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Wind farm health fears blown away

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There is no evidence to back assertions that wind farms cause headaches, dizziness, tachycardia or other health problems, which may instead arise because of anxiety stirred by false and misleading claims, the AMA has said.

While the Federal Government is pushing ahead with plans for a fresh investigation into the impact of wind farms on health, the AMA has issued a Position Statement in which it concludes that “available Australian and international evidence does not support the view that the…sound generated by wind farms…causes adverse health effects”.

AMA Vice President and Chair of the Association’s Public Health Committee Professor Geoffrey Dobb said that although some people living near wind farms may genuinely experience health problems, these were not directly attributable to wind turbines.

“The infrasound and low frequency sound generated by modern wind farms in Australia is well below the level where known health effects occur,” Professor Dobb said. “And there is no accepted physiological mechanism whereby sub-audible infrasound could cause health effects.”

Instead, he said, the symptoms of ill health experienced by some living in close proximity to wind turbines may be due to anxiety.

“The reporting of supposed ‘health scares’ or the spreading of misinformation about wind farm developments may contribute to heightened anxiety,” Professor Dobb said, adding that those who experienced adverse symptoms should seek medical advice.

In January, Australian Medicine reported a study which found that those who were told wind farms had health effects were more likely to report symptoms than those who were not (see ausmed/answer-blowing-wind).

In its Position Statement, based on extensive research and investigation, the AMA observed that if wind farms did directly cause adverse health effects, there would be a much stronger correlation between reports of symptoms and proximity to wind farms than currently exists.

It said only a relatively small proportion of those living near wind farms reported health problems, and numbers varied greatly between facilities “for reasons not apparently related to the number of residents in the area”.

The AMA’s conclusions follow the release earlier this year of a systematic review of evidence regarding the health effects of wind farms, commissioned by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which found no grounds to claim wind turbines harmed health.

The 296-page Systematic review of the human health effects of wind farms (https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/eh54_syst…), which involved examination of more than 2800 references and 500 documents, concluded that there was “no consistent evidence that noise from wind turbines…is associated with self-reported human health effects”.

“Proximity to wind turbines or estimated sound pressure level was associated with annoyance, and often associated with sleep disturbance and poorer quality of life,” the study said. “However, it cannot be ruled out that bias or confounding is an explanation for these associations.”

But, in a caveat that lends support to the Government’s push for further investigation, the study admitted that the “quality and quantity of the available evidence was limited”.

Health Minister Peter Dutton told Parliament on 17 March that the shortcoming meant the Government’s move to commission an “independent research program” was warranted.

A number of small but vocal groups including the Waubra Foundation, the Landscape Guardians and Stop These Things have campaigned against wind farms, claiming they are the cause of a range of maladies including headaches, migraines, tachycardia, nausea, tinnitus and hypertension.

The Waubra Foundation has written to the AMA objecting to its Position Statement.

The Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer Sarah Laurie accused the AMA of ignorance in coming to its conclusions.

Ms Laurie said the NHMRC itself had admitted there was consistent, if poor quality, evidence of sleep disturbance and poor quality of life among those living near wind turbines, and other studies had linked them to adverse health effects.

The issue is particularly sensitive for the Coalition with its sizable rural constituency, given that wind farms are located in country areas.

Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash told the Senate last month that “there has been some concern around some of the poor quality relating to that particular report,” adding that “we in the Government are well aware of the concerns in the community surrounding this, and we will be putting steps in place to determine that we are fully aware of any impacts that do exist.”

And, in a speech to the Senate, DLP Senator John Madigan condemned energy firm AGL for writing to doctors in western Victoria to assert that its Macarthur wind farm had no health effects.

“This is a blatant lie,” Senator Madigan said. “It is now on the public record that many residents near Macarthur wind farm have experienced serious health effects and repetitive sleep disturbance since the beginning of operation[s].”

But Greens NSW Upper House MLC Dr John Kaye said both the AMA and the NHMRC showed that “the problem confronted by wind farm residents comes not from the wind farms themselves, but from organisations like the Waubra Foundation, the Landscape Guardians and new organisations such as Stop These Things, which are raising alarm with respect to wind farms”.

The Clean Energy Council said the AMA’s Position Statement should provide extra peace of mind for those living near existing or proposed wind farms.

“No credible Australian health or acoustic organisations are opposing wind farms, and people should feel reassured by that,” Council Policy Director Russell Marsh said, adding that communities had been “caught in the crossfire” of misinformation campaigns waged by opponents.

The AMA has cautioned governments to resist pressure to over-regulate wind farms to address health problems for which there is no evidence.

“The regulation of wind farm developments should be guided entirely by the evidence regarding their impacts and benefits,” Professor Dobb said.

He said the health benefits of renewable energy should not be discounted.

“From a public health perspective, it is important to note that electricity generation by wind turbines does not involve the production of greenhouse gases, other pollutant emissions or waste, all of which can have significant direct and indirect health effects,” he said.

The NHMRC’s Wind Farms and Human Health Reference Group, formed in 2011, has had its term extended until 31 January 2015.

Submissions regarding its draft information paper, Evidence on Wind Farms and Human Health, can be made before 11 April. Details can be found at: http://consultations.nhmrc.gov.au/public_consultations/wind_farms

The AMA Position Statement on Wind Farms and Health 2014 can be viewed at: position-statement/wind-farms-and-health-2014

Adrian Rollins

* Image by Charles Cook on Flikr, used under Creative Commons license

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