In the sleepy Victorian town of Waubra, a bitter feud over wind power is driving a wedge between neighbours and friends.
About two hours north-west of Melbourne, Waubra produces enough electricity from its wind turbines to power two of Victoria’s largest regional cities.
But after almost a decade of operating, wind power remains a painful issue in the town, which is only home to about 500 people.
Waubra is so synonymous with wind power that opponents have christened the so-called illness that some claim comes with living near turbines “Waubra disease”.
The town might be at loggerheads over whether wind can make you sick, but what does the science say?
What is wind turbine syndrome?
Waubra disease, better known as wind turbine syndrome, describes a range of symptoms a small number of people claim arise from living near wind farms, ranging from headaches to nausea.
It was first coined in 2009 by New York paediatrician Dr Nina Pierpont, who claimed wind turbines disrupted the inner-ear through inaudible, low-frequency vibrations.
The claims were rubbished by science and health bodies across the world, but anti-wind power groups seized on Dr Pierpont’s claims, which quickly spread to Australia.
Experts dismiss wind turbine syndrome as the result of a “nocebo” effect, where negative expectations of symptoms can amplify an actual negative effect – the opposite of a placebo.
But that hasn’t stopped Waubra locals from taking a side.
‘It’s just a bit of noise’
Brian Gallagher, 58, has called the rolling hills of the Waubra district home for the past 40 years.
His family’s farm consists of five properties ranging from 100 to 300 acres. Dotted across those properties are 10 turbines.
There are 128 turbines on the properties of 37 farmers across Waubra, and Mr Gallagher said the structures don’t bother him.
“There’s a little bit of noise sometimes, when it’s not a real windy day, and you can hear them then, but you still don’t worry,” he said.
“It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a bit of noise, that’s about it.
“For at least the first 12 months, you come out just to have a look and see what they’re actually doing or if they’re going to cause any trouble but after a while you just get used to them.
For the Gallaghers, the turbines offer a level of financial security that many Australian farmers yearn for.
“We’re in a lot of different things to make money, and they’re not all reliable,” he said.
“It’s just an ongoing battle on a farm to find new ways of making money.”
The turbines on the farms throughout Waubra belong to the Spanish renewable energy giant Acciona, which pays farmers about $7,000 a year, indexed to inflation, for every wind turbine they are allowed build and manage.
‘I couldn’t believe the noise’
For Carl Stepnell and his family, Waubra’s reliance on wind has been a bitter pill to swallow.
He is among a number of residents who initially fought against the wind farms, which now jut over the town’s horizon.
“As soon as they got going, they started affecting my wife and six months down the track they started affecting me,” he said.
“[The noise] is mornings, nights – it’s 24 hours a day – and you don’t have control over it. You can’t just turn them off.”
Mr Stepnell, 46, said he and his wife started experiencing headaches and ringing in their ears, which they attributed to a wind turbine 800 metres from their home.
They eventually took the extraordinary decision to build another house at the other end of their farm.
So what is really making people sick?
Critics of wind farms have long claimed low-frequency sounds cause people to feel sick, claims numerous health bodies have refuted.
But the Australian Medical Association’s Victorian president, Dr Lorraine Barker, said that anxiety over being near wind turbines can cause symptoms of its own.
“There is no indication that infrasound, for instance, could induce the symptoms … [but] anxiety certainly can,” Dr Barker said.
“Noises that are continuous in the background can be irritating, so that level of irritation may affect someone if they are standing very close to a wind turbine.
“However, infrasound, or the sound that is beyond the detection of the human ear, is not believed to cause harm to humans.”
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