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The answer is blowing in the wind

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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has thrown his support behind a renewed investigation into the possible health effects of wind farms.

Though almost 20 studies conducted internationally have failed to find evidence that wind farms harm health, Mr Abbott said earlier this month that it was “perfectly reasonable” for the issue to be re-examined.

Federal Health Minister Peter Dutton and his Victorian counterpart David Davis are planning a research project, to be led by the National Health and Medical Research Council, to examine the issue following persistent complaints from a small but vocal segment of the population who have blamed wind farms for a multitude of health complaints including headaches, herpes, weight loss and gain, cancer, nose bleeds, nocturia, dental infections, nightmares and vibrating lips.

In a review conducted in 2010, the NHMRC concluded that “there is currently no published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects”.

Similarly, the World Health Organisation has found that “there is no reliable evidence that sounds below the hearing threshold produce physiological or psychological effects”, a conclusion addressing one of the common claims made by the anti-wind turbine group the Waubra Foundation, that it is the sub-audible sound (also referred to as infrasound) produced by wind turbines that cause health problems.

The issue is a particularly sensitive one for the Coalition because wind farms (and hence, those who claim to be adversely affected) are in regional and rural areas.

Complicating the picture, the issue has also become imbued with overtones from the broader climate change and alternative energy debate – not least by the Government’s chief business adviser Maurice Newman, who has been a vocal critic of wind farms.

The Australian revealed earlier this month that the Federal and Victorian governments were in communication with each other soon after the election about setting up an inquiry into wind farms, and reported that Mr Abbott was enthusiastic about the idea.

“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,” the Prime Minister said. “It is some years since the NHMRC last looked at this issue: why not do it again?”

Since 2010, the NHMRC has continued to monitor the science in the area through its Wind Farms and Human Health Reference Group, which has had its term extended to 2015.

According to The Australian, wind farm operator AGL has commissioned research showing no measurable change in infrasound levels in the location of its facilities, and scientists have pointed out that the infrasound associated with wind turbines is no greater than that which occurs in the natural environment from wind and other background noises.

Instead, many researchers have begun investigating the extent to which wind farm-associated health complaints are psychosomatic phenomena that attest to the power of suggestion.

One recent study, published by The Conversation (to view, visit http://theconversation.com/wind-turbines-dont-make-you-feel-sick-or-healthy-but-spin-can-20845) attempted to test the influence of the way the issue was framed on perceived symptoms, and found there was a positive correlation – those who were told there was a problem were more inclined to report symptoms than those who were not.

Adrian Rollins