The need for more evidence-based health advice
on the impact of wind turbines on human health
Introduction and context
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
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.
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.
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'.
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.
Structure of the chapter
This chapter begins by presenting some of the evidence to the committee
on the alleged adverse health effects of wind turbines. It then considers the
the Australian Medical Association's 2014 Position Statement;
the role of the NHMRC and evidence-based health advice;
the NHMRC's reviews of the evidence relating to wind turbines and
submitters' and witnesses' views of the NHMRC;
criticism of the forthcoming 2015 NHMRC review;
the views of acousticians and the need for properly funded
the committee's view on the need for future research and body
that should conduct this research.
Wind turbines and ill-health
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.'
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
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
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.
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
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].
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
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
peer-reviewed papers on the criteria for diagnosis of illness from wind turbines;
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
Professor Chapman and his critics
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.
Several highly qualified and very experienced professionals have challenged
this argument. Dr Malcolm Swinbanks, an acoustical engineer based in the United
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.
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.
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.
There are various problems with this statement:
- wind turbines located significant distances from residents will not
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
just because residents do not lodge a formal complaint does not mean
they are not suffering adverse health effects;
data obtained by Professor Chapman from wind farm operators of the
numbers of complaints lodged cannot be relied upon; and
the use of non-disclosure clauses and 'good neighbour agreements'
legally restricts people from making adverse public statements or complaints.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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;
the Inagaki study in Japan which found physiological effects from
aerodynamic sound from wind turbines.
The views of the Australian Medical Association
The committee is disappointed that the Australian Medical Association
(AMA) has not engaged with this inquiry. It has not accepted the committee's invitations
to make a submission or to give evidence at a public hearing. Rather, the AMA
has responded to comments made to the inquiry through a twitter post. It has
been left to wind farm companies to confirm the AMA's current position.
This is regrettable given the influence that the Association's views
have on the Australian medical community. It is hardly surprising if general
practitioners turn a blind eye to, or downplay, the complaints of those who
claim to be suffering the effects of wind turbines when the peak body's
assessment of the authenticity of these impacts is so dismissive.
The AMA continues to hold to its position statement, released in March
2014. The statement reads:
The available Australian and international evidence does not
support the view that the infrasound or low frequency sound generated by wind
farms, as they are currently regulated in Australia, causes adverse health
effects on populations residing in their vicinity. The infrasound and low
frequency sound generated by modern wind farms in Australia is well below the
level where known health effects occur, and there is no accepted physiological
mechanism where sub-audible infrasound could cause health effects.
Individuals residing in the vicinity of wind farms who do
experience adverse health or well-being, may do so as a consequence of their
heightened anxiety or negative perceptions regarding wind farm developments in
their area. Individuals who experience heightened anxiety or diminished health
and well-being in the context of local wind farms should seek medical advice.
The reporting of 'health scares' and misinformation regarding
wind farm developments may contribute to heightened anxiety and community
division, and over-rigorous regulation of these developments by state governments.
The regulation of wind farm developments should be guided
entirely by the evidence regarding their impacts and benefits. Such regulation
should ensure that structured and extensive local community consultation and
engagement is undertaken at the outset of planning, in order to minimise
misinformation, anxiety and community division.
Electricity generation by wind turbines does not involve
production of greenhouse gases, other pollutant emissions or waste, all of
which can have significant direct and indirect health effects.
Rightly, the AMA's statement received pointed criticism from submitters
and witnesses in the course of this inquiry. Mr Geoff McPherson, for example, argued
that it is not appropriate for the AMA to focus on wind renewable power systems
with no consideration of any prospect of collateral damage that the medical
community would normally call side effects for any other health issue.
He identified the peculiarity of the statement relative to AMA position
statements on other health issues and to those made by overseas medical
associations on the issue of wind turbines:
A cursory assessment of other AMA Position Statements
generally suggests that the normal formula for any other Position Statement is
to indicate what the relevant medical problems are, then to explain the issues
and then perhaps offer suggestions for mitigation or guidelines to approach the
problem. This was clearly not the case for the AMA Position Statement on wind
farms. Why is this one so different?
One would also have to question the AMA as to how many of
their Position Statements have been established on literature provided by an
assessment document such as the uncited Draft NHMRC Review, by definition not
Final, Review. Why are there no references to substantiate the Position
Statement on Wind Farms and Health given that a thinly veiled political
manifesto about climate change is not stand-alone science. The AMA Position
Statement on Breastfeeding for instance has almost as many references as the Position
Statement on Wind Farms and Health has text. Why absolutely nothing for wind
farms and health?
The American AMA took a stand on the advantages of developing
renewable energy extraction systems over existing oil and gas systems, not from
an environmental stance, but because the mortality of workers in renewable
energy construction was at least an order of magnitude lower than with oil and
gas construction. In their final, not Draft it should be stressed, position
statement the American AMA took an appropriate health and welfare first
approach to renewable energy, not the other way around as the AMA has done.
This health first approach by the American medical community should have been
instructive for the AMA if they were concerned about the specific health of
Ms Gardner expressed her frustration that the AMA's 2014 position
statement continues to be the basis on which her health complaints are
dismissed by authorities. She provided the following excerpt from AGL Energy's
Community Engagement Manager which she indicated is now a standard reply to her
The Australian Medical Association has concluded that 'the
infrasound and low-frequency sound generated by modern wind farms in Australia
is well below the level where known health effects occur.' The Victorian
department of health have also released a report on wind turbines and
infrasound which can be found here.... The South Australian Environmental
Protection Agency has also released a report on wind turbines and infrasound
which can be found here.... We encourage you to seek medical attention for any
Other witnesses have also noted AGL's use of the AMA's Statement to dismiss
The AMA's statement is indeed a point of reference for wind farm companies,
some of whom have directed the committee to examine it. Acciona even reproduced
the Statement in its submission.
Infigen gave the committee a link to the Statement.
The committee is more interested in the lack of rigour behind this statement.
Far from it being a considered and cautious assessment of primary evidence, it
is simply slavish repetition of the findings of the NHMRC's reviews. This is
both irresponsible and harmful:
The NHMRC review 'conclusions' have been used by the Australian
Medical Association to justify them making a Public Statement that there is no
health concerns relating to Industrial Wind Energy Installations...
The NHMRC and the AMA have in taking advice from the industry
and in some instances that of non-medical academics have placed more people in
danger of suffering adverse health effects.
