Last update: July 19, 2017

Select Committee on Wind Turbines August 2015 AustraliaAustralia

Select Committee on Wind Turbines: Final Report

“Those who have labelled 'wind turbine syndrome' as a communicated disease or a psychogenic condition have been too quick to judge. [...] This has understandably caused those who suffer adverse symptoms even greater distress.”

Senate Committee reports

Extract from chapter 2:

The need for more evidence-based health advice on the impact of wind turbines on human health

Introduction and context

2.1 There has been considerable conjecture and controversy worldwide about the health impact of wind turbines. Australia has been no exception. Here, as in many other countries, there is a clear disconnect: between the official position that wind turbines cause no harm to human health and the strong and continuing empirical, biological and anecdotal evidence of many people living in proximity to turbines suffering from similar physiological symptoms and distress.

2.2 In the course of this inquiry, as in others conducted by the Australian Parliament, the committee has received considerable anecdotal evidence that those living in close proximity to wind turbines have suffered adverse health impacts from the operation of these turbines. These complaints have not been isolated to a particular wind farm or a particular region. While evidence to the committee suggests that some wind turbines may not have had the alleged health impact that others seem to have caused, the committee has received health complaints from dozens of submitters living near wind turbines at various locations across several States.

2.3 The committee believes that these complainants deserve to be taken seriously. Those who have labelled 'wind turbine syndrome' as a communicated disease or a psychogenic condition have been too quick to judge. In so doing, they have unnecessarily inflamed the debate on the issue. This has understandably caused those who suffer adverse symptoms even greater distress.

2.4 Since the last Senate Committee reported on this matter in November 2012, there have been some important developments:

  • in March 2015 the peak government health advisory body, the National Health and Medical Advisory Council (NHMRC), committed to conduct further research. In the past the NHMRC has dismissed health concerns associated with wind turbines; and
  • in December 2014, acoustician Mr Steven Cooper found a correlation between infrasound emitting from turbines at Cape Bridgewater and 'sensations' felt, and diarised, by six residents of three nearby homes. Significantly, the report identified a unique infrasound 'wind turbine signature'.

2.5 The possible effect of infrasound from wind turbines on human health has been a theme of this inquiry. Acousticians have provided different perspectives to the committee on the possible effect of infrasound from turbines. What is most striking is the lack of any professional consensus on this issue and the range of arguments as to what would constitute an acceptable research project to test the hypothesis. Accordingly, the committee's interim report recommended the need for independent research into both audible and sub-audible sound from turbines and for this research to inform national sound standards.

Interim report recommendations relating to human health

Recommendation 1

The committee recommends the Commonwealth Government create an Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Industrial Sound responsible for providing research and advice to the Minister for the Environment on the impact on human health of audible noise (including low frequency) and infrasound from wind turbines. The IESC should be established under the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000.

Recommendation 2

The committee recommends that the National Environment Protection Council establish a National Environment Protection (Wind Turbine Infrasound and Low Frequency Noise) Measure (NEPM). This NEPM must be developed through the findings of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Industrial Sound. The Commonwealth Government should insist that the ongoing accreditation of wind turbine facilities under the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000 in a State or Territory is dependent on the NEPM becoming valid law in that State or Territory.

[...]

Wind turbines and ill-health

2.7 The committee has taken evidence from a number of people who reside in proximity to wind turbines who have complained of a range of adverse health impacts. These include tinnitus, raised blood pressure, heart palpitations, tachycardia, stress, anxiety, vertigo, dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, headaches, nausea, ear pressure, exacerbated migraine disorders, motion sensitivity, inner ear damage and worst of all, sleep deprivation.

2.8 Dr Sarah Laurie told the committee:

The human cost of the failure to protect people from excessive noise pollution, especially at night, is terrible. I have personally helped to prevent a number of suicides of people who were utterly desperate because of the consequences of excessive noise pollution and who reached out for help…

From my experience there is a subset of people who are terribly impacted very early on. Those people are the ones who tend to present with acute vestibular disorder type of symptoms—dizziness and motion sickness, which can be accompanied by extreme anxiety. Those people often just cannot last very long, and they move if they can.

