In 2011, a Senate inquiry called for urgent research into the possible effects of wind farms on human health after hearing from Australians who claimed their health was destroyed from living in close proximity to wind turbines.
Similar claims have been made in other countries, including Canada and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council has been conducting what it calls an independent systematic review.
Carl Stepnell used to live close to a wind farm at Waubra north-west of Ballarat in country Victoria.
“I started getting tingly sensations in the top of my head and then eventually headaches and we both started waking up at night, two in the morning, three, four, five days in a row, it would be 2 o’clock in the morning or middle of the night and you just wouldn’t settle back in to a sleep, you were just awake but you were so tired that you just couldn’t relax back into a sleep and that would go for four or five nights and you were that exhausted and then say five, sixth, seventh night or whatever then you’d probably sleep but still wake up feeling rotten.”
Carl Stepnell says his symptoms developed about six months after a wind farm opened near his then home.
“And then I ended up getting really bad chest pain of a night and a lot of blood noses, like I’d be asleep and just wake up and me nose would be bleeding and it’s just pretty scary stuff.”
Mr Stepnell appeared before the Senate inquiry which called for urgent research into the possible effects of wind farms on human health.
But the new research doesn’t appear to have taken place in Australia.
What has occurred is a series of reviews of the available evidence about wind farms, including by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.
It’s presented a draft to the federal government of its latest position statement, but the document hasn’t yet been released to the public.
Its last statement on the subject was in 2010, when it concluded that there was currently insufficient published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects.
But it called for a precautionary approach.
In March 2011, council head, Professor Warwick Anderson, stressed the importance of this because of what he called the very early stages of the scientific literature.
He emphasised then that the council was not saying there are no ill effects.
Canadian paediatrician Doctor Nina Pierpont is the author of “Wind Turbine Syndrome”, a book she wrote after coming across patients who lived near wind farms who all reported what she says were remarkably similar symptoms.
She told the ABC most of the people she interviewed ended up doing exactly what the Stepnells did – move out of their houses and away from the wind turbines.
“Well when someone has symptoms that are related to the noise level they hear, so that the intensity is related to that and when they go away the symptoms go away and when they come back and they hear the noise again and the symptoms come back those people know that the turbines are causing the symptoms so those are the people that I focused on in my study and out of the ten families that I ended up interviewing, nine have moved out of their homes.”
Doctor Pierpont’s work has been criticised for lacking scientific rigour, not least because of the small number of people she interviewed.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told Sydney’s 2GB more research into possible health effects could be warranted.
“Look from time to time we do need to refresh the research. We do need to consider whether there have been new facts that impact on old judgements – and that is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is some years since the NH&MRC last looked at this issue. Why not do it again?”
Professor Simon Chapman from the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney questions the need for any further research saying there have been a total of 20 reviews since 2003.
“When you’ve got twenty reviews where people are saying look there’s no direct evidence here at all, it really takes a certain mindset to say oh no we want to keep on reviewing this area, keep on doing research, keep on commissioning research because there just might be a health problem that so far hasn’t really come to light.”
The Australian Greens are also dismissive of those who claim wind turbines can make people sick.
Greens Senator Richard Di Natale.
“There’s nothing in the literature that supports the contention that wind turbine syndrome does exist. That’s not to say, of course, that people don’t experience symptoms. Of course those symptoms are very, very real. The concern here is that by continuing to propagate misinformation about the link between wind turbines and poor health you’re actually creating a situation where you create fear and anxiety in the community and that fear and anxiety can have a very real affect on people’s health and that’s the cause that’s resulting in people experiencing these really distressing symptoms.”
Denmark pioneered wind energy back in the 1970s and today 30 per cent of its electricity production comes from wind power.
Doctor Mauri Johansson is a specialist in community and occupational medicine in Denmark.
He’s convinced wind turbines can make people sick and is frustrated that more research hasn’t been conducted.
“We have been fighting hard in our resistance organisation to force the government to start serious and independent research including these medical questions now but they have chosen, three ministers here in early December, they go on saying that there are no health problems related to wind turbines which of course is not correct. And we have to break down this top level resistance in the government and in the parliament to show that they are wrong and that people in reality are badly hurt in many of them staying close or living close to wind turbines.”
But Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney says those opposing Denmark’s wind turbines are a tiny minority.
“Denmark has more wind turbines per square kilometre than any other country in the world and reports that I’ve seen even coming out of those anti-wind turbine sort of communities in Denmark suggest that there are no more than about 10 or 20 people who are affected adversely by wind turbines in there.”
Doctor Mauri Johansson says the wind industry is so powerful that it’s managed to have negative research suppressed and has used its influence to prevent fresh research.
“In the Nordic countries, the wind turbine industry has been successful to hide all these informations. We know already from the 1980s, in USA, very serious research was done showing clearly that people get ill but that was buried totally in the late 80s by the industry. It seems then nothing has been done on the medical side. They have shunted out also in Denmark the health authorities both centrally and in local communities.”
Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney says the US research was done on wind turbines that were much smaller than what’s used today.
In any event, he says conducting fresh research almost anywhere in the world would now be fraught.
“The difficulty about doing new research on wind turbines and health is that it’s impossible now to find any area, really of the world where there hasn’t, that hasn’t been saturated with a lot of anti-wind turbine sentiment. So people who are likely to be susceptible to what we call the nocebo effect which is you know being worried, worrying themselves sick if they’ve been told that something is likely to produce ill health effects in them will have been exposed to that propaganda from the anti-wind turbine groups and that can create havoc in being able to sort of reliably say well is it the actual turbines or is it worry about the turbines. You just can’t find any community where that anti propaganda stuff hasn’t been.”
Adelaide barrister Peter Quinn is another opponent of wind farms,
He says the health effects are only one reason why Australians should not support wind energy.
In June last year, he addressed a small gathering outside Parliament House in Canberra that was billed as the National Wind Power Fraud Rally.
“Anybody asked the question, are they against renewable energy, well the question has to be conditioned, if the question is are you in favour of renewable energy which operates 30 per cent of the time, at best, has to be backed up a 100 per cent of the time by fossil fuel sources that cost, when the wind is blowing, four times the cost of hydro, coal or gas fired power, four times when the wind is blowing, and drives people out of their homes when they are inappropriately sited, I think the answer would be very different than what’s elicited in surveys. No one in their right mind aware of those facts could support it unquestionally.”
And during his recent interview on 2GB, Prime Minister Tony Abbott made it clear he shares these misgivings.
“We do also have to have a look at the impact of renewable energy on power prices. The problem at this stage with renewable energy is that there’s always got to be a back up because sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. If the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow the power doesn’t flow.”
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