of additional symptoms are listed. What I have made clear, and this was first done by Pederson in her many papers, is that annoyance in the context of wind turbines translates to ‘stress, psychological distress, difficulty initiating sleep and sleep disruption’ – I believe those words, although from memory, are a direct quote – so it is a very serious business. The most common problems without question we find are sleep disturbance and stress. Those two are always there. Vestibular disturbance we are also finding. There is no question though when the vestibular gets perturbed, it can make you uneasy, make you feel unwell or nauseated, for example. It may be the mechanism. I am in no way discounting it and it is considered in my diagnostic criteria.

Senator LEYONHJELM:  Do you have a feel for what proportion of the community that lives within a nominated distance of wind turbines or a wind farm actually experiences any symptoms?

Dr McMurtry:  The lowest number I have ever seen is five per cent. The highest number I have seen is over 30 per cent. There is a range. Firstly, with ongoing exposure, the people I have seen who have been adversely affected become worse. Secondly, increasing numbers of people become adversely affected. What is missing in the research is longitudinal studies. Dr McCunney and I agree on this in terms of his paper that I was talking about earlier. What is needed is something more than cross-sectional epidemiological studies, which are studies at one point in time. They do not follow people longitudinally. Following people longitudinally – that is, over time – is crucial to understand the adverse effects. That has not been done. I agree that we should have cohort studies – that means a group exposed, a group not exposed – and compare them over time, and then you will have some notion of incidence. Anecdotally, when dealing with people, I have found that some do not start experiencing symptoms until a year or two out. I think the incidence might very well go up, and that is a concern.

In relation to the other research, if I may say before stopping again, there has been a missed opportunity. We absolutely should be doing the sort of work that has been done by Steven Cooper, where he looked at six people in three homes. They were adversely affected. You have to study those folks to understand the mechanism better. That is research that is really needed. It is only when that research is done, when we can hone down on the mechanism of the problem, that we can then inform the prospectus for the longitudinal studies of cohorts of people. I hope that is clear. You need research on adversely affected people to understand the mechanism and, secondly, of course, that you confirm that they meet the diagnostic criteria and that their adverse effects are reproducible when they are blinded. You want to do that to be sure. You have that group. Then you want to know exactly what is occurring. Steven Cooper moved things ahead great deal. Then you are well put up for the place to do the cohort studies or the longitudinal studies.

Senator LEYONHJELM:  That does raise a question though. These sorts of questions have been asked; there have been complaints about wind turbines. You have been studying this now for six or seven years. Why is it that no definitive, independent research into this has been conducted over those years? It is quite a long time.

Dr McMurtry:  I agree with you. I am dismayed by that, especially when it has been asked for nine years. It is coming back to the Academy of Medicine of France. I have pointed out many times in my publications and in my government presentations that there are two opinions and both cannot be right. One is that adverse effects are genuinely occurring and people are being harmed. The other opinion is that that is not the case and that it is in the news, a nocebo effect, or some other manageable problem. Both cannot be right. Always, I have heard calls for research from those concerned about adverse health effects. I have not heard them from those who are proponents – and certainly not from the industry.

To give you a very specific example, Paul Schomer, previously cited, is a leading acoustician internationally known for his standards for noise. He asked Duke Energy – and he has published this – to turn the turbines off and on, and they said they would not. That is pretty much the response you do get. There have been offers to do that. The Steven Cooper work was exceptional because the person who was responsible for that turbine installation in fact did turn off the turbines to enable him to do that research. I believe it was Cape Bridgewater.

CHAIR:  Thank you, Senator Leyonhjelm. Senator Urquhart?

Dr McMurtry:  By the way, I have debated publicly with proponents, including David Colby. I have always challenged, ‘Why don’t we do the research. Let’s settle this’, and the response has been: ‘There is no need.’ That is the response I have heard in debates, for example.

CHAIR:  Thank you, Dr McMurtry. Senator Urquhart?

Senator URQUHART:  Thanks, Dr McMurtry. I was just picking up the point that you talked about where the lowest number of people affected by wind farms was five per cent – I think I understood you correctly there – and the highest was 30 per cent. Did I understand you correctly?

Dr McMurtry:  Yes you did. That has been the studies to date. As I mentioned, longitudinal studies may reveal a higher number.

Senator URQUHART:  Can you just explain to me why the majority of wind farms in Australia do not have any complaints at all.

Dr McMurtry:  I think I have heard Simon Chapman make that complaint, if that is who you are quoting. What I noticed about his research is that he was going to the wind farm people themselves and asking them if there were adverse health reports. That does not withstand critical appraisal. You must have an independent determination to determine if in fact there was a problem. That to me undermines this facility, substantially. So I think that claim is dubious. I will stop there.

Senator URQUHART:  I did not hear that last point.

Dr McMurtry:  The point I made is that when you are trying to glean information from the industry, whose interest is harmed by acknowledging problems, then you are not likely to get as accurate an answer than if you had independent determination of people’s complaints. I am speaking specifically about Simon Chapman’s work, and looking at his methodology.

Senator URQUHART:  Do you live or have you lived near an existing or proposed wind farm?

Dr McMurtry:  Yes. I do not live near a proposed wind farm. I live near one that is going to be built something in the neighbourhood of 1½ kilometres away. At the moment it is before the courts.

Senator URQUHART:  I understand that you are a founder of the Society for Wind Vigilance. Is that right?

Dr McMurtry:  Yes, in 2010. I was the founding chair, from 2010 to 2012, at which point I resigned.

Senator URQUHART:  The status of the proposal is before the courts, I think you indicated?