The AMA Policy Statement came hot on the heels of the Draft
NHMRC Review. The AMA Position Statement seems to side with aspects of the
Draft NHMRC Review that effectively and arrogantly indicates that the rest of
the world’s medical and acoustic capability was basically at 'background' status
in their eyes and there was insufficient medical, acoustic and psychoacoustic
data in the world to suggest that noise from turbines did not generate some
kind of side effect relevant to Australian conditions.
The role of the NHMRC and evidence-based health
The main source of official advice on the health impact of wind turbines
is the NHMRC. The current legislative basis of the Council is the National
Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 (the NHMRC Act). The NHMRC is
responsible to the Commonwealth Minister for Health and explained its role as
NHMRC does not undertake field based scientific research.
That job is done by Australia's best researchers, many of whom are funded by
NHMRC, whose proposals are selected through independent expert review and which
contribute to building a body of scientific evidence. NHMRC's other function is
to translate the outcomes of both domestic and international research into an
easily digestible form. These can take the form of a guideline, a statement or
an information paper and can be used by clinicians, policymakers or the
Australian public to achieve improvements in health.
NHMRC has a mandate to promote and support evidence based
health care. When developing advice, NHMRC aims to accumulate a body of
evidence that is based on high-quality research with consistent outcomes. This
enables health authorities to make a judgement with confidence about whether an
exposure is likely to cause health effects.
The advice of the NHMRC on wind farms and human health is influential.
It is the basis not only for the advice given by medical practitioners to their
patients (through the AMA), but also for State Government's in their
decision-making. That said, some State Governments have publicly acknowledged
the shortcomings of the NHMRC's advice. The committee highlights the following
comment from Mr Greg Chemello of the Queensland Department of Infrastructure,
Local Government and Planning:
There is a real dearth of scientific evidence that validates
health research. I understand that there are concerns, and very valid concerns,
from community groups, but, on the basis of where we are at this point in time,
the department formed the view that we cannot say no to any wind farms.
The terms of reference for this inquiry direct the committee to consider
the role and capacity of the NHMRC in providing guidance to state and territory
authorities on matters relating to the regulatory governance of wind turbines.
There are two main issues:
the first relates to the robustness of the advice that the NHMRC
provides and the process through which the evidence is gathered; and
the second issue is how state and territory authorities interpret
and use this advice.
In its submission to this inquiry, the NHMRC notes that its advice 'may
assist the relevant states and territories to make policy and regulatory
decisions about the development and operations of wind farms'. It adds that
while the NHMRC is responsible for developing evidence-based health advice, it
is the responsibility of state and territory authorities to determine how NHMRC
advice is applied in their jurisdictions.
The NHMRC's reviews
The NHMRC's past reviews of the evidence relating to wind turbines and
human health have been a key focus of this inquiry. There have been two past
reviews—the findings of which were released in 2010 and 2014.
The NHMRC commenced its contribution to advising on health and wind farm
issues in 2009. On the request of Chief Health Officers at the 179th
session of Council, the Office of the NHMRC conducted a 'Rapid Review' of the
published scientific literature on the issue of wind turbines and potential
impacts on human health.
The Rapid Review covered the available evidence on the potential health impacts
of infrasound, noise, electromagnetic energy, shadow flicker and blade glint
produced by wind turbines.
In June 2010, the NHMRC released a Public Statement on Wind Turbines
and Health in which the conclusion was that 'there is currently no
consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans'.
The committee notes that this document, available on the NHMRC's website, has
been 'rescinded' after the integrity of the document was repeatedly questioned
over the course of four years.
In June 2011, the report of the Senate Community Affairs References
Committee recommended that the NHMRC's review of research should continue, with
regular publication. The NHMRC reaffirmed its commitment to do so. The NHMRC
hosted a scientific forum providing stakeholders with:
...an opportunity to present the latest international
scientific evidence and canvass issues of public concern. One of the key objectives
of the forum was to facilitate discussion and collaboration between the
relevant state and territory health, planning and environment authorities and
other key stakeholders, including environmental health experts and researchers,
acoustic engineers, public interest groups involved in wind farms in Australia
and international experts from countries with substantial experience in wind
The NHMRC noted in its submission that following the forum, the Chief
Executive Officer of the Council accepted the recommendations of Council that
the literature be reviewed in a systematic manner, especially focusing on the
possible health impacts of audible noise and infrasound. Depending on the
result of the review, the Council would consider a targeted call for research
in the area.
'independent systematic review'
In 2011, the NHMRC commissioned an 'independent systematic review' ('the
review') of the human health effects of wind turbines. The review aimed to
widen the scope of the initial 2010 review. It was undertaken by independent
reviewers from Adelaide Health Technology Assessment under the guidance of a
Reference Group. The Reference Group operated from 1 February 2012 to 31
January 2015 with a brief to:
guide the development of a systematic review to determine if new
evidence exists in the scientific literature on possible health effects of wind
consider the outcomes of the review and use these findings to:
inform updating NHMRC's Public Statement: Wind Turbines and Human
identify critical gaps in the current evidence base; and
provide the NHMRC's Prevention and Community Health Care
Committee with a report on Wind Farms and Human Health.
The NHMRC explained to the committee how it selected the relevant evidence
for the systematic review. The review was based on only 17 publications:
In examining the possible effects of exposure to wind farm
emissions on human health around 95 per cent of the original
papers—approximately 4,500 of those—were excluded because none of the excluded
papers examined human health effects of exposure to wind farm emissions. The
remaining publications, approximately five per cent, were considered in more
detail against selection criteria. This was to ensure that papers which
detailed research activity that directly examined and compared the frequency of
health effects in people with different levels of exposure to wind farm
emissions were identified. It is the outcomes of this comparative analysis that
provide the essential information for the reference group in answering the
question as to whether wind turbines affect human health.
In the direct analysis of the five per cent of papers that
were considered in greater detail, half of those were excluded as they did not
document a study of original research. They were mostly review articles,
opinion pieces, narrative reviews or discussion papers. Some other papers were
excluded because they did not examine population and setting, exposure and
outcomes, or use an appropriate research design to provide a comparative
analysis. Only four papers were excluded on the basis that they were not
published in English. As a result of this detailed search for literature, 17 publications
detailing 13 studies were considered by the reference group in drafting the information
paper. An additional background literature review was also conducted to
establish whether the type and level of emissions coming from wind farms might
affect the healthy functioning of the human body—the mechanistic evidence—and
also if health effects have been observed from noise emissions from other
non-wind farm sources—the parallel evidence. Evidence was identified by the
independent reviewers through key word searches and research databases, as well
as considering publications that were submitted during consultation.
