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Jul 6, 2011

Windfarms will make your children hate school, apparently

The lobby group at the centre of promoting the idea that windfarms cause disease, the Waubra Foundation, last week moved its aggression needle up several notches by sending this melodramatic “Explicit Cautionary Notice” to Australia’s wind energy companies and putting them on notice.

The lobby group at the centre of promoting the idea that windfarms cause disease, the Waubra Foundation, last week moved its aggression needle up several notches by sending this melodramatic “Explicit Cautionary Notice” to Australia’s wind energy companies and putting them on notice.

It makes interesting reading, listing a range of very prevalent health problems that collectively are  experienced by millions of Australians (sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart attacks, diabetes, migraine, depression, tinnitus, post traumatic stress, irreversible memory deterioration).

We learn from the Foundation’s “medical director” Sarah Laurie, an unregistered doctor, that all of these conditions “correspond directly with the operation of windfarms”.

Laurie claims to have conducted “field research” analysis but is not affiliated with any accredited research institution, has not had her research on human subjects approved by any institutional ethics committee and consequently will find that she is unable to publish her research in any reputable medical journal where formal ethics clearance is of course mandatory whenever human subjects are involved.

Indeed, the NHMRC, which oversees human ethics management standards in Australia, may find itself in an interesting position should Laurie seek to submit her work to any further enquiries it holds.

So far the Foundation has not claimed that congenital malformations, cancer or HIV are associated with exposure to windturbines. But watch this space for surely it cannot be long before the list expands further. My vote for the weirdest claim yet by anti-windfarm advocates is a Wisconsin farmer claiming 600 cattle deaths in three years from stray “electrical current”.  No reports have been found that his next door neighbour suffered any.

If you run a search in the medical literature for these common conditions and evidence of their association with exposure to wind turbines, you get very slim pickings, as you do on the alleged dangers of infrasound, the sub-audible dimension of sound emitted by turbines. An interesting cluster of work on infrasound though, can be found from a Lisbon based research team who have been busy publishing on what they call “vibroacoustic disease” for a number of years.

One member of their team, Mariana Alves-Pereira, gave a live video presentation at a recent NHMRC forum on windturbines and health. Her presentation apparently mightily excited the Waubra people at the meeting because they are now in close contact.

However, vibroacoustic disease is not a disease recognized in the International Classification of Diseases, the international standard for classifying diseases. The UK’s Health Protection Agency reviewed the evidence on infrasound and concluded: “While those working in very high levels of audible noise may suffer some adverse consequences … there is no evidence that infrasound at levels normally encountered in the environment will lead to the development of vibroacoustic disease. Further this disease itself has not gained clinical recognition… The available data do not suggest that exposure to infrasound below the hearing threshold levels is capable of causing adverse effects.”

Indeed, as I explain below, it looks like the main people who do recognize vibroacoustic disease are Alves-Pereira’s Lisbon group who promote the concept through their own research. Alves-Pereira’s presentation to the NHMRC forum can be viewed here, commencing at 1hr15m44s.  It is quite something. To the amazement of epidemiologists in the room, she spent much of her time talking about a case study of one family in a house adjacent to a  windfarm.

Slide #100 shows an arrow pointing to the house concerned. As can be seen, there are many other houses in the area downwind of the turbines, but strangely, her research group  apparently conducted no investigations of the residents in any of these. A young boy in the house was having problems of losing interest at school – yet another extremely common problem — and Alves-Pereira’s claim was that exposure to windturbines was a plausible explanation. No other possible explanation was even considered.

To further press home her case, she talked of problems in “boxy” or “club” foot found in four of the householder’s thoroughbred horses kept at the property (slide105). This problem too, she suggested might be connected with exposure to windturbines. She carefully explained that of five young horses examined, four had boxy foot. The one that did not was acquired, not bred on the farm, and one other acquired horse also had boxy foot. From that, the audience were presumably supposed to understand that hard evidence was thus available for windfarms causing equine feet deformities. Boxy foot is a common problem in horses.

It was embarrassing listening to this stuff. The study design employed breached just about every epidemiological consideration in research design 101.

Curious  to learn more about Alves-Pereira’s research that the NHMRC had agreed to video in, I looked her work up on the Web of Science, Thomson-Reuters’ scientific citation website which indexes thousands of research journals and shows how many other researchers cite each paper.  Just eight papers of hers appeared, and of these, five had never been cited. The three which had, had  been cited 36 times. Of these, 29 (81%) were self-citations by her or her fellow authors.

