A GROUNDSWELL of public opinion, people citing ruined lives and serious health problems — it can be hard for politicians and public officials to stand against that kind of outcry.
Sometimes, of course, the upset is justified. Sometimes it is on shakier ground. And sometimes it may even be manipulated by vested interests hiding in the shadows.
I’m talking about wind farms.
The NHMRC last week released the findings of the review it commissioned, which found no evidence of direct adverse health effects, including for example on cardiovascular health, headaches, hearing problems, anxiety or depression.
There was some suggestion of a link between proximity to a wind farm and annoyance, sleep disturbance and poorer quality of life, though no evidence this was a causal relationship.
Overall, as the draft information paper makes clear, the evidence in this area is pretty hopeless.
The review could only find seven, mostly small, studies that met its inclusion criteria (one from Australia). All seven relied on self-reporting of health problems and all “were considered to be poor quality”.
Nonetheless, the deficiencies in the studies are ones that would seem more likely to have encouraged findings of harmful effects (participants being told the study was investigating health effects of wind turbines, for example).
In any case, it’s not likely this will make the slightest bit of difference to those who are convinced by the various claims made about “wind turbine syndrome”.
I have no doubt some people living near the farms believe their health has been harmed as a result and they, of course, deserve to be treated with compassion and respect.
But it is interesting that not all wind farms attract the same level of complaints, as an analysis of Australian health and noise complaints published last year by Professor Simon Chapman and colleagues found.
Almost two-thirds of Australian wind farms had never been the subject of a complaint and the complaints made tended to cluster in particular geographical areas — the 13 WA and three Tasmanian wind farms had not attracted any at all, whereas a single operation at Waubra in Victoria had attracted 29.
The authors concluded that historical and geographical variations in health complaints suggested this was an example of psychogenic illness, probably connected to a nocebo* effect.
The study also found a stark divide in the timing of complaints — 90% of complainants made their first complaint after 2009, the time “when anti wind farm groups began to add health concerns to their wider opposition”.
This followed the 2008 publication of a book by US physician Dr Nina Pierpont, who might fairly be called the mother of wind turbine syndrome (I’ve written about Dr Pierpont’s unusual approach to evidence before.)
Her views are enthusiastically spread by many of the groups set up to oppose wind farms, such as Australia’s Waubra Foundation, which is lead by former GP Sarah Laurie and lists former federal Health Minister Dr Michael Wooldridge as one of its board members.
Waubra and other groups, such as the UK’s Country Guardian and Australia’s Landscape Guardians network, have all the appearance of spontaneous grassroots activism, an upswell of community concern and outrage.
I have no doubt many of their members have signed on for exactly that reason, but could there also be hidden forces at work?
A lot of money is at stake when it comes to issues of energy policy, government funding and development approvals so it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if some sectors of the industry sought to use concerns about rival sectors to their advantage.
It has been alleged that Country Guardian has close ties to the nuclear industry (it denies it, though its vice-president, Sir Bernard Ingham, is also secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Energy).
Another Australian lobby group, the questionably named Australian Environment Foundation, runs its anti-wind power line alongside a general scepticism about climate change and other potential environmental threats.
The Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation have been alleged to have links to the fossil fuel industry.
Of course, that may all be entirely innocent, but we should not forget the health risks posed by other forms of energy generation.
The residents of Morwell who are currently coping with the side effects of the Hazelwood coal mine fire could attest to that.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
*Nocebo is the placebo effect’s evil twin: just as a person given a sugar pill may experience a health benefit if they believe it is a real drug, a person who believes they have been exposed to something harmful may experience the negative symptoms they expect as a result.