The NHMRC told the committee that its assessment of the best evidence
aligns with international best practice—namely:
...independent review of the evidence review methodology,
independent review of our draft advice by relevant experts to ensure that the
reference group in this case has interpreted the evidence appropriately, and
public consultation which gives interested parties the opportunity to input
into the process.
The NHMRC explained that having identified the relevant evidence,
'independent evidence reviewers' were assisted by the Reference Group to
develop the research questions and finalise the reports. The Reference Group
that then 'considered the scientific evidence, expert review and all public
consultations, synthesising this information into a format and context relevant
to the Australian community'
The outcomes of the systematic review were finalised in late 2013 and
considered by the Reference Group. The outcomes informed the development of a
draft Information Paper on the evidence on wind farms and human health. The
independent review also identified gaps in the current evidence base to inform
the Reference Group's recommendations for research.
In November 2012, a further Senate inquiry into wind turbine noise
placed great store in the NHMRC's forthcoming systematic review. The Senate
Environment Legislation Committee recommended that 'there should be no
regulatory changes prior to the release of the NHMRC's assessment in 2013, as
this would be premature'.
The findings of the independent review were released in February 2014 as
a draft Information Paper titled Evidence on Wind Farms and Health. A
final version of the document was formally released in February 2015. Prior to
publication, the NHMRC sought input from state and territory planning and
environment departments through chief health officers.
The Information Paper is intended to replace the 2010 NHMRC Public
Statement: Wind Turbines and Health and supporting evidence Wind
Turbines and Health: A rapid review of the evidence.
The Statement concluded:
There is no direct evidence that exposure to wind farm noise
affects physical or mental health. While exposure to environmental noise is
associated with health effects, these effects occur at much higher levels of
noise than are likely to be perceived by people living in close proximity to
wind farms in Australia. The parallel evidence assessed suggests that there are
unlikely to be any significant effects on physical or mental health at
distances greater than 1,500 m from wind farms.
There is consistent but poor quality direct evidence that
wind farm noise is associated with annoyance. While the parallel evidence
suggests that prolonged noise-related annoyance may result in stress, which may
be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, annoyance was not consistently
defined in the studies and a range of other factors are possible explanations
for the association observed.
There is less consistent, poor quality direct evidence of an
association between sleep disturbance and wind farm noise. However, sleep
disturbance was not objectively measured in the studies and a range of other
factors are possible explanations for the association observed. While chronic
sleep disturbance is known to affect health, the parallel evidence suggests
that wind farm noise is unlikely to disturb sleep at distances of more than
1,500 m from wind farms.
There is no direct evidence that considered the possible
effects on health of infrasound or low frequency noise from wind farms.
Exposure to infrasound and low-frequency noise in a laboratory setting has few,
if any, effects on body functions. However, this exposure did not replicate
all of the characteristics of wind farm noise as it has generally been at much
higher levels and of short duration.
Although individuals may perceive aspects of wind farm noise
at greater distances, it is unlikely that it will be disturbing at distances of
more than 1,500 m. Noise from wind farms, including its content of
low-frequency noise and infrasound, is similar to noise from many other natural
and human-made sources.
NHMRC Statement and the Targeted Call for Research
In the February 2015 Statement, the NHMRC recognised that the body of
direct evidence on wind farms and human health is 'small and of poor quality'.
It added that given reported experiences of health effects and the 'limited
reliable evidence', 'further high quality research is warranted'.
Importantly, senior public health figures have also recognised that the quality
of research of the NHMRC's systemic review was 'suboptimal'. As the South
Australian Chief Medical Officer told the committee:
...a lack of evidence does not mean that there is no effect; it
just means that we have no evidence of an effect. The quality of the research
that has been done so far has been suboptimal, and the NHMRC felt that it was
important to put out a call for research to try to improve the quality of that
evidence to determine if there was any evidence to suggest there are health
effects of wind farms.
In the February 2015 Statement, the NHMRC announced that there will be a
Targeted Call for Research to stimulate applications for research that
addresses the gaps in the evidence base. The process will 'encourage
Australia's best researchers to undertake independent, high quality research
investigating possible health effects and their causes, particularly within
1500 m from a wind farm'.
The NHMRC told the committee that the targeted call for research (TCR) closed
on 6 May 2015 with four applications:
These are currently being assessed by an independent expert
review panel and I hope the committee understands we cannot comment further in
detail on this process due to the competitive nature of our funding processes.
There are obvious limitations in existing direct evidence on wind farms and
human health outcomes, and, in funding the TCR, NHMRC intends to stimulate the
research required to build a robust body of evidence to establish whether there
are adverse health effects from exposure to wind turbine emissions.
The committee notes that the research findings may be reported
too late to apply the precautionary principle.
The NHMRC expects that the annual expenditure for this Targeted Call for
Research on Wind Farms and Human Health is 'up to $0.5 million per annum', and
will be 'dependent on submitted research proposals being assessed as
high-quality by rigorous, independent peer review'. The grants will be
available for up to five years, depending on the proposal, meaning the maximum
allocation for funding is $2.5 million.
In February 2015, The Australian reported the comments of the CEO
of the NHMRC, Professor Warwick Anderson: 'it is important to say no consistent
evidence does not necessarily mean no effect on human health'. This point is
important because it would seem that the NMHRC's assessment of the lack of
consistent evidence coexists with significant empirical, biological and anecdotal
evidence that many people living nearby wind turbines suffer similar symptoms
and identify the wind turbines as the cause for their symptoms. As the Chairman
of the NHMRC's wind farm committee, Professor Bruce Armstrong, commented: 'it is
difficult to "prove a negative"—that wind turbines do not harm health—and
the decision to conduct further research should not be seen as a cause for
alarm'. Professor Armstrong also said 'to not investigate would be negligent
from a public health point of view'.
Submitters' views of the NHMRC
The committee received several submissions from people and organisations
critical of the role of the NHMRC and its findings. These criticisms focus on
the selective nature of the NHMRC's research, its failure to properly
investigate the complaints of many people who allege harm from turbines, and
its failure to apply the precautionary principle in giving its advice.
Dr Sarah Laurie was particularly scathing in her assessment of the
membership and methodology of the NHMRC:
The National Health and Medical Research Council has gravely
failed the Australian public and the governments it advises by failing to
ensure that serious conflicts of interest were not prevented with their choice
of experts for their literature reviews. These have had a material impact on
the quality of the advice from the NHMRC and have led to dangerously optimistic
predictions about the safe distance of impact from wind turbine noise, for
example. This has been achieved by cherry-picking data, ensuring the goalposts
for the inclusion of studies were extremely narrow, and even resorting to misclassification
of studies. The only possible reason for it was to ensure these studies were
never included because they would damage the commercial interests of the wind
industry. Incompetence is another, perhaps less likely, explanation.
