The debate raging around the health effects of wind turbines has come to Mortlake.
At a recent meeting of nearly 150 people – most Mortlake residents, some from nearby communities like The Sisters, and others from wind farm towns like Waubra and Cape Bridgewater – saw the arguments play out.
They had quite a show, thanks to the keynote speaker at the April 18 meeting, Dr Sarah Laurie.
Dr Laurie is the CEO of the Waubra Foundation – an organisation dedicated to facilitating medical research on the health impact of wind farms.
One of the main issues she raised at the forum centred on what noise frequencies wind farm companies measure when establishing whether sound levels from turbines are harmful.
Dr Laurie argues that low frequency (20-200 hertz) and infrasound noise (0-20 hertz), which are not necessarily audible to humans, can cause health defects in people.
“What physicians like myself are now thinking is that what the acousticians (who measure sound levels) have been calling ‘annoyance’ is actually…some serious clinical problems that have not been detected by the acousticians because they’re not doctors,” she said.
Dr Laurie calls for wind farm companies like Acciona Energy, which operates a 128-turbine wind farm at Waubra and is set to develop the 51 turbine Mortlake South project, to test the lower frequencies to determine if turbine noise is affecting people’s homes.
“There is plenty of peer reviewed published science that has shown that both infrasound and low frequency sound and vibration energy can be detrimental to health if either the sound pressure level is high enough or the exposure goes on for long enough,” she said.
According to Acciona’s senior manager community relations David Clarke, there is not plenty of peer reviewed research to back Dr Laurie’s claims.
Mr Clarke told the meeting Acciona welcomes more research on wind turbines and health impacts, but said current papers show that wind turbines do not present a health risk.
“We support the call for more research, but we do have a permit (for Mortlake South),” he said.
“There have been 17 or 18 reviews of the health research into wind farms globally, including by (Australia’s) National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
“They have all reached largely the same conclusions, and that is why our company says that there is no evidence about the connection between health and wind turbines.”
When asked about what frequencies Acciona measures when determining noise levels around homes, Mr Clarke referred to research that indicated modern wind turbines emit noise “below hearing threshold, and well below levels that would cause impacts on health”.
As well as refuting Acciona’s claim that there is no peer reviewed research indicating wind turbines can be detrimental to human health, Dr Laurie presented a raft of anecdotes to Mortlake residents in support of her argument.
Several people from towns like Waubra and Cape Bridgewater, which have wind farms nearby, recounted illness they say was brought on by wind turbines near their homes.
They complained of symptoms like high blood pressure, waking up in the middle of the night in a panicked state, near sleepless nights and frequent urination.
Donald Thomas, who lives 3.5 kilometres from the Waubra wind farm, was one of the people who spoke at the meeting.
“In the last three years since the turbines started up, I’ve had headaches, heart palpitations, [high] blood pressure, went from 20/20 vision to having prescription glasses, awake at night,” he said.
He described the noise from wind turbines as incessant; “You get ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh’, or get the high-pitched whine, other times it sounds like a jet plane.”
He also accused Mr Clarke of dismissing claims by himself, friends and family of suffering ill-health as a result of nearby turbines.
“This chap over here from Acciona,” he said, indicating Mr Clarke, “was in my parents’ kitchen just recently.
“He called myself and a neighbor a whinger and then insulted my mother by asking whether the stove was giving her a headache. This is what you’re up against.”
When asked about the alleged encounter, Mr Clarke said that Acciona does not “comment publicly on our discussions with individuals regarding their complaints about the Waubra Wind Farm”.
While the people who spoke at the Mortlake meeting described horrific health problems, one argument is that the symptoms are brought on by nothing more than anxiety.
University of Sydney’s School of Public Health Professor Simon Chapman says anxiety in this case is being stoked by anti-wind farm groups.
“You have probably heard of the ‘placebo’ effect, where you get a pill with nothing in it and you start to feel better,” he said.
“There is something called the ‘nocebo’ effect, which is where, if you are told that something is harmful, you start to feel ill. This is almost certainly what is happening.”
The 2010 NHMRC report into wind farms says that, “People will exhibit variable levels of tolerance to different frequencies,” but “if people have been preconditioned to hold negative opinions about a noise source, they are more likely to be affected by it.”
As well as criticising claims of wind turbines causing illness, Prof Chapman has previously attacked the credentials of Dr Laurie, who he has noted is not a currently registered GP, and accused the Waubra Foundation of links to mining interests.
“(Waubra Foundation chairman) Peter Mitchell’s mining investment company, the Waubra Foundation, and the Landscape Guardians (an advocacy group associated with the Waubra Foundation) all share the same South Melbourne post office box,” he said.
“People can draw their own conclusions.”
Dr Laurie says she is currently re-registering to practice with her medical degree after being unable to practice due to family commitments, and that the Waubra Foundation is one of many groups using the post office box address. She also stresses that Mr Mitchell was an oil exploration engineer “in a former life” and that the foundation has worked to assist people affected by noise from open cut coal mining.
While the debate over what the science says and who represents who’s interests will continue, one thing is certain; Mortlake is set to be the next battleground in this war of words, facts and accusations.