2.9 Ms Janet Hetherington, an adjacent landholder to the Macarthur wind farm in south-west Victoria, relayed her own experience:

At my farm, I experience severe adverse health effects such as vibration, heart palpitations, tinnitus, head pressure, headaches, sleep deprivation, anxiety, night sweats, nausea, itchy skin, cramps, and ear, nose and throat pain. Twice now I have experienced horrendous pain in my chest stabbing through to my backbone in between my shoulder blades. I contemplated calling an ambulance both times but could not move to do so because of the severity of the pain. Ten minutes later it had dissipated, leaving me with great stress and anxiety and feeling washed out. All these sensations leave me drained in the morning. I find it very hard to start work that day.

2.10 Ms Anne Gardner also attributed her and her husband's ill health to the nearby Macarthur wind farm. She described the following symptoms:

My husband experienced bolts of pressure which tallied up with pressure peaks measured by Les Houston (sic) 86 per cent of the time while my husband was blind to the acoustic measurements of the time. Refer to his recap statement. I suffer day and night from headaches, nose and ear pressure, nausea, heart palpitations and chest burning from vibrations through the floor, couch, chair and in bed all night.

2.11 Mr Clive Gare and his wife host 19 towers from the North Brown Hill wind farm located 17 kilometres from Jamestown in South Australia. Mr Gare told the committee:

After a short period of living with an operating wind farm, we had these products installed. I find that, because I work and reside in close proximity to the wind farm, I suffer sleep interruption, mild headaches, agitation and a general feeling of unease; however, this occurs only when the towers are turning, depending on the wind direction and wind strength. My occupation requires that I work amongst the wind towers during the day which means I suffer the full impacts of noise for days at a time without relief. The impacts are that we are not able to open our windows because of the noise at night and we are not able to entertain outside because of the noise.

In conclusion, if we did not have soundproof batts in VLam Hush windows [special window laminate designed to dampen noise], our house would not be habitable. In my opinion, towers should not be within five kilometres of residences, and I would personally not buy a house within 20 kilometres of a wind farm.

2.12 The committee notes that the Gares have received payment of $2 million over five years to host turbines and have reported serious adverse impacts. The committee notes, therefore, that their evidence is an 'admission against interest' and as such represents highly reliable evidence.

2.13 Mr John Pollard, a resident of Glenthompson near the Oaklands Hill wind farm in Victoria, told the committee:

The wind farm guidelines on health issues of this very serious problem have to be assessed. They will not acknowledge infrasound. I will relate one incident that happened in our home one night. My wife was sleeping in the chair beside me and I was watching television. This is after they had turned the turbines off. She was dead to the world and I was just watching the television. All of a sudden she woke up, completely startled and disorientated, and I was really worried about her because I thought she had had a stroke or something. Eventually she came to her senses and she said the turbines must be on. I said, 'No, they're not. It's 10.30. They turn off at nine o'clock.' I went outside and they were still running. So I thought that next day I would ring AGL. When I was about to ring, they rang me and said, 'I'm sorry, John. We forgot to turn the turbines off last night.'

2.14 Waubra resident Mr Donald Thomas identified hearing difficulties from the nearby Waubra wind farm turbines. He claimed that these difficulties disappeared when he left the area:

I went to the doctor with what I kept saying was a lot of ear pressure and earaches. I went to see a specialist, and my ears came back as being in good health and functioning pretty well, even though I have lost a lot of hearing. Basically, my left ear does not work too good…

My ears—especially when I go to my Stud Farm Road property, I have ear pressure that can develop into a headache and rapid heartbeat. If I leave that area and go back to one of my other properties, that can settle back down.