Mr Peter Mitchell also criticised the composition of the NHMRC's
Reference Group and in particular, the lack of acoustical expertise:
There was one acoustician and three epidemiologists. This is
an acoustical problem and, until we understand the acoustics, forget the
medical intricacies. We have to understand the acoustics. No-one else on the
panel had any idea of acoustics. They could not tell when they were being
misled or information was being withheld. I was an observer, and it was very
hard for me to prompt. So that was one thing.
The epidemiologists were focused on narrowing, it seemed to
me, the 4,000 papers that were found by the library that did the literature
survey into as few as possible. So the hurdles that those studies had to jump
were huge. I just think that had I been wiser and looked at the construction of
that panel I would have refused to have been an observer. But once you
understood the construction of that panel it was there to make sure that the
NHMRC gracefully slipped out of their rapid review done three years earlier and
did not create any waves for themselves. It is a disgrace.
Ms Jackie Rovensky argued in her submission that the NHMRC's role to
date has been marked by bias, in terms of both the content of its reviews and
the timing of their release. She put the following argument:
Research into reported adverse effects of these turbines on
humans has been undertaken for some years covering different scientific fields,
but the NHMRC does not recognise this work and has sat back, listening and
appearing to take notice of non-medical academics and the [Industrial Wind
Turbine] IWT and have let this influence whether research should be undertaken
and funded or not, leaning towards not.
Even after a Senate inquiry in 2011 recommended research the
NHMRC stayed silent and a forum conducted by them they did not recommend
They have conducted two reviews of literature, which cannot
be considered research. In both cases they were selective over which research
was relevant. The first review was a Rapid Review and their conclusions and
process was condemned and held up to ridicule because of its lack of
thoroughness and biased process.
The second review resulted in many reports, papers both
published and not published, peer reviewed and not peer reviewed being
dismissed as not meeting their criteria for inclusion.
...The NHMRC's latest literature review could have been a
turning point, but it did not wait to include the results of acoustical testing
being undertaken by Mr Steven Cooper, even after they were made aware of
initial findings months before, when he reported the finding of infra-sound
inside resident's homes. These residents who were selected by Pacific Hydro to take
part in the study had complained of adverse effects since the turbines began
operating. The NHMRC had already delayed publishing their results, but on the
eve of the release of Mr Cooper's research by Pacific-Hydro, they released
their report. Could they have waited perhaps a month longer allowing time for
them to fully evaluate this work which found a link between infra-sound inside
homes and complaints from affected residents and the operation of the IWT's?
They should have done, as his findings are at the root of residents' complaints
and therefore the work is significant, the question is: Why didn't they? Was
influence brought to bear and/or was bias a contributing factor?
Some submitters argued that responsibility for future research should be
taken out of the NHMRC's hands. A New Zealand psychoacoustician, Dr Daniel Shepherd,
was one to recommend that an organisation other than the NHMRC manage further inquiries
into wind turbine noise and its relationship to health. As he wrote:
As an outsider looking in, I have been surprised as to how
politicised the conduct of the NHMRC has been, to a point where health and
medicine have been side-lined. The "Rapid Review" undertaken by the
NHMRC in 2010 was just that, all speed and no accuracy. Their 2014 Information
Paper was more comprehensive, albeit containing fundamental misunderstandings
of the concepts that constitute their core business: direct health effects, indirect
health effects, and adverse health effects. For example, the WHO (Salomon et
al., 2003) explicitly categorises cognition and sleep as direct indicators of
health. Agents modifying these two processes must therefore be considered
direct health effects. Noise can impact both cognition and sleep, and noise
must therefore be considered a direct health effect. The NHMRC appear, however,
to not accept this logic.
Ms Rovensky was highly critical of what she saw as the NHMRC's neglect
of the precautionary principle on the issue of wind turbines. She put the
The NHMRC has made no effort to ensure the health of
Australians; they have neglected their duty to ensure they are fully informed
and aware of the dangers of this industry or ensure decision are made without
influence of those with an 'axe to grind'. The NHMRC has for political and
possibly individual personal reasons stood back from strongly advising a
Precautionary approach be taken with respect to where these IWT’s are installed,
until full independent research can be undertaken to assess whether they are
safe to be install in proximity to humans.
They have also failed in their duty to arrange research
funding in a timely manner once complaints from residents were being reported
soon after IWT installations were commissioned. They may have been under
pressure from a Government which wholeheartedly supported the IWT industry and
ignored all attempts to get them to consider this industries safety record in
rural locations close to human habitation, but this should not have silenced
the NHMRC with respect to their duty to the people of Australia. They have
given meagre advice to the public, none to the health profession and
ineffective and uneducated advice to Government.
The role of the NHMRC is significant with respect to medical
research funding, and for them to suggest that because there is little research
to show a cause and effect while acknowledging people are suffering begs the
question, why did they not seek earlier to fund medical research?
Is it because they lean on a very contradictory aspect of
their role? They say they rely on robust scientific research to assess the
acceptance of Research Applications for grants, but then say there is
insufficient robust scientific research for them to consider offering grants to
fund this research. Could the NHMRC explain how robust scientific research can
be funded so researchers can apply for funding to do the work? With people
reporting adverse health effects since 1979, and in Australia from the
beginning of installation of industrial sized wind energy turbines were
installed then should the NHMRC have funded research earlier to ensure no others
suffered the same effects?
Similarly, Mr George Papadopolous, a Canberra pharmacist, complained
that the NHMRC had not listened to the 'ordinary rural dwellers' and had dismissed
their 'very distressing symptoms'.
He contrasted the NHMRC's approach on the issue of wind turbines to its review
into water quality. He wrote:
Did the NHMRC decide to discount the value of individual
complaints? The NHMRC does not appear to do so in relation to other matters,
such as water quality:
Consumers are the ultimate assessors
of water quality. Consumers may not be able to detect trace concentrations of
individual contaminants, but their ability to recognise change should not be
discounted. In some cases, consumer complaints may provide valuable information
on potential problems not detected by testing water quality or monitoring
treatment processes. Water quality testing has limitations and there are many
possibilities for contamination of water in reticulation systems after
treatment. All consumer complaints should be investigated to ensure that
otherwise undetected problems that might compromise drinking water safety have
not occurred. Meeting reasonable consumer expectations and maintaining
confidence in the water supply is vitally important (NHMRC 2011).
