Acoustic pollution – a ‘silent epidemic’
Credit: Dr Sarah Laurie CEO, Waubra Foundation, 28th May, 2012 Abridged version published in the Ballarat Courier as "It's an ill wind that's blowing" ~~
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There is a growing global problem with increasing reports of low frequency acoustic pollution, the consequences of which can be devastating for those individuals and families affected. Most health practitioners have no experience or knowledge of these problems; such awareness has generally been confined to acousticians.
Known generators of such low frequency noise and vibration include machinery with large compressors or fans. Some specific examples include some diesel machines involved in open cut coal mining, and turbines from gas fired power stations.
Another example is industrial scale wind turbines, such as at Waubra and Leonard’s Hill, where the adverse consequences for some neighbouring residents have been publicly reported for some years. The first such public reports in Australia were from Toora, in 2004, after Dr David Iser, the local GP, reported his concerns to the then Victorian government and Health department. Unfortunately his prophetic warnings 8 years ago went unheeded.
Recent acoustic surveys in and around the homes of sick people living near large wind turbines in Australia and the US conducted by acousticians independently of the wind industry have confirmed that infrasound and low frequency noise are indeed being emitted by wind turbines, and are now being measured inside the homes of sick people, the emissions correlating with symptom occurrence and severity.
The long term effect of chronic exposure to these frequencies from wind turbines specifically has not been extensively studied, but there is relevant research on the known effects of infrasound and low frequency noise from other sources which is highly relevant, but has been largely “forgotten”.
One relevant credible literature review from 2003 relates specifically to the known effects of exposure to low frequency noise, in a report by British Acoustician Professor Geoffrey Leventhall, for the UK Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This review detailed symptoms and a pattern of their occurrence, which the author has subsequently publicly admitted is identical with “wind turbine syndrome”. Section 10 of this DEFRA review discussed the scientific evidence of the connection between low frequency noise exposure and a crucial stress hormone, cortisol.
Inexplicably, this DEFRA literature review from 2003 was omitted in the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) now infamous “Wind Turbines & Health – A Rapid Review of the Evidence” (July 2010), despite its lead author Professor Leventhall also being one of the peer reviewers of the Rapid Review. This NHMRC report has been used widely in Australia by State and Federal Government bureaucrats and politicians, and the wind industry and its advocates, to support the incorrect assertion that “there is no evidence” of a health problem from wind turbines.
Professor Leventhall’s status as peer reviewer of this document has only been recently publicly confirmed in the Federal Senate, and it is unclear whether Leventhall disclosed his subsequent work with the wind industry after 2003 to the NHMRC, as part of a necessary declaration of any conflicts of interest.
The increasing incidence of global reports from health professionals of sick residents and abandoned homes in the vicinity of large wind turbines would indicate a serious and growing problem, for too long ignored by the relevant authorities and researchers, especially those in Public and Environmental Health. These adverse event reports are escalating in number and severity, associated with the trend to install even larger wind turbines, proven to emit even more low frequency noise.
These low frequency sound and vibration pressure waves are extremely penetrating, travel for miles, and pass through walls, roofs, single and double glazed windows, and floors with ease. Ironically, the better the house insulation, the worse the effect appears indoors, because the proportion of sound energy inside the room is skewed towards the lowest frequencies when the higher frequency audible noise is left outside.
There has been an unfortunate tendency by wind developers and their advocates to refer to these sick people as liars, nutters, NIMBY’s or envious of the turbine lease income their neighbours are receiving. Some advocates have repeatedly stated that wind turbine hosts do not get sick.
In reality, the sick residents, who include some turbine hosts and their families, are accurately reporting their symptoms, which follow a clear pattern of exposure to operating wind turbines. There are some very serious mental health consequences being reported, as well as deteriorating physical health, including exacerbation and progression of pre-existing conditions, consistent with long term exposure to low frequency noise and resultant chronic physiological stress.
In 1998, an eminent Australian researcher working in the field of chronic stress wrote a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, Bruce McEwen clearly outlined the deleterious consequences of chronic severe stress. What McEwen described is consistent with what is happening to many of these residents.
Some sick residents have also worked for the wind developers, and many initially supported local wind developments. Turbine hosts are initially assured by developers that “there are no health or noise problems” and some subsequently find, to their dismay and sometimes shame, that this is untrue. They too suffer, often becoming profoundly socially isolated. Some hosts have also left their homes.
The result for the whole community is entrenched community division which permeates through to every facet of rural community life, evidenced by deteriorating health of those affected, empty houses, and lifelong friendships and family relationships irrevocably damaged. Yes, there is an economic benefit to some in rural communities from wind developments, but there is also a huge and hidden cost to others if the developments are poorly sited, and result in chronic illness and home abandonment.
The solutions for government and the wind industry are clear. Firstly, publicly acknowledge there is a problem now, before it escalates any further, and as the NHMRC recommended in 2010, adopt a precautionary approach to the building and siting of future wind turbines. From our field research, the current limit of where symptoms are consistently reported from wind turbines is 10km, but even this may not be enough to adequately protect health with chronic exposure to larger wind turbines. Secondly, immediately ensure that there is full sound spectrum acoustic data collected by independent acousticians at the homes of sick residents, and that this data is available to all parties. Thirdly, ensure that the recommendations of the Australian Federal Senate Inquiry into Rural Windfarms (June 2011) with respect to urgent multidisciplinary research are immediately implemented in full.
The issue is not about the benefits of one energy source versus another. It is about acoustic pollution, regardless of the source, which needs to be properly measured and regulated to protect human health.
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