2.15 Mr Peter Jelbart, a 25 year old who had lived with his family nearby the Macarthur wind farm in south-west Victoria, noted the difficulty of sleeping in the family home. He told the committee he had worked and slept unaffected in noisy environments outside of the family home in Victoria:

While I was working in Western Australia I used to do three weeks on, one week off and come home for a week. Over in Western Australia I was sleeping at times on the sides of busy highways and in the back of trucks with ice packs running…

At home, I noticed pretty much from day one that there is a serious problem there. Something is completely different when sleeping. I would wake up after a couple of hours of sleep—at times, not even after a couple of hours—and have disrupted sleep that I have had nowhere else. There is a proper problem…

Whether it is low-frequency noise and the infrasound combining with it, it seems worse when it is quiet. Around our house the yard is pretty well protected by trees. When it is relatively quiet around the house yard there is still a really soft drone that comes through and just gets into you. It is pretty hard to explain. There are probably a lot of people going through the same thing who will have the same trouble trying to explain it, especially to people who have not experienced it. The problem with it is, it also seems to affect different people over different periods of time.

2.16 The committee has had the opportunity to take evidence from researchers in the United States and Canada who expressed their concern with the health effects of turbines. Ms Lilli-Ann Green is the Chief Executive Officer of a healthcare consulting firm in the United States. In 2012, Ms Green and her husband conducted interviews with people living near wind turbines in 15 different countries. As she told the committee:

We have interviewed people on three continents who live more than five miles from the nearest wind turbine and are sick since wind turbine construction. I contend that we need honest research to determine how far wind turbines need to be sited from people in order to do no harm. People report to us that over time their symptoms become more severe. Many report not experiencing ill effects for some time following wind turbine construction, meanwhile their spouse became ill the day the wind turbines nearby became operational. They speak of thinking they were one of the lucky ones at first, but after a number of months or years they become as ill as their spouse. Not one person who stayed near wind turbines reported to us that they got used to it or got better; they all became more ill over time…

I really believe that we just do not have enough information yet. But throughout the interviews, country by country, people described the same symptoms. Many times they used the same phrases to describe them and the same gestures—and they were not speaking English. There is a common thread here.

2.17 Dr Jay Tibbetts, a medical practitioner and vice chair of the Brown County Board of Health in Wisconsin, drew the committee's attention to the board's October 2013 finding that the Shirley wind farm was a 'human health hazard'. Dr Tibbetts described how the declaration came about:

The [Board of Health] has been studying adverse health effects for the past 4 ½ years in the Shirley Wind Project. We have reviewed many peer reviewed studies, at least 50 medical complaints including ear pain, pressure, headache, tinnitus, vertigo, nausea, chest pain, chest pressure, loss of concentration, sleep deprivation and more, as well as more than 80 other complaints from citizens of Shirley Wind. There have been 2 formal studies of infrasound/low frequency noise by acousticians in 2012 and 2014. The latter study revealed symptom generating [Infrasound/Low Frequency Noise] at a distance of 4 ½ [miles].

2.18 The committee also heard of detailed research by Professor Emeritus Robert McMurtry from Western University in Ontario, Canada. Professor McMurtry made a number of points to the committee:

  • adverse health effects have been reported globally in the environs of wind turbines for more than 30 years with the old design of turbines and the new;
  • the wind energy industry has denied adverse health effects, preferring to call it 'annoyance'. Annoyance is recognised and was treated by the World Health Organization as an adverse health effect, which is a risk factor for serious chronic disease including cardiovascular and cancer;
  • the regulations surrounding noise exposure are based upon out-of-date standards ETSU-97, which fail to evaluate infrasound and low-frequency noise, preferring instead to use dBA. The issue of Infrasound and Low Frequency Noise (ILFN) is a problem and it has been confirmed by numerous acousticians including Dr Paul Schomer, a leading international acoustician;
  • the setbacks for wind turbines are highly variable across jurisdictions with no evidence base in human health research for the setbacks;
  • there is an urgent need for human health research to provide evidence based guidelines for noise exposure. Proposals for third-party research and evaluation were made by the Academy of Medicine of France in 2006 and by Professor McMurtry in Canada. Professor McMurtry has published peerreviewed papers on the criteria for diagnosis of illness from wind turbines; and
  • there is an urgent need to monitor the health effects of people exposed to turbines over time and that has been missing virtually in all jurisdictions.