If the value of the individual’s perception is so valuable in
relation to water quality, why is the individual’s perception not so valuable
in relation to noise, the loss of amenity, sleep deprivation, rattling home
structures and sensations? The NHMRC does not call on wind developers to take
action on noise complaints. Rather it suggests that people consult with their
medical practitioners if they feel their health is affected. With reference to
water quality, why didn’t the NHMRC perform a rapid review of the evidence and
decide that water quality complaints were associated with scare campaigns of
technophobes, the anti-fluoridation lobby and/or irrational fears about
aluminium or chlorine?
Given that most authorities do not permit wind turbines to be
installed within two kilometres of homes, the "1.5km" research
recommendations of the NHMRC for research are a little out of line with the
current regulatory requirements of authorities on this issue, and are in sync
with those presented by authors supportive of the wind industry.
Emeritus Professor Colin Hansen of the University of Adelaide argued
that the NHMRC Information Paper is flawed. He gave the following reasons:
papers by many well-known scientists published in internationally
recognised journals were rejected. The included papers were labelled as 'poor
the Paper assumes that wind farm noise is like any other noise of
the same A-weighted decibel level. Professor Hansen argues that this is not the
case and that based on his measurement, 'wind farm noise is very different to other
environmental noise such as traffic noise at the same A-weighted noise level'.
He noted that wind farm noise has low-frequency 'which is not quantified very
well by the A-weighting metric';
the Paper wrongly assumes that the A-weighting measure can be
directly related to the effect that noise has on people. Whereas the A-weighted
noise level is typically a level averaged over a period of time, wind farm
noise 'varies considerably over short periods of time and the peak levels can
be much greater than levels averaged over 10 to 15 minutes'; and
background noise levels in rural areas in Australia are well
below background noise levels in urban areas and wind farm noise has 'entirely
different characteristics to traffic noise, which makes it more intrusive and
Dr Christopher Hanning was also critical of the research methodology and
the lack of insight in the NHMRC's research findings. He made the following
observations in his submission:
The NHMRC statement on wind turbine noise and human health
fails in its duty to "build a healthy Australia" and to protect the
public health by; reversing the burden of proof, applying an inappropriately
high burden of proof and failing to properly apply the precautionary principle.
They have, instead, applied the "reactionary principle" (Kriebel
2007), which is clearly not in the public interest. Had they correctly applied
the precautionary principle, then, even using their present analysis, they
would have called for an immediate moratorium on the construction of new wind
turbines within at least 1.5km of residences and immediate reductions in noise
emissions from existing wind turbines sited within 1.5km of residences. Had
they applied a reasonable burden of proof, they would have called for a
construction moratorium and noise emission reductions for turbines sited within
10km of residences. In addition, they would have mandated research by
independent experts with relevant expertise in acoustics, sleep medicine and
other relevant clinical disciplines, funded by the wind industry, as an urgent
matter for the protection of public health.
Similarly, the Upper Hunter Landscape Guardians argued that the limits
on the criteria used and the literature reviewed, the NHMRC 'has created a bias
in favour of the wind industry'. The organisation did welcome the NHMRC's
proposal to undertake further research and urged high participant rates than in
the studies to date.
Mr Papadopolous also contrasted the context and the approach of the
NHMRC in its 2010 review of wind turbines relative to its 2015 review.
What changed from 2010 to 2015? A large number of papers have
been since written on the issue of low frequency noise, wind turbines and
associated human impacts, with no shortage of complaints against the wind
industry in the media. Likewise authorities, such as those of New South Wales
and Victoria published new stricter wind farm guidelines, effectively banning
wind turbine installations within 2km of homes (in spite of the 2010 Rapid
In 2010, the majority of opinions, published literature etc,
was in favour of the wind industry. In 2015, we find ourselves in a vastly
different environment. The 2011 Senate Inquiry and subsequent Inquiries,
updated government wind farm guidelines in NSW, SA and Victoria (all
challenging past assumptions over wind turbines), no shortage of public
complaints and media reports against wind turbines, and published papers
discussing the role of low frequency noise, qualitative aspects of wind turbine
noise, suggestions of non-audible mechanisms of harm etc.
The methodology of the 2010 and 2015 statements is very
different. Had the NHMRC chosen the 2010 methodology for its 2015 statement,
more likely than not, it would have been forced to produce a statement critical
of the wind industry. It leaves one wondering whether the NHMRC has taken a
stance that minimises the potential damage to the prospects for the wind
industry, and one which allows the wind industry to proliferate meanwhile,
whilst research is being recommended at close proximity to wind turbines – a
distance effectively considered problematic by many state government planning
Interestingly, some local councils argued the need for greater
leadership from the NHMRC in terms of suggested buffer distances. The Pyrenees
Shire Council stated in its submission:
There is a need for the NHMRC to provide leadership and
direction at a national level to state planning authorities through undertaking
or peer reviewing targeted medical studies based on Australian conditions and
the possible health effects from wind farms on human health. This should
include recommendations to state planning authorities on minimum buffer
Criticism of the 2015 NHMRC Review
The committee draws attention to strong criticism of the proposed NHMRC
review from submitters. Two in particular—Dr Michael Crawford and the
Parkesbourne/Mummel Landscape Guardians (PMLG)—are forensic in their critique
of past NHMRC reviews and cynical of the prospect that the 2015 review will be
better conducted. Dr Crawford criticised the systematic review on the
Its headline statements are inconsistent with the reasoned
argument in the body of the review and are slanted to exonerate wind farms in a
way not supported by the actual analysis in the review.
It presents its conclusions using vague words such as "generally"
(but not "always") or "unlikely" (but not "never")
without offering even indicative quantification of those terms, knowing they
will be misinterpreted and misrepresented by wind farm proponents.
Despite surely being aware that wind turbines have been
getting much more powerful and continue to do so, and their noise emissions
consequently continue to increase, there is no reference to turbine power
related to distance of effect or even the need to be conscious of it, as though
the NHMRC thinks all wind turbines are the same.
It has adopted a methodology inappropriate for the task,
given what it understands and actually acknowledges about both extant research
and the peculiar propagation characteristics of wind turbine noise.
It is inconsistent in its rigour, applying restrictive
conditions on the consideration of evidence that might support a conclusion of
harm from wind farms, while not requiring the same rigour when it proposes
arbitrarily restricted distances at which sleep deprivation and consequent harm
to health may be caused by wind farm noise.
It states "the body of direct evidence was found to be
small and of poor quality" (after applying its inappropriate methodology).
