Groups in Australia have claimed for several years that low-frequency noise and inaudible sound levels from wind farms have affected people’s health by causing sleep disturbance, headaches, tinnitus, dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, fast heart rate, poor concentration and episodes of panic.
In 2011, the Victorian Liberal government used these claims to place a ban on windfarms being built within two kilometres of residential areas.
Is there any basis to these claims?
Many of the health problems, collectively named “wind farm syndrome”, are those that affect large numbers of people all over Australia. Many of these non-specific complaints could be caused by other health problems.
There have been 17 reviews of the evidence about wind farms and health published internationally. Each of these reviews have concluded that wind turbines can annoy a minority of people who live near them, but there is no strong evidence that they make people ill.
The reviews conclude that pre-existing negative attitudes to wind farms are generally stronger predictors of annoyance than residential distance to the turbines or recorded levels of noise.
In other words, people who don’t like wind farms can often be annoyed and worried by them. In an online database of 21 million peer-reviewed medical articles, there is not one reference to “wind turbine syndrome.”
Wind farms have existed in Australia long before the first claims about health ever surfaced.
There are 49 wind farms in Australia. The Ten Mile Lagoon wind farm near Esperance in Western Australia has been in operation for 20 years. The Codrington wind farm in Victoria has existed for 11 years.
Although wind farm opponents warn that the ill effects are almost instantaneous, it has taken many years for the first complaint to be made. It has only been since 2009 that health complaints about wind turbines have been made. This is the same time that anti-wind farm groups were created.
Research into the health effects of wind farms by Simon Chapman, a professor in public health at Sydney University, has found of the 32,000 people living within 5 kilometres of these 49 wind farms, only 120 of them have ever made formal complaints, appeared in news reports or sent complaint submissions to government.
Moreover, 79% of these complaints are from people living near just six wind farms, each of which have been heavily targeted by wind farm opposition groups. Generally, complaints coincided with the visit of a vocal wind farm opponent who spread anxiety in the community.
A report by the Victorian health department found: “Recent research indicates that an expectation of symptoms may lead to increased reporting of health complaints associated with wind turbines.”
The first record of claims being made that wind turbines could cause health problems date from 2003, when a British GP wrote an unpublished report about just 36 people scattered around Britain who all said the turbines made them ill.
A Victorian country GP did an even smaller study in 2004, where after dropping 25 questionnaires to people living near the local turbines, eight reported problems like sleep difficulties, stress and dizziness.
In any community, regardless of the presence or absence of wind turbines, about a quarter to a third will have sleep problems, nearly half will have had a headache in the last week, and nearly one in six will have felt dizzy.
It is no accident that “wind turbine syndrome” has gained publicity in the past few years. It is a useful tool created by people with vested interests to stall progress of the renewable energy industry.
There are two main anti-wind farm groups in Australia, the Waubra Foundation and the Landscape Guardians.
Both groups are funded by the coal industry or by people who own farms with a view they don’t want spoiled by wind turbines.
The Landscape Guardians are well-known climate change deniers, linked to the Liberal Party and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). They are modelled on the Coastal Guardians and Country Guardians in Britain, who are associated with the nuclear power industry.
Despite their name, the Landscape Guardians have never tried to guard Australia from residential developers, open-cut coal or coal seam gas mining. They only target wind farm developments.
An unregistered doctor, Sarah Laurie, and a wealthy mining and oil investor, Peter Mitchell, who also has connections to the Landscape Guardians, lead the anti-wind groups.
Three groups — Waubra, Landscape Guardians and Lowell Resources, a mining investment company owned by Mitchell — share a South Melbourne post office box.
The IPA receives funding from coal and oil companies such as BHP Billiton, Caltex, Exxon and Shell. It also receives funding from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Murdoch owns a big rural property in the grazing country near Yass, an area that has a larger proportion of wind farms planned than elsewhere in Australia.
Unsurprisingly, the Murdoch press has also run a distorted and dishonest scare campaign about wind farms.
It is clear these groups are whipping up fear and hysteria about wind farms in order to delay the roll-out of large scale renewable energy projects. As the percentage of Australia’s renewable energy use grows, these attacks will continue.