The need for civility in public debate

As the committee noted in its interim report (paragraph 1.13), it is disappointed that renewable energy advocates, wind farm developers and operators, public officials and academics continue to denigrate those who claim that wind turbines have caused their illhealth.

Even elected representatives seeking to inquire into these effects have been the target of derision. The committee draws attention to comments from RATCH Australia Pty Ltd at the public hearing in Cairns (see Committee Hansard, Mr Hallenstein, 18 May 2015, p. 14) and from Vestas Pty Ltd at the public hearing in Melbourne (see Committee Hansard, Mr McAlpine, 9 June 2015, p. 24). Mr McAlpine had tweeted prior to the hearing: 'Happy World Environment Day to all the delightfully nutty anti-wind activists out there.'

The committee notes that RATCH Australia provided a formal apology to the committee for comments made at the public hearing. This apology was accepted.

Professor Chapman and his critics

2.19 Professor Simon Chapman AO, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, has been an outspoken critic of those who suffer ill-effects from wind turbines. In both his written and oral submissions, Professor Chapman cited many of his own publications in support for his view that:

…the phenomenon of people claiming to be adversely affected by exposure to wind turbines is best understood as a communicated disease that exhibits many signs of the classic psychosocial and nocebo phenomenon where negative expectations can translate into symptoms of tension and anxiety.

2.20 Several highly qualified and very experienced professionals have challenged this argument. Dr Malcolm Swinbanks, an acoustical engineer based in the United Kingdom, reasoned:

The argument that adverse health reactions are the result of nocebo effects, ie a directly anticipated adverse reaction, completely fails to consider the many cases where communities have initially welcomed the introduction of wind turbines, believing them to represent a clean, benign form of low-cost energy generation. It is only after the wind-turbines are commissioned, that residents start to experience directly the adverse nature of the health problems that they can induce.

2.21 The committee highlights the fact that Professor Chapman is not a qualified, registered nor experienced medical practitioner, psychiatrist, psychologist, acoustician, audiologist, physicist or engineer. Accordingly:

  • he has not medically assessed a single person suffering adverse health impacts from wind turbines;
  • his research work has been mainly—and perhaps solely—from an academic perspective without field studies;
  • his views have been heavily criticised by several independent medical and acoustic experts in the international community; and
  • many of his assertions do not withstand fact check analyses.

2.22 Professor Chapman has made several claims which are contrary to the evidence gathered by this committee. First, he argues that the majority of Australia's wind turbines have never received a single complaint.19 There are various problems with this statement:

  1. wind turbines located significant distances from residents will not generate complaints;
  2. many residents suffering adverse health effects were not aware of any nexus between their health and the impact of wind turbines in order to make a complaint;
  3. just because residents do not lodge a formal complaint does not mean they are not suffering adverse health effects;
  4. data obtained by Professor Chapman from wind farm operators of the numbers of complaints lodged cannot be relied upon; and
  5. the use of non-disclosure clauses and 'good neighbour agreements' legally restricts people from making adverse public statements or complaints.

2.23 Second, Professor Chapman has argued that complaints of adverse health effects from wind turbines tend to be limited to Anglophone nations. However, the committee has received written and oral evidence from several sources directly contradicting this view. The German Medical Assembly recently submitted a motion to the executive board of the German Medical Association calling for the German government to provide the necessary funding to research adverse health effects. This would not have happened in the absence of community concern. Moreover, Dr Bruce Rapley has argued that in terms of the limited number—and concentrated nature—of wind farm complaints:

It is the reporting which is largely at fault. The fact is that people are affected by this, and the numbers are in the thousands. I only have to look at the emails that cross my desk from all over the world. I get bombarded from the UK, Ireland, France, Canada, the United States, Australia, Germany. There are tonnes of these things out there but, because the system does not understand the problem, nor does it have a strategy, many of those complaints go unlisted.

2.24 Third, Professor Chapman has queried that if turbines are said to have acute, immediate effects on some people, why were there no such reports until recent years given that wind turbines have operated in different parts of the world for over 25 years. Several submissions to the committee have stated that adverse health effects from wind turbines do not necessarily have an acute immediate effect and can take time to manifest.

2.25 Fourth, Professor Chapman contests that people report symptoms from even micro-turbines. The committee heard evidence that once people are sensitised to low frequency infrasound, they can be affected by a range of noise sources, including large fans used in underground coal mines, coal fired power stations, gas fired power stations and even small wind turbines. As acoustician Dr Bob Thorne told the committee:

Low-frequency noise from large fans is a well-known and well-published issue, and wind turbines are simply large fans on top of a big pole; no more, no less. They have the same sort of physical characteristics; it is just that they have some fairly unique characteristics as well. But annoyance from low-frequency sound especially is very well known.

2.26 Fifth, Professor Chapman contends that there are apparently only two known examples anywhere in the world of wind turbine hosts complaining about the turbines on their land. However, there have been several Australian wind turbine hosts who have made submissions to this inquiry complaining of adverse health effects. Paragraphs 2.11–2.12 (above) noted the example of Mr Clive Gare and his wife from Jamestown. Submitters have also directed attention to the international experience. In Texas in 2014, twenty-three hosts sued two wind farm companies despite the fact that they stood to gain more than $50 million between them in revenue. The committee also makes the point that contractual non-disclosure clauses and 'good neighbour' agreements have significantly limited hosts from speaking out. This was a prominent theme of many submissions.

2.27 Sixth, Professor Chapman claims that there has been no case series or even single case studies of so-called wind turbine syndrome published in any reputable medical journal. But Professor Chapman does not define 'reputable medical journal' nor does he explain why the category of journals is limited to medical (as distinct, for example, from scientific or acoustic). The committee cannot therefore challenge this assertion. However, the committee does note that a decision to publish—or not to publish—an article in a journal is ultimately a business decision of the publisher: it does not necessarily reflect the quality of the article being submitted, nor an acknowledgment of the existence or otherwise of prevailing circumstances. The committee also notes that there exist considerable published and publicly available reports into adverse health effects from wind turbines.

2.28 The committee also notes that a peer reviewed case series crossover study involving 38 people was published in the form of a book by American paediatrician Dr Nina Pierpont, PhD, MD. Dr Pierpont's Report for Clinicians and the raw case data was submitted by her to a previous Australian Senate inquiry (2011) to which Dr Pierpont also provided oral testimony. Further, at a workshop conducted by the NHMRC in June 2011, acoustical consultant Dr Geoffrey Leventhall stated that the symptoms of 'wind turbine syndrome' (as identified by Dr Pierpont), and what he and other acousticians refer to as 'noise annoyance', were the same. Dr Leventhall has also acknowledged Dr Pierpont's peer reviewed work in identifying susceptibility or risk factors for developing wind turbine syndrome / 'noise annoyance'. Whilst Dr Leventhall is critical of some aspects of Dr Pierpont's research, he does state:

Pierpont has made one genuine contribution to the science of environmental noise, by showing that a proportion of those affected have underlying medical conditions, which act to increase their susceptibility.

2.29 Seventh, Professor Chapman claims that no medical practitioner has come forward with a submission to any committee in Australia about having diagnosed disease caused by a wind farm. Again, Professor Chapman fails to define 'disease'. Nonetheless, both this committee, and inquiries undertaken by two Senate Standing Committees, have received oral and written evidence from medical practitioners contrary to Professor Chapman's claim.

2.30 Eighth, Professor Chapman claims that there is not a single example of an accredited acoustics, medical or environmental association which has given any credence to direct harmful effects of wind turbines. The committee notes that the semantic distinction between 'direct' and 'indirect' effects is not helpful. Dr Leventhall and the NHMRC describe stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation as 'indirect' effects, but these ailments nonetheless affect residents' health.