In that case, within that framework, the unavoidable conclusion should be "there
is little evidence whether wind farms do or do not have an adverse health
effect" and in fact a paragraph buried in the main report says as much.
However, instead of honestly reporting that assessment in its headline
statements, it uses words that convey the impression there is little adverse effect
when its own analysis has demonstrated no basis for doing so.
While recognising that there can be harm to mental as well as
physical health, it manages to convey the impression that if the former occurs
it is due to some defect on the part of the victim and thus unrelated to the
wind farm that has actually been the stressor source.
While recognising the existence of potential harmful
mechanisms (audible sound, ILFN, blade glint and flicker, electromagnetic
radiation) it proceeds as though their impact on people is disconnected. Even
the United States Department of Justice (US DOJ) evaluating the legality of Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogation techniques understood that when you
apply multiple stressors they can have compounding effects and that sleep
deprivation in particular has multiple interactions with other stressors,
including through increasing pain sensitivity. One has to wonder why, if this
compounding effect was obvious to the US DOJ in 2005, it appears to have
escaped the NHMRC in 2015.
PMLG argued that the 2015 NHMRC review needed to consider the following
Will the commissioned research do any of the following?
Consider the adequacy or
inadequacy of the noise guidelines for wind turbines in use (or proposed) in
Consider the research for the US
Department of Energy, conducted in the 1980s and 1990s by NASA and by SERI.
Consider the research of Professor
Alec Salt and his colleagues on wind turbine infrasound and the potential for
adverse health effects.
Incorporate the methodology of
Stephen Cooper (sic), as used in Mr Cooper’s recent study of the Cape Bridgewater
Ensure that wind farm operators
are compelled to turn turbines on and off, as necessary for the conduct of the
Measure wind turbine infrasound
out to 10 kilometres from turbines, in connection with the study of adverse
health effects within that distance.
The PMLG concluded:
Unless the research does all of the above, its value will be
correspondingly reduced, and yet more time and resources will have been wasted.
Yet again, wind farm neighbours will have been let down.
Some submitters drew the committee's attention to the NHMRC's apparent
backflip on the issue of wind turbines and human health. Dr Gary Hopkins
questioned the NHMRC's motives for the latest call for targeted research:
It is also interesting to note the change in the NHMRC. The
NHMRC are generally very conservative. In 2010, after their rapid review, they
issued a statement saying there was no association. After their more formal
review in 2014, they said there was poor evidence. Then in 2015 they start to
ask for targeted research. They are changing their thoughts, and the question
is: why? Why did AGL see the need to visit GPs? Why are the NHMRC changing
Ms Rovensky put the following view:
With the NHMRC, I personally cannot see any difference in
their recent review from the one they did previously. They have still wiped out
a lot of information they should have included. But, in their call for
research, they have said that the broader social circumstances should be
researched. We all know what they mean by that. Anything to do with that should
come later, once the research has been done to establish whether there are—and
I believe there are—effects from industrial wind turbines on people's health.
Why waste money on doing something that is irrelevant or could be irrelevant?
Acousticians' views and the need for properly
The Association of Australian Acoustical Consultants (AAAC) is a body of
acoustical consultants composed of 33 member companies. Its self-description is
as 'a not for profit peak body representing professionals who are involved in
delivering acoustic solutions to a wide range of clients and the community'.
In evidence to the committee, the AAAC set out its position in relation to wind
Infrasound...is generated by both natural sources...and
mechanical sources ....Investigations have found that infrasound levels around
wind farms are no higher than levels measured at other locations where people
live, work and sleep. Those investigations conclude that infrasound levels
adjacent to wind farms are below the threshold of perception and below
currently accepted limits set for infrasound. The AAAC encourages members to
continue to contribute to new research and review research in the technical
Generally our members are not experts in health and therefore
primarily rely on the view of government bodies, such as the NHMRC, and conduct
our assessments in accordance with state guidelines.
The committee does note that some of the AAAC's members have been
extensively engaged by the wind farm industry. In response to a question on
notice, the AAAC noted that one of its members had performed consultancy work
at no fewer than 61 wind farms, another member had been engaged at 51 wind
farms and another at 50 sites. The wind industry is clearly a lucrative area of
employment for some of the AAAC's members.
The committee has had the opportunity during this inquiry to take
evidence from a range of Australian and international acousticians. As
mentioned earlier, there is a considerable diversity of professional views as
to the nature of sound from turbines and the potential for this sound to impact
on human health. There was, however, a general consensus that more research is
needed to test causal relationships between turbine sounds and ill-health.
Acoustician Dr Bruce Rapley explained the type of field research that is
Observational studies are urgently needed to study the
low-frequency and infrasound emissions. It is of those people affected inside
their homes—that is the priority. I have to stress this: laboratory studies
cannot replicate the situation experienced by those people in close proximity
to large wind turbines, and they cannot provide the study data we need. What we
have to do, now that we are in a crisis situation in terms of public health and
regulation, is do the first studies on sensitised individuals. We should not be
looking at large cross-sectional population studies of non-exposed people,
laboratory studies. No longer are a few A-weighted sound levels and wind speeds
of any use in correlating environmental conditions to subjects' experiences. We
need to look at sensitised individuals first, because that is where the most
rich data can be obtained. Research that relates to full-spectrum and also
narrow-band analysis with an objective physiological measure in the people that
you are investigating, who are suffering the worst impacts in their homes and
workplaces, is the only strategy that can produce the results that we urgently
need. We cannot afford as a country to waste time on other issues. We must
address those who are severely impacted in their homes, use the full-spectrum
narrow-band analysis, and that needs to be combined not just with diaries of
their experience but with real physiological measures. I have the technology to
be able to do that; the technology has been invented. We can do this, but it
has never ever been done. The technology is now available. Time is of the
University of Sydney neuroscientist, Associate Professor Simon Carlile
made two observations relating to the need for future research:
First, it is critical that the research be aimed at examining
possible physiological mechanisms on the influences of infrasonic energy on the
human nervous system. Research that examines this only on a population level
misses a very important fact of human biology—that is, there are significant
individual differences in every aspect of human function that we have studied
scientifically to date.
For example, we know the susceptibility of people to motion
sickness such as sea sickness varies significantly across the population. If
there are, say, 1,000 people on a ferry on Sydney Harbour, only one of those
might be seasick. Viewed as a population, you might conclude then that the
evidence that a Sydney Harbour ferry produces sea sickness is highly
insignificant. But on an individual basis, it would be trivial to demonstrate
that one person on that ferry had a very different physiological reaction than
everyone else on the ferry...
