Abbott Breathes New Life Into 'Wind Turbine Syndrome'

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Recently, the Abbott Government announced a commitment to study the sticky issue of whether wind farms cause health impacts in nearby communities. The Australian reports that the research might be funded by a variety of stakeholders, "in the hope they will support the outcomes and resolve the issue once and for all". If the study goes ahead, and it concludes that wind farms aren’t responsible for migraines, nosebleeds and lip vibration, prior experience tells us that it’s likely to be rejected by wind farm opposition groups.

The study is unlikely to be the final word on the issue. It will likely keep the dying concept of "wind turbine syndrome" on life support because the groups who campaign against wind farms do not seek objective scientific insight — they are equipped with pre-determined conclusions, and a tendency for post-hoc rationalisation. Regardless of the outcome, their efforts will be unhindered.

That's a shame because this morning wind generators in SA were accounting for around 27 per cent of South Australia’s total generation mix, as Adelaide sweltered in 40 degree heat. It’s not a rare event: wind generation regularly crowds out fossil fuel generation in South Australia. August last year is likely to have been wind generation’s best month ever in the National Electricity Market (NEM), accounting for around 6.11 per cent of total electrical energy.

In late 2013 the South Australian Environmental Protection Agency released the results of their acoustic study of Waterloo wind farm. They found that the wind farm was compliant with the EPA’s noise guidelines and that low-frequency noise was well below the threshold of perception.

Australia’s foremost anti-wind lobby group, the Waubra Foundation, responded by claiming the EPA consciously engaged in an act of corruption, intentionally falsifying noise data (by placing the microphones near a tree).

Conspiracy theories plug the holes in flawed assertions. The possibility that the residents of Waterloo might have misattributed their (very real) noise complaints to the wind farm is unacceptable to the Waubra Foundation.

Conspiratorial explanations become more useful as theories grow weaker. You’d be hard-pressed finding a hypothesis more frail and vulnerable than "wind turbine syndrome", theorised as a cluster of symptoms caused by infrasound and low-frequency noise emissions.

Two studies undertaken in 2013 ruled out wind farm infrasound and low-frequency noise as a health hazard. Resonate Acoustics measured low-frequency noise and infrasound at two wind farms and compared the measurements to other environments.

“[T]he contribution of wind turbines to the measured infrasound levels,” their study concluded, “is insignificant in comparison with the background level of infrasound in the environment”. The highest levels they detected were inside the offices of the EPA.

Another study by Sonus indicated that “infrasound emissions from wind farms are well below the hearing threshold and are therefore not detectable to humans”. The highest levels of infrasound were recorded at a beach. Curiously, employees of the EPA and beach-goers don’t seem to complain of the 232 symptoms attributed to infrasound exposure.

Anti-wind groups explain these measurements elegantly. During an interview for the ABC’s Background Briefing, Sarah Laurie (CEO of the Waubra Foundation) stated that wind farm operators intentionally slow down wind turbines during noise testing, and that the she had footage of wind turbines spinning at different speeds.

This is how a wind farm actually operates — wind speeds vary across the length of a wind farm, nacelles turn to follow the wind and individual turbines pause and stop for a variety of reasons. However, by using this conspiracy theory, any measurements that show wind farms comply with noise limits can be dismissed instantaneously.

In the same interview Laurie stated that she has received confirmation from the police that her phone is being tapped. The Australian Federal Police, however, state they’ve said no such thing. The fanciful narrative of devious wind industry operatives tapping her phone line is representative of the style of thinking that seems to crop up regularly in the claims of wind farm opposition groups.

In an ABC 7.30 report last year, a representative of an anonymously-run anti-wind group claimed to have an explanation for the Victorian Department of Health (DOH) clearing wind farms of health impacts. "A lot of people are open to being bribed, and I just believe the wind industry have bribed people," the anonymous advocate said.

Curiously, it was Victorian Health Minister David Davis who wