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NHMRC says more research on wind farms needed

15, April 2014

The National Health & Medical Research Council has finally published its long awaited Draft Information Paper: Evidence on Wind Farms and Human Health on which the CEO, Professor Warwick Anderson is seeking public comment.

This paper follows years of campaigning for medical and acoustical studies by individuals and groups concerned about health impacts from wind turbine operation.  Large multi-national and Australian energy companies, along with global turbine manufacturer Vestas have consistently rubbished claims of adverse health impacts.

Following the release of the Information Paper media reporting almost exclusively concentrated on a statement contained within the paper “There is no reliable or consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans”, failing to report comments such as “The body of evidence relating to wind farms and health is small and poor quality”.

Or that, “Further high quality research is needed – particularly exploring relationships between noise at varying distances from wind farms and annoyance, sleep and quality of life – to address concerns that some people have about the possible effects of wind farms on human health.”

This last statement reflects the concerns the Australian Environment Foundation has had for some time that current research into health impacts is "insufficient and sub-standard." 

This second review has been eagerly awaited by both the wind industry and communities impacted by wind farms since the 2010 Rapid Review of existing literature by the NHMRC made a similar statement seized upon by the wind industry claiming there was no evidence of a direct link between wind turbine noise and adverse health impacts.  Like the current review, this finding is entirely unremarkable as there have still been no independent, properly designed medical studies into health impacts, a fact clearly articulated in the current review.

Following the 2010 Rapid Review the NHMRC CEO appeared before a senate committee where he stated under questioning that the NHMRC was not prepared to say there are no health problems caused by wind turbine operations.

Now there is nothing surprising in the wind industry highlighting the fact there has been no direct, conclusive or reliable evidence linking wind turbines with health impacts, but it is disingenuous to claim absolutely there are no health effects when there have been no studies acceptable to the NHMRC to prove or disprove the claim!

The previous NHMRC 2010 Rapid Review, this new paper and the 2011 Senate Inquiry into the Impact of Wind Farms recommendations  have been unequivocal in calling for more research into wind farm noise, which no doubt influenced the decision of the Abbott government to recently announce such a study.

Rather incredibly the Information Paper just released found that “No studies were identified that explicitly considered possible effects on human health of infrasound and low-frequency noise or electromagnetic radiation produced by wind turbines.”  A direct connection between wind turbine noise and adverse health impacts is unlikely to be found if it is not explicitly considered.

Adding further to the sub-standard nature of many of the studies reviewed by the NHMRC it was found that “Wind turbine noise was not directly measured at participant’s homes in any of the studies.”  Could this possibly mean that the primary location where most of those affected by wind turbine noise and where they suffer the worst effects was not subjected to any on-site noise measurement?  You bet.

Nobody disputes wind turbines emit noise.  What is in dispute is the nature, the level and the effect of the noise, particularly inside the homes of neighbouring residences.  These effects are poorly understood by the wind industry, most of the medical fraternity and legislators because of the above acknowledgements that existing studies did not explicitly consider health effects and did not measure the noise inside the homes of those affected.  However, this has never constrained wind supporters from denying any adverse health impacts from turbine noise.

A team from the University of Adelaide was commissioned by the NHMRC to undertake a 'Systematic review of the human health effects of wind farms' on which the Information Paper was based and this was completed in 2013.

The review found no evidence to support the fanciful claims of a nocebo effect promulgated enthusiastically by some on the fringes of the medical fraternity.  Those pushing the nocebo effect claim there are no actual adverse effects (although they have not undertaken medical research to verify this), but that the impacts are imagined. The so-called nocebo effect in relation to adverse health impacts from wind turbine noise is the manifestation of a self-fulfilling prophecy that is supposed to appear in some residents who have been subject to the negative warnings about the ill-effects of wind turbine noise.

The review paper however found “In the limited literature linking adverse health outcomes to wind farms, there was no evidence identified that considered health effects or related non-health effects (e.g. annoyance) could be due to expectation effects, or nocebo effects.”

The paper goes on to say that further and better research on the relationship between noise from wind turbines and health, sleep and quality of life is warranted, confirming earlier independent inquiries into wind turbine noise and public health.

Moreover, new research will be able to target wind farms that are utilising the massive 3MW turbines which became operational after the NHMRC cut-off date of late 2012 for studies reviewed for the current Information Paper.  A fact overlooked by many armchair supporters of the wind industry is that larger modern turbines have the capacity to produce even lower frequency noise and broadcast it over a much larger area potentially affecting many more residents.  Use of these larger turbines corresponds quite remarkably with increasing community complaints about wind turbine operations.

The paper also notes the insufficient research to date and the action now undertaken in some other jurisdictions: “The limited availability of robust, peer-reviewed scientific studies on the health effects of wind turbines/farms has stimulated some government health authorities, such as Health Canada, to begin conducting independent research.  Health Canada argues that lack of prevalence data on community complaints and self-reported health impacts from studies with strong methodological designs are significant barriers to providing advice on noise impacts from wind turbines.”

This contrasts mightily with what the wind industry and its supporters have been saying for years – that there is no adverse health impact from wind turbine operation.  They do not know.  They have not done the medical research.  Of this we can be sure, because if the global wind industry had commissioned medical research anywhere that demonstrated no ill effects from wind farms they would be proclaiming that endlessly.

Littered all the way through the material released by the NHMRC is the acknowledgement that the research is “limited, small and of poor quality, insufficient, not reliable”; however the wind industry  and its supporters, such as Friends of the Earth, attest with certitude that the study had shown once again wind farms are "clean and safe".

In a media release following the NHMRC Information Paper Clean Energy Council Policy Director Russell Marsh said it was yet another tick of approval for the wind industry from the country’s best health experts.  Huh?

These and similar fallacious statements repeated by the small army of spin doctors employed by the wind industry are completely at odds with the uncertainty expressed by the NHMRC, the senate inquiry and Health Canada who have all recommended detailed medical research, which is all that residents of rural communities involuntarily affected by wind farm noise have ever asked for.

Max Rheese is executive director of the Australian Environment Foundation

Published in OnLine Opinion April 2nd 2014

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