In his recent scientific review published in the magazine of
the Acoustical of Society of America, Professor Alec Salt identifies several
potential biological mechanisms by which infrasonic energy could stimulate the
nervous system. Professor Salt has been studying the neurobiology of the inner
ear for nearly four decades and has published countless scientific papers on
the subject. I will summarise his review simply by saying that there is a clear
prima facie case that infrasonic energy can influence the neural receptors in
both the auditory system and the vestibular system—the system responsible for
our sense of balance. I am happy to talk through the biology if there is
interest in the committee, but the key message is that infrasonic energy does
affect sensory cells of the nervous system and that this would provide the
basis for any possible influence of infrasonic energy on the functions of the
Psychoacoustician Dr Robert Thorne told the committee that the NHMRC's
work has to date been inadequate and there is a need for properly funded
research into the nature and cause of adverse health effects. He took aim at
the methodology of the NHMRC's studies:
When they investigated and read 4,000 documents and, I think,
in the end they came up with 13 that met their criteria, something is wrong.
Earlier—I think it was in 2011–13—Professor Anderson of the NHMRC came and made
the very valid point that anecdotal information—that is, residents' submissions
and their viewpoints—was valuable in identifying issues, not necessarily cause
and effect, but identifying the start point. But, whenever we look at any
research, we go for observations, then trying to get an idea of what is
happening, then work the hypotheses and then studies. It was obvious—and I have
got quite a lot of research myself in the past—that there are very few adverse
health effects studies undertaken, primarily because there has been no funding
for adverse health effects studies. You cannot get a study if you do not pay
for it, and you cannot get an impartial university-based study unless you pay a
lot for it. That is my view.
Dr Thorne told the committee that the type of research that is
needed—with 1000 participants—would cost $1.2 million. He criticised the
$500 000 allocated to the NHMRC study noting that this sum 'would barely
scratch the surface'.
Dr Renzo Tonin, principal of AAAC member firm Renzo Tonin &
Associates, noted a forthcoming NHMRC research project that will measure the
effects of infrasound on a group of 100 participants in both their normal
environments and in a laboratory environment. He added:
In other words, we are going to have control groups and we
are going to have exposed groups, and they will not know which they are. They
will be exposed to infrasound in their home and also in the laboratory. We will
measure using electroencephalographs and all your fancy medical equipment to
find out exactly what is going on.
Dr Tonin strongly supported this study and its methodology. He suggested
that Senators lend their support to fund the NHMRC project.
Other members of the AAAC also supported the research. Mr Chris Turnbull told
I understand that that is what the NHMRC is looking to do. I
agree that 'multidisciplinary' is important, because effectively we know what
the noise from wind turbines is. We know what the infrasound is. That has been
measured a number of times. We agree that the impact of that infrasound should
be played back to others, a larger group in different situations, so that is
understood, and then the potential health effects of that should be studied as
well. That is, as you suggest, a multidisciplinary group, so I think we would
However, other submitters argued that the NHMRC is not the right body to
conduct future research. Mr Peter Mitchell, for example, told the committee
that the Council's lack of technical capacity 'is absolutely shattering'.
Dr Thorne observed:
We know quite a few of our colleagues and any one of them
would die to do a proper research study. Research is, by and large,
researchers: they just love going for whatever the topic happens to be. So the
umbrella organisation that it sits under is not so important as the actual
quality of the people you get; and their expertise and their ability to talk with
each other. You have to have people on that committee who have different points
of view, but held in check by a strong chairperson who moderates and brings the
best of the study. That, in my view, that did not happen with the NHMRC.
or field testing
The committee has heard that replicating infrasound from a turbine in a
laboratory setting may not be possible. In criticising the methodology for the
2015 NHMRC review, Dr Michael Crawford wrote in his submission:
The problem starts with the requirement to include wind farm
emissions, rather than say comparable emissions in a laboratory setting.
Consider noise emissions. For multiple reasons actually discussed in the NHMRC
review, predictions of average noise levels and characteristics at individual
dwellings are poor. In addition, because wind turbines operate intermittently
and essentially randomly, and noise propagation varies with factors such as wind
direction and other atmospheric conditions, available proxies for noise
emissions are even poorer as an estimate of the noise impact at the time other
data is collected for a study. The available proxies are either distance or
computer models, both of which are seriously deficient. This is a problem
recognised in the Information Paper in the section dealing with further
The only way to get good quality noise emission data for
research is through actual full spectrum noise monitoring where each
participant is located. However, for reasonably large sample sizes that has
been prohibitively expensive for most researchers due to the capital and labour
intensity of noise monitoring, in home and outside it.
Synchronicity, hot spots and the
The committee has sought evidence during this inquiry on matters of
possible acoustical concern in terms of the impact of wind turbines on human
health. Notably, the committee heard from Dr Andrew Bell, a Visiting Fellow at
the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National
University. His research and theories in relation to how turbine operations may
affect the human ear are of genuine interest to the committee.
Dr Bell's research draws attention to what he calls a 'possible
synchronisation phenomenon that happens between each of the wind turbines'. When
this occurs, he claims the sound pressure levels 'will be higher than usually
expected and they will fluctuate' and 'there will be large low-pressure
variations which could affect the ear'.
Dr Bell published a technical note last year in which he explains:
...wind turbine infrasound can be narrow band, have multiple
sources, and occur intermittently as the sources drift in (and out of) phase...[T]he
proposal here is that the intermittency of the in-phase and out-of-phase
conditions might underlie wind turbine annoyance. Whenever the blades become
synchronised (perhaps for many tens of seconds) the intensity of the
fundamental and some of its harmonics could, at nodes, be at least 6 dB larger,
but the levels will revert to baseline when the sources fall out of synchrony.
A lingering puzzle is why some people complain of effects from
wind farms which persist for hours, not effects which come and go. Such
long-lasting symptoms such as headaches and pressure in the ears might be the
outcome of pressure effects within the middle ear, a possibility only more research
...the evaluations made here provide indications that
intermittent coherence could be the physical basis for the annoyance of wind
farm noise. One key factor is the precise frequency setting of the wind turbine
control circuit, and the other is the universal tendency for coupled
oscillators to synchronise.
The committee also received evidence from Emeritus Professor Colin
Hansen of the University of Adelaide relating to the intermittency of in-phase
and out-of-phase conditions. He noted that when synchronised, turbines can
create 'hot spots' which are intermittent, depending on the direction of the
wind. They fade where there is very low frequency, in-phase noise.
Professor Hansen told the committee that these hot spots are able to be
recorded and replayed.
