By Celine Naughton
Whenever Jenny Spittle's children visit their grandad in England, 12-year-old Billie comes home tired, complaining of headaches, earache, dizziness and hearing buzzing noises. Billie has autism and her mother is convinced her symptoms are brought on by the towering pylons and wind turbines located near her grandfather's house. Now Jenny lies awake at night worrying about plans to build a wind farm close to her home in Co Westmeath.
"I see what she's like after a week with her grandfather and wonder how she'll cope if we have these things on our doorstep," she says.
Like many autistic children, Billie is hyper-sensitive to sound and light. She hears sounds at frequencies that are inaudible to most people, and Jenny is afraid she will find the sound of wind turbines close to home intolerable.
"It's not easy raising an autistic child, yet while I'm busy trying to organise psychotherapy, speech and language, occupational therapy and all the other kinds of supports she needs to help her cope with everyday life, I also have to make time to protest against pylons and wind turbines," she says. "I can't afford to wait until they've been built to voice my objections. I have to protect my child."
Thirteen years ago, university lecturer Neil van Dokkum and his wife Fiona moved from South Africa to an idyllic part of Waterford with their two sons. Their youngest, Ian, had been diagnosed with autism and part of the reason for choosing to make their home in such a remote location was to give Ian the peaceful environment they felt he needed in which to thrive. Then, six months ago, Neil heard about the proposed construction of pylons in the area from a neighbour. The news set off alarm bells for him and his family.
"Ian is incredibly sensitive to electric noise and certain types of light," he says. "He will start crying and become very agitated. It is a source of emotional trauma for him. My wife and I discovered the extent of this sensitivity when we installed energy-saving light bulbs in our kitchen. When Ian walked in, he put his fingers into his ears, screwed his face up tight and said: 'Blue light off, please Daddy. Blue light off!' I was sitting directly under the light and had not noticed anything. Ian was standing at the door, about four metres away, and he couldn't bear it. Can you imagine how he will be affected by pylons carrying 400kV power lines? Like many other parents of autistic kids and indeed children with other intellectual disabilities, we deliberately moved to the country so as to be away from the city with its high levels of ambient noise, including electrical noise, and disturbance. At night, it can be so quiet here that I can hear the cows crunching grass in the field opposite. Can you imagine how that silence will be shattered by clanking pylons? More specifically, how my son's silence will be shattered by the electrical noise coming from those cables? How will he be able to sleep with that noise? And how will the rest of my family sleep as Ian becomes highly agitated when awakened by this distressing noise?
"The other concern I have is flight risk. Ian, like many autistic children, has no sense of danger and will run away and on to the road at any opportunity. He is not running away from anything, but sometimes seems to feel the need to rush into an open space. Again, the countryside, with its minimal traffic and quieter roads, is far safer than a city with all those vehicles. Even so, my property is fenced and gated, not to keep people out, but rather to keep my son in and safe.
My deepest fear now is that the electrical noise coming off cables and pylons will disturb him so much that he will attempt to run from it. And if he can't get out, he will bang his head against the wall out of sheer frustration. The potential consequences are too painful to even contemplate, and if the proposed construction of pylons across the countryside goes ahead, selling our house would be impossible, so we are effectively trapped.
"If the Government were to abandon its slavish adulation of the wind industry and pursue the biomass option, converting Moneypoint power station to biomass boilers, it could save over three billion euro. Imagine how many state-of-the-art facilities for people with intellectual disabilities could be built with that sort of money."
A Department of Health spokesperson says: "According to international literature, no direct health effects have been demonstrated in persons living in close proximity to wind turbines. However, it is agreed that there is a need for additional, well-designed studies in this area. The Department of Health advises that anyone who believes they are experiencing any health problems should consult their GP promptly."
In its draft development plan, Westmeath County Council required any new wind farm development to implement a setback distance of 10 times the height of the turbine from residential dwellings, but the Department of the Environment intervened. Under Objective PWin6 of the plan, a turbine measuring 180m, for instance, would be sited at least 1.8km away from any house, while according to the Department's wind energy guidelines, a distance of 500m is deemed sufficient. Minister of State for Planning Jan O'Sullivan wrote to the council instructing it to re-examine the setback distance.
"We received over 5,600 submissions from constituents who supported PWin6, which would have kept the setback distance in place," says Westmeath County Council chairman Peter Burke. "We informed the Minister of State that we felt the Department's guidelines were not adequate and she appointed an inspector to carry out an independent review."
Last month, that inspector's report recommended against the inclusion of the PWin6 objective on the grounds that it "would be contrary to section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000."
At the time of writing, the Department's final decision on the matter is pending.
Safety first: Are turbines and pylons dangerous?
Now that Ireland's plan to export wind energy to Britain has been scrapped, the public has been left a little breathing space to focus on a simple question: Are wind farms and their related pylons and overhead power lines safe or not?
The Department of Health's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Colette Bonner, has said that older people, people who suffer from migraine, and others with a sensitivity to low-frequency vibration, are some of those who can be at risk of 'wind turbine syndrome'.
"These people must be treated appropriately and sensitively as these symptoms can be very debilitating," she commented in a report to the Department of the Environment last year. We asked Dr Bonner for clarification.
"Presently the World Health Organisation does not classify Wind Turbine Syndrome as a disease under the WHO international classification of diseases," she said. "Current research in the area suggests that there are no direct health effects of wind turbines. However, there are methodological limitations of many of the studies in this area and more high quality research is recommended."
Side by side with the controversy over wind farms comes concern over the high voltage pylons which distribute the electricity generated by the wind turbines to the national grid. Chief Medical Officer in the Deptartment of Health, Dr Tony Holohan, has stated that he does not think there is a health risk associated with people living in vicinity of pylons.
But not everybody agrees; according to British physicist Denis Henshaw, people have every reason to be concerned. Emeritus professor of human radiation effects at Bristol University and scientific director of the charity Children with Cancer UK, he recently told a public health meeting in Trim, Co Meath, that high voltage power cables are linked "beyond reasonable doubt" to childhood leukaemia and other diseases.
"It has been shown again and again that there is a definite risk of childhood leukaemia and other diseases near these lines," he says. "The link is so strong that when a childhood leukaemia occurs near these lines there is a greater than 50pc chance that the leukaemia is due to the line. This raises the prospect of legal action for corporate manslaughter against those involved in putting the line there. The Irish government and EirGrid need to take care of their citizens and acknowledge the known health risks in people near these lines."
A spokesman for EirGrid says: "We're not doctors, but having taken advice from experts at the World Health Organisation, along with the chief science adviser and the chief medical officer, it is clear to us that there is no evidence to link overhead lines with adverse health effects."
The Government report 'Health Effects of Electromagnetic Fields' 2007 says: "Given that there is still uncertainty about whether long-term exposure to extremely low frequency magnetic fields could cause childhood leukaemia, use of precautionary measures to lower people's exposure would therefore appear to be warranted.
"As a precautionary measure, future power lines and power installations should be sited away from heavily populated areas to keep exposures to people low."