After the meeting, Sarah Laurie distributed this upbeat memo to her followers, some of whom it seems are not as loyal as she might hope. I wrote to Professor John McCallum of the NHMRC about the memo, asking him to clarify if the remarks attributed to him (about me among other things) were accurate and to correct them if they were an untrue record of his conversations with Laurie.

He wrote back to me “I wrote her an email complaining and asking her to explain. I have since received her response and I am now considering whether any further action beyond complaining to her will be effective. As you will appreciate, her comments do not represent my views nor were they the comments which I did make to her at the meeting.”

The South Australian Environment, Resources and Development Court, in its judgment of Paltridge & Ors v District (17 June 2011) was satisfied that public health would not be put at risk by a proposed development. Commenting on  Dr Laurie’s evidence to the court  and comparing it to that provided by Prof Gary Wittert from the University of Adelaide. The bench wrote:

“With regard to the interviews [of those said to be suffering from wind turbine exposure] conducted by Dr Laurie, we accept the criticisms of this evidence made by counsel for Acciona, namely, that they suffer from the following defects:

  1. The absence of a formal medical history having been taken from the subjects of her interviews;
  2. The absence of a formal diagnosis of alleged symptoms from these subjects; and
  3. The absence of any enquiry, as to the prevalence of the symptoms reported by these subjects, when compared to any other population or a control population.”

The court also noted “After reviewing the evidence of Dr Laurie, Professor Wittert concluded that: “There is no credible evidence of a causal link, between the physical outputs of a turbine (or sets of turbines), at the levels that are described … and adverse effects on health”.

The judgment concluded “We accept his [Wittert’s] conclusions and, where his evidence differs from that of  Dr Laurie, prefer the evidence of Professor Wittert.” Here, for example, is Wittert’s analysis of Laurie’s research presented to the court that five individuals suffered raised blood pressure because of their exposure to turbines.

Australia’s first wind farm was established at Salmon Beach in WA, and opened in 1987. This means Australia has had wind farms for almost 25 years. Internationally, wind farms have been operating for 31 years. Industry sources usually estimate that there are between 100,000 and 150,000 turbines installed worldwide. But the recent outbreaks of complaints represent a small minority of those who, as far as I have been able to determine, are people who have not had wind turbines on their land (and so have not been paid to host them).

Pac Hydro gave evidence in the recent Senate enquiry that Victoria’s first wind farm, Codrington, has not received a single complaint in ten years of operation. In The UK, total of 239 formal complaints have been received about UK windfarm sites since 1991, 152 of which were from a single site.

A landowner with 15 turbines wakes each morning knowing they have already earned perhaps $150,000 in “drought-proofing” income by simply having turbines on their land. Those living adjacent with unsuitable topography may often deeply resent the good fortune of their neighbours. When land is sold with income generating turbines, the value-added compared to a comparable farm with no turbines could be large.

It is understandable that some may become preoccupied with the  turbines theycan see and hear, but derive no direct benefit from. Sociogenic illness can rapidly foment in such contexts and these dimensions need to be incorporated into any investigation of why some people claim to be “harmed” by turbines, but those with identical exposure profiles feel fine and can even enjoy their proximity.

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9 thoughts on “Windfarms will make your children hate school, apparently

  1. ianjohnno1

    Perhaps wind farms do cause some health problems, but we will never know unless we can clear the waters muddied by vested interests, the hysterical, the envious, political opportunists and the just-plain-silly.
    The danger is that it will become a “cause” and then a popularity contest.
    An educated nation?

  2. Russell

    Gosh, and I’ve heard that living near a coal seam gas mine is even worse! But maybe I’ve been misinformed. No doubt Crikey will soon publish a sceptical report allaying my fears about that. It will, won’t it?

  3. Ben Harris-Roxas

    “It is understandable that some may become preoccupied with the turbines they can see and hear, but derive no direct benefit from. Sociogenic illness can rapidly foment in such contexts and these dimensions need to be incorporated into any investigation of why some people claim to be “harmed” by turbines, but those with identical exposure profiles feel fine and can even enjoy their proximity.”

    Simon’s concluding paragraph is really the crux of the issue. It’s obvious the physical health impacts are minimal, if there are any at all. The problem is that dismissing concerns out of hand may be counter-productive, for example:

    Wind farms and health: some lessons from Canada

  4. Patrick Brosnan

    This is truly bizarre. Wind power would have to be one of the most benign methods of generating power and yet some individuals appear to be able to get a hearing for their unsupported and almost fraudulent claims. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with science becomes very frustrated that these ratbags manage to force their rubbish down our throats. They need a damn good bagging, which is what this article does. Bravo. Oh and keep these nutters away from our children.