The committee asked Dr Bell for his comment on the NHMRC's February 2015
discussion paper. He responded by criticising the monitoring equipment that has
been used to measure sound and emphasised the importance of understanding the
I think it [the NHMRC paper] was too simplistic. It failed to
recognise that the human ear is the final arbiter of whether something annoys a
person or not, and that the human ear is more sensitive than any of the monitoring
equipment that is presently used. Given that there is the choice between saying
the person did not or did hear it, I would say you need to believe that a
person was troubled by that sound. That was the thing that immediately struck
me. I was not planning to get into wind turbine work. I was applying for a
grant to the NHMRC, and I saw on their website that they had this preliminary
review and wanted public statements. When I read what was there, it did seem to
be excessively simplistic and favouring the standard monitoring over the
position of residents living nearby.
My perception is that, if you look at the history of the
field, there has been a whole revolution in our understanding of frequency
range, of decibels, about what effects there are on the ear. Only in 1979 did
we realise that the cochlea is actually an active detector: it emits sound. If
you put a microphone in the ear, you can detect faint pure tones coming out of
most people's ears. This is very similar to a tinnitus phenomenon. It does
actually trouble some people. But normally the cochlea is an active detector
and we still do not understand what that mechanism is...
I am saying, on top of a basic pressure level measurement,
there is a whole sophisticated, dynamic system involved which we do not
understand. So I think we need to be open to the idea that our monitoring
system is not as sophisticated as the human ear, and we need to do measurements
to try and match even more closely between the ear and what the measurements
are telling us.
Dr Bell has formulated a theory of how middle ear muscles function to
regulate sound input to the cochlea. He explained that these muscles:
...act as "gain control" devices to control the
amount of sound input to the impressively sensitive cochlea, like a sound
engineer controls the setting of sliders to optimise sound recording in a studio.
The cochlea can sense 20 micropascals of pressure (0 dB), but still needs
to be able to sense sounds a million million times louder (120 dB). According
to my understanding of how middle ear muscles work, the muscles automatically
control the sensitivity of the cochlea by acting on its fluid contents so as to
increase or decrease the hydraulic pressure. Such a control circuit could well
be affected by large infrasonic pressure pulses (5 pascals from a wind turbine,
which is 250,000 times greater than the 20 micropascals which can be heard in
the audible band), and this could produce disturbing sensations.
Apart from the muscles in the middle ear, ill-effects from turbines may
be explained by the way that turbines affect the inner ear and in particular,
the vestibular mechanism. This mechanism is the sensory system that provides a
sense of balance and spatial orientation. Professor McMurtry told the
...annoyance in the context of wind turbines translates to
'stress, psychological distress, difficulty initiating sleep and sleep
disruption'—I believe those words, although from memory, are a direct quote—so
it is a very serious business. The most common problems without question we
find are sleep disturbance and stress. Those two are always there. Vestibular
disturbance we are also finding. There is no question though when the
vestibular gets perturbed, it can make you uneasy, make you feel unwell or
nauseated, for example. It may be the mechanism. I am in no way discounting it
and it is considered in my diagnostic criteria.
The committee also received evidence relating to the vestibular
mechanism from Dr Swinbanks. He wrote in his submission:
The conventional method of assessing whether low-frequency
and infrasound is perceptible has usually involved visually comparing power
spectral levels or 3rd octave levels with the threshold of hearing. This
approximate process, however, is unlikely to be accurate in the low-frequency
wind-turbine context, because it assesses only the mean level of sound, and
fails to take account either the character of the sound or the relationship
between adjacent frequency bands...
[R]esearchers have now proposed two further processes which
may account for increased sensitivity to very low frequency infrasound.
Conventional hearing perception is considered to take place via response of the
inner hair cells of the cochlea (the sensing structure of the inner ear), but
it has been shown that the cochlea outer hair cells respond with greater
sensitivity at very low frequency, and induce additional neurological signals.
Hitherto, these outer hair cells have been considered to perform only the task
of controlling the overall sensitivity of the hearing process, but it is
possible that they can also contribute directly to very low frequency
A further mechanism has been proposed, whereby sound
pressures acting through the lymphatic fluid directly on the otolith components
of the vestibular (balance) organs have been calculated to exert comparable
forces to those induced by motion and acceleration. Any non-uniformity in the
compliance of the structures supporting these otolith sensors may then result
in a response which simulates that of physical motion. Indeed, it has been
argued that the correlation between persons who suffer from motion sickness,
and those who report adverse effects from wind turbines is sufficient to be
more than a result of mere chance.
The committee's view on further research and the
body to conduct it
The committee is concerned that for many key stakeholders, including
public health associations and wind farm companies, the 2010 and 2014 NHMRC
papers are the definitive findings on the issue of wind turbines and public
health. This inquiry has gathered evidence from various sources that call into
question the extent to which these reviews can be relied upon. The committee
draws attention to:
the NHMRC's commitment to conduct research in 2015, for some an
admission of the inadequacy of its literature reviews; and
the view of AAAC acousticians that there is a need for well-funded
multi-disciplinary research, using control and exposed groups.
The committee believes there is an urgent need to put in place a central
point of expert scientific advice on the risks of wind turbines to human
health. As noted at the start of this chapter, the principal recommendation of
the committee's interim report was to establish an independent scientific body
to conduct multi-disciplinary, primary research into the possible impact of
audible noise and infrasound from wind farms on human health. The committee
confirms the federal government's commitment to establish an Independent
Expert Scientific Committee on Industrial Sound (IESC) by 1 September 2015.
Chapter 6 of this report presents several further recommendations that
will give substance to the operation of the IESC on Industrial Sound. It is
crucial that the IESC's research and advice is sought by, and communicated to,
federal and state health Ministers and policy-makers, as well as State
Environmental Protection Authorities. It is also very important that wind farm
development proposals and wind farm operations are subject to the IESC's
The committee considers that the level of funding provided by the NHMRC
for long overdue research is manifestly inadequate to properly study this
complex and poorly understood issue. While the NHMRC should still have a role
in commissioning research into the impact of wind turbines on human health, the
IESC must take the lead in these research efforts. Chapter 6 explains these
proposed roles in more detail.
 Davis v Tinsley, Watts, Fenland Windfarms Ltd,
EDF Energy PLC & Fenland Green Power Co-operative Ltd, before Mr Justice
Hickinbottom in the High Court (Queens Bench Division), confidentially settled.
Joint press release http://filesdown.esecure.co.uk/FenlandGreen/Fens_Co-op_-_Press_Release_301111.pdf_01122011-1009-38.pdf (accessed 13 July 2015).
Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page