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Against the Wind

An investigation into allegations that wind turbines are making people sick. Are these installations “weapons of mass destruction” as some have claimed, or are they vehicles for mass hysteria? (Andrew Fowler)

[Click here for transcript]

For some time now, people forced to live close to wind farms have expressed concern that the noise from the turbines is affecting their health. They say the machines have destroyed their lives, causing headaches, high blood pressure and nausea. Four Corners goes to several wind-farming hot-spots across Australia to meet the people who claim they are simply collateral damage as the nation scrambles to embrace renewable energy.

Stand next to a wind turbine and you quickly realise these are a long way from the old windmills that dotted rural Australia. Standing as high as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with a blade span of 60 metres, wind turbines respond to consistent breezes to generate electricity.

Right now wind delivers just two per cent of Australia’s energy needs. Now, with the Federal Government demanding that Australia produces 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources, wind energy is becoming big business. Already there are nearly 1100 wind turbines producing electricity across Australia. If the government is to reach its renewable energy target, that number will need to rise by up to 3,000 units.

Key parts of the country have been ear-marked for wind farm development. They are regions where weather patterns dictate there will be consistent strong winds. Already South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia have seen major developments take place. New South Wales is the next state where wind energy projects are being planned. For some, these developments will offer big financial rewards. Others close to proposed wind farm sites are concerned about claims that wind farms are making people ill.

Waubra, in regional Victoria, is an established wind farm location, with 128 turbines so far. Four Corners spoke to several locals who claimed their health had been harmed by the technology. One man told reporter Andrew Fowler that the turbines cause headaches that were so bad he had to relocate from his farm and move into town. In his view he’s paying a terrible price:

“We’re refugees in our own country. We’re leaving here because of danger, it’s no set up or anything, we’re being really harmed.”

But is there any scientific basis for these claims? Some experts believe it’s possible that low frequency sounds, generated by the turbines but too low to be audible to the human ear, could have a health impact.

Others say that while people might be getting headaches, it’s unlikely their health is being affected by sound waves:

“If you whip up anxiety, people will generate many of these symptoms. There’s fear of the unknown, there’s activists creating concern among the population.”

And that raises one of the major questions in this debate: are health concerns being exaggerated by activists who simply don’t want wind farms in their backyard?

In part, the answer can only come with more peer-reviewed research. A recent Federal Government committee looking into health concerns relating to wind turbines, found that it didn’t believe there was sufficient scientific research to make clear connections between poor health and the turbines, and that more research was needed. However, Four Corners has now been made aware of new comparative research that looks at health-related data for people living near wind farms and those living away from them. The research is sure to become a key source of information as local communities, councils and governments make decisions about the location of wind farms in the future.