  5. Daniel

    oi a bloody windmill gave me cancer it did, blimey. innit

  6. TormentedbytheDs

    The Moncktons are just amazing. I think this should be the new term as deniers does have that nasty after taste. Wind farms can give us all sorts of diseases but anything that emits CO2 to generate power is OK. We had some madness near Colac where they got into the locals that a geothermal project would cause earthquakes and cows to abort or whatever and the Nationals were on it like a seagull and a hot chip. If someone invented a black box that produced power and nothing else they would find something wrong with it. In the mean time they want to play chemistry experiments with the composition of the atmosphere and want to put the burden of proof on the people who think that is a bad idea.

  7. s_keane1

    Good one Tormentedbytheds! Love your Moncktons moniker…. the mad Moncktons perhaps? Yes, definitely better than deniers. Conjures up such a lovely, compelling image…..

    Now where are the animal rights people in all of this? Having scanned the literature, I have found no outcry from animal rights groups or vet associations defending the rights of animals against Wind Turbine Syndrome. You’d have thought that after 40 years of wind power in Denmark, we’d have heard it for the cows at least. But no, nothing. It would appear that animals, especially livestock on farms in Denmark, are unaware of the problem. Having farmed livestock at one stage in my life, I can vouch for the fact that farmers notice when their sole means of income start dropping like flies.

    Furthermore, as a control group, I’d have thought you couldn’t go past animals who can’t read the misinformation put out by the Landscape Guardians who are popping up like weeds in our landscape, can’t be intimidated, don’t care one way or another whether the globe is warming, don’t vote Liberal and seem happy to graze right next to turbines in the photos I’ve seen.

  8. Russell

    All those laughing and sneering about those who raise so-called “health” issues are missing the point entirely. It’s not about that. Nimby opposition to turbines has nothing to do with rationality or “facts”. But no one is going to win any battles by ridiculing those who believe there ARE genuine problems.

    I saw doco movie called “Windfall” at the recent Sydney Film Festival, which looked the way a wind turbine farm divided a NY upstate community. It was set in a typical rural town which fallen on hard times due to the decline in dairy farming, and many locals saw the turbines as a lifeline. The opponents of wind power were the newcomers, people we would call “tree-changing” greenies. They were the gentrifiers, ex-Manhattan people mostly, educated, affluent, well organized and resourced, with considerable political nous.

    If you think of the sort of people who are now organizing the opposition to the the coal gas mining license in St Peters, you’ve got them to a T. The Marrickville Greens, licking their wounds after their Israel boycott fiasco, have got a winning issue now.

    The opponents in NY State “won”. In other wealthier towns nearby, the power companies didn’t even get past first base.
    No wind farms… No renewable energy IN MY BACKYARD!

  9. Dave Burraston

    A peer-reviewed journal has just published a special edition (part 1) on impacts of wind turbines:

    From the press release:
    “GLOBAL FIRST: Leading Scientific Peer Reviewed Journal Publishes Special Edition on Wind Turbines

    Immediate Release

    Toronto Ontario July 20, 2011/ The first peer reviewed scientific journal devoted solely to the impacts of wind turbines on communities was published today by SAGE Publications Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society”

    “The groundbreaking Special Edition called WINDFARMS, COMMUNITIES AND ECOSYSTEMS PART I, features peer reviewed articles documenting adverse health effects and their cause from wind turbine installations.

    Subjects range from an original case definition by Dr. Robert McMurtry of Ontario Canada, to noise characteristics and their impacts on communities in Australia by Dr. Bob Thorne, New Zealand. One featured article describes the specific and unique nature of wind turbine noise while another speaks to impacts of wind turbines on sleep disturbance and how this affects human health.

    Two other articles of great importance are an epidemiological analysis of the WindVoice Health Survey (Krogh et al). This case series, begun in February 2008 in Ontario Canada, chronicles the many health outcomes experienced by people in Ontario living within the environs of wind turbine installations.

    The other article follows the thread of the way those suffering receive no support from their government or community and how that lack of social justice is creating a whole new set of issues for victims of wind turbines.

    Critics of those who are calling for stringent, authoritative guidelines regarding the locating of wind developments have continuously claimed there is a lack of peer reviewed evidence. This claim is false and now SAGE will be adding to that existing body of research including further context and current up to date research.”