2.31 Finally, Professor Chapman queries why there has never been a complainant that has succeeded in a common-law suit for negligence against a wind farm operator. This statement is simply incorrect. The committee is aware of court judgements against wind farm operators, operators making out of court settlements or withdrawing from proceedings, injunctions or shutdown orders being granted against operators, and properties adjacent to wind turbines being purchased by operators to avoid future conflict. The committee also reiterates its earlier point that contractual non-disclosure clauses have discouraged legal action by victims.

2.32 The committee also takes issue with evidence provided by Dr Leventhall. Dr Leventhall's presentation to the committee was notable for its selectivity and lack of objectivity. His understanding of Dr Neil Kelley's ground breaking research in 1985 and 1987 is incorrect. However, when asked about further studies that might be necessary, Dr Leventhall did acknowledge the adverse effects of sound waves on people, stating:

I think that the most important aspect of wind turbine noise—which I said in the paper I published nearly 10 years ago—is the amplitude modulation. Work is now developing on that, and I believe that that is where the main answer should be given, in amplitude modulation, because this is what upsets people.

A problem with infrasound from industrial and environmental noise pollution

2.33 The committee emphasises that it has, during the course of its inquiry, gathered evidence indicating that sources other than wind turbines, such as coal mine ventilator fans and gas driven electricity turbines, also emit large amounts of infrasound. The committee received correspondence from regulators to witnesses acknowledging the presence of sound emissions from industrial facilities. These emissions are not monitored or regulated. As Dr Sarah Laurie told the committee:

The systemic regulatory failure with respect to the way industrial and environmental noise pollution is regulated in Australia is not confined to wind turbine noise. As you would have seen from the submissions of the Wollar Progress Association; and residents living near the coalmines in the Upper Hunter region and residents of Lithgow impacted by coal fired power stations and extractor fan noise and vibration. Their stories, both with respect to the range and severity of symptoms and the way they are treated by the noise polluters and the government regulatory authorities, are all too familiar to the growing numbers of rural residents living near industrial wind power generators.

Once sensitised, residents affected by infrasound and low-frequency noise from coal fired power stations find they also react to wind turbines in the same way. The body and the brain do not care about the source of the sound and vibration. The reactions are involuntary and hardwired, and part of our physiological fight/flight response.

At the heart of this systemic regulatory failure of environmental noise pollution is the failure of the planning and noise pollution regulations, because they all fail to varying degrees to predict, measure and regulate the excessive noise and vibration in the lower frequencies—in the infrasound and low-frequency noise regions, specifically between 0.1 and 200 hertz. These regulations also permit levels of audible noise which are guaranteed to cause adverse impacts because they are so much higher than the very quiet background noise environments in rural areas. These rules are not fit for purpose, and guarantee that some residents will be seriously harmed.

There has been pretence that there is no evidence of harm at the levels of infrasound and low-frequency noise being emitted. This is untrue. There is an extensive body of research conducted by NASA and the US Department of Energy 30 years ago, which: established direct causation of sleep disturbance and a range of physiological effects euphemistically called 'annoyance'; acknowledged that people became sensitised or conditioned to the noise with ongoing exposure; and recommended exposure thresholds in order to ensure residents were protected from harm directly caused by this pulsing infrasound and low-frequency noise.

2.34 Dr Laurie also noted the following research that has identified adverse health effects on humans from low frequency sound:

  • the 2004 report of Dr David Iser, a General Practitioner and Medical Officer of Health in South Gippsland. Dr Iser was the first General Practitioner in Australia to report adverse health effects from wind turbines;
  • research conducted by Professor Alec Salt of Washington University in St Louis. Professor Salt is the leading expert in inner ear fluid physiology, detailing the effects of low frequency sound on the ear and how wind turbines can be hazardous to human health; and
  • the Inagaki study in Japan which found physiological effects from aerodynamic sound from wind turbines.
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