On January 10 Prime Minister Tony Abbott signaled that it might be timely for the National Health and Medical Research Council to review the evidence on wind farms and health saying “it is some years since the NHMRC last looked at this issue: why not do it again?” He appears to be poorly informed. The NHMRC reviewed the evidence in 2010, and has been re-reviewing it again since 2012, with the release of a public discussion document imminent.
There have been no less than 19 reviews of the evidence on wind farms and health published since 2002. All have concluded that while sometimes a minority of people exposed report adverse health effects from living near turbines, there is no good evidence that these effects are directly attributable to the turbines.
But there is good evidence that worry and anxiety about potential health impacts can make some people “worried sick”. This adds up to “wind turbine syndrome” – an unrecognized diagnosis – being a “communicated disease” or a nocebo phenomenon. Fiona Crichton and colleagues from Auckland University have published two compelling studies showing that nocebo effects can be stimulated in health subjects by feeding them worrying information prior to exposure to sub-audible infrasound.
So who is making all the fuss about wind farms and health that has seen the NHMRC devoting considerable resources to re-examining a phenomenon that seems destined to join the list of other new technology panics that came and went over the years (telephones, powerlines, electric blankets, microwave ovens, VDUs, mobile phones and towers and wifi are examples)? The answer here, as it is internationally, is very, very few people.
Last year, colleagues and I published a study examining the history of complaints about noise and health said to be caused by wind farms around Australia since the first farm commenced operation in Western Australia in 1992. Thirty three of Australia’s 51 wind farms (64.7%), including more than half with turbine size greater than 1 MW, have never attracted a single complaint about noise or health. These 33 farms have an estimated 21,633 residents living within 5 km and have operated complaint-free for a cumulative 267 years. Western Australia and Tasmania have seen no complaints.
From an estimated 32,789 people living within 5km of these 51 turbines, we found evidence of just 129 people having ever made a complaint. Ninety per cent of these made their first complaint after 2009 when anti-wind farm hysteria began in earnest, fomented by opposition groups with connections to the mining and fossil fuel industries and groups trying to discredit anthropogenic climate change. Seventy-three per cent of the complainants lived near just 6 of the 51 farms, those being farms most targeted by anti-wind farm groups.
The situation overseas looks little different. Despite years of efforts by Ontario anti wind farm activists to incite fear among residents, by March 2011, only 131 complainants had identified themselves across all of Ontario (population 13.5m), although this number appears to have been inflated by borrowing numbers from other provinces (“131 which include reports from other jurisdictions”) despite there being some 1200 turbines across Ontario.
Denmark has the highest concentration of wind turbines of any country, with 5,125 on-shore turbines in an area of 43,074 square km (Tasmania is 59% larger with 68,407 square km and Australia-wide, there are only 1634 turbines) Yet in this video posted on Dec 23 2013 by Denmark’s tiny anti wind farm movement, a national estimate is given of just 50 people claiming to be adversely affected by turbines (at 7m.02).
Anti wind groups
And how about the anti wind farm groups? None of the 8 members of the executive of the Waubra Foundation live anywhere even remotely near of the small Victorian wind farm hosting town of Waubra, where the large majority of residents have been petitioning the Foundation to leave them alone and change its name. Last week, its CEO Sarah Laurie, was the subject of an extended critique by Ontario’s Environmental Review Tribunal (read from pp98-110) after being proposed but rejected as an expert witness because, as leading Ontario environmental lawyer Diane Saxe wrote, Laurie was not a registered medical doctor and therefore was not permitted to diagnose medical issues or conditions, which her testimony had amounted to.
In late December 2012, an anonymously authored anti wind farm website, Stop These Things commenced publication. Its overwhelming focus is attacking wind energy in Australia. On Christmas Day 2013, its author apparently had nothing better to do than pen a post boasting of the year’s extraordinary achievements. This was mainly about the number of hits made on its site (allegedly 350,000 over the year) and the number of supporters registered to receive updates (all of 1200, globally). But both STT’s web-counter and supporter totals appear to be manually updated, and so amenable to inflation. With its total contempt for transparency, its claims for this large traffic volume are not open to any scrutiny. But everything points to the numbers being questionable.
STT’s author tells us that “Twitter doesn’t count”. But unlike the secret world of STT, counting is one of the things you can do with Twitter and Facebook. Making its first post in December 2012, STT’s Facebook page has attracted a desultory 439 “likes”, fewer than most 14 year olds have. And it has just 287 Twitter followers. There can be few “causes” with less following. Of the 287, at least 27 are plainly not supporters, but journalists, wind industry workers or (like several I know) train wreck voyeurs, fascinated by the daily anonymous libel, and unmoderated climate change denialism that is posted. Twenty five followers don’t indicate their country of origin. Of the 262 who do, just 72 are Australians (less 15 who are not supporters), leaving just 57 potential supporters in Australia engaged enough to follow STT on Twitter. The rest are from the UK (86), Canada (38, of which 29 are from Ontario), 37 from the USA, 13 from Ireland, 4 from the Netherlands, and the other 12 from 12 different countries. As blogger Ketan Joshi has observed, unlike any other disease “wind turbine syndrome” seems to be a health problem that occurs mainly in English-speaking countries.
The STT Twitter account was opened on the same day of the website and for someone who believes Twitter “doesn’t count”, it’s curious that its bashful author has wasted time tweeting an average of nearly three times a day.
Stop These Things organized an anti wind farm rally on the front lawn of Parliament House in Canberra on June 18 2013, MC-ed by none other than prominent radio announcer Alan Jones who promoted it to his estimated 2 million radio audience. But as this video shows, the rally was an embarrassing flop, with Nick Xenophon failing to show up, despite his leading billing. The Daily Telegraph described the rally as “lacklustre” and estimated attendance at 100, not counting journalists covering the rally. Undaunted, the site posted triumphalist videos of each speaker who each avoided mentioning the all too obvious fizzer attendance.
Australia’s homeopathic-strength anti wind farm movement mirrors that in the few other countries where this phenomenon is concentrated. Ontario is Canada’s epicentre of anti-wind farm complaining, with very little evidence of complaints across the rest of that vast country. A few hundred people attend the biggest anti wind farm rallies in Ontario, but the number of core activists is estimated to be less than 40. The cyber cathedral of global anti wind farm activism is www.windwatch.org. It has a staggering low 1167 Twitter followers around the world.
In an interesting comparison of global interest, a video explaining the nocebo effect and referring to my wind farm study as an example, was published on 23 December 2013. By Jan 11 it had attracted a stunning 2.49 million views.
Our Australian wind farm study has attracted enormous interest. A pre-print of the paper I published on the University of Sydney’s eScholarship repository has already received the second highest number of views (13,938) out of 8224 on-line articles and books.
Protesting wind farms is a fringe activity, with a CSIRO report and many opinion polls finding overwhelming public support for the farms. Quo vadis, Mr Abbott?
Simon Chapman, AO, is a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney. He was also the 2013 Australian Skeptic of the Year