Dr McMurtry:  That is correct. There is always more than one proposal on the go, but the one that is most proximate to me is still in review legally, through a judicial process.

Senator URQUHART:  How is the Society for Wind Vigilance funded?

Dr McMurtry:  Just by donations from members.

Senator URQUHART:  Who are the major donors?

Dr McMurtry:  There is no major donor. The only income the Society for Wind Vigilance ever received was when they held a first conference in adverse health effects, which is described in my submission. We charged people $100 to come, as I recall. We realised some income from that. There was no surplus, I can assure you, because we had to cover the cost of the food and all the usual things you do with a conference. We have received no money whatsoever from any energy-related industry. Not ever.

Senator URQUHART:  What about from other companies or organisations?

Dr McMurtry:  No private enterprise company, no for-profit company, no agency and no charitable agency. Nothing. That has been suggested before. It is disturbing to me, because we are recurrently having to repeat what to me is obvious: there has simply been no financial support coming from outside. None.

Senator URQUHART:  I think it is good to get that on the record. Thank you. Have you ever published any work in a peer-reviewed academic journal about the possible impacts of wind farms.

Dr McMurtry:  Yes, probably several times. That is included in my submission. For example, I published two papers on the criteria for diagnosis: one in 2011 in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, and the second one in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, in either October or November of 2014. I have also submitted the peer-reviewed blogs from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which is the lead journal in Canada, where I comment on the Health Canada study. That was peer-reviewed. We have also had something accepted that I submitted in confidence for the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. In addition, I have presented before the Acoustical Society of America. I have presented before government at three levels: municipal, provincial and federal.

Senator URQUHART:  I wanted to pick up on the point about the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society. I understand that this publication was de-indexed in 1995.

Dr McMurtry:  SAGE Publications have since resurrected it. It now is appearing in the Index Medicus. More significantly, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has been a recognised journal for over 100 years. The Index Medicus did not come along until later, or the similar indices. It is a progression from towards the diagnostic criteria, which is in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society to the second paper on diagnostic criteria, which was in 2014. That is a journal that is well recognised.

Senator BACK:  In the PowerPoint presentation you sent us, you comment on biological gradients: that greater exposure should generally lead to greater incidence of the effect. It causes me to ask about the proposal with the independent medical research that has been commissioned now by the Abbott government her in Australia. One witness has proposed to our inquiry that a one-off, laboratory-based test for audible and infrasound could be undertaken with people who participate for periods of somewhere around about 10 to 30 minutes, or maybe up to an hour, once only. From your experience do you believe that the results of a study of that type would be of any value in determining possible adverse health effects?

Dr McMurtry:  I think it would have value, but not in and of itself. It is perhaps a necessary but insufficient condition. There are features of industrial wind turbine noise that, when people are in their homes, are very different from in the laboratory setting, and capturing all that in the laboratory setting is virtually impossible. This is basically unwanted noise and unpredictable noise. It occurs at night. It pulses and it also has the quality of resonating within the home. The sound energy comes out – it may be low-frequency or infrasound – and there can be resonance in the home. That cannot be captured in the laboratory. Some people, for example, are being disturbed at night and go outside and they are less disturbed. I would cite in particular Malcolm Swinbanks, a well-known acoustician, who described that very thing and presented it in Glasgow two or there months ago. That has been reported by many people. It has been sound for as long as 30 years ago.

Senator BACK:  People have put to us that infrasound can occur from waves crashing on the beach and trucks going along highways, and therefore there is nothing special about infrasound from industrial wind turbines, so why all the fuss. Could you comment on the different sources of infrasound and how they might affect people?

Dr McMurtry:  What is very important here is to realise that my background is not as an acoustician. You might be better to direct that question to an acoustician. To answer as best as I am able, the acousticians have pointed out that there is a unique signature to wind turbine noise that has not be found elsewhere. I cite, for example, Steven Cooper, whom you have heard. There is also the recent work of Paul Schomer, as well as the 2012 publication with Walker, Hessler, Hessler, Rand and himself, in which they made clear that there were non-auditory and non-visual queues that disturbed people. The other sources of infrasound that people are talking about do not mimic, are not the same as, the signature that is coming from wind turbines. It is unprecedented, so it is crucial that any research captures exactly what people are experiencing.

Senator BACK:  You made a comment a moment ago in response to a question from a colleague that you had commented on the Health Canada study. Briefly, could you point us to what your comments were on the Health Canada study?

Dr McMurtry:  Yes. You have a copy of that in my submission. It is the CMAJ submission and, I think, appendix 7. Ms Carmen Krogh and I did it. I recently was on the same panel with David Michaud and I pointed out some of the shortcomings, but the single most important one is that it is a cross-sectional study. There are other important problems. They started out with 2,004 houses and some 400 were ruled out of scope – 424, as I recall; I am going by memory – and then, when they sent out the questionnaires, another 322 dropped out, which left 766 out of the original group. I wish there had been an analysis of the abandoned or non-eligible homes. I think an opportunity was lost there. Another opportunity lost is that the people most often affected – and I certainly know this from my own experience – are people who are over 79 and under 18. Children are more vulnerable than, say, young adults or middle-aged adults. The Health Canada study looked at people from 18 to 79 and then excluded the rest. They are leaving out the most vulnerable groups.

Senator BACK:  Thank you very much. I appreciate that advice.

CHAIR:  Thank you, Dr McMurtry, for your appearance before the committee today.

Dr McMurtry:  I thank you very much for this opportunity.

—McMURTRY, Dr Robert, private capacity
Monday, 29 June 2015, Sydney

Submissions of Dr McMurtry to the Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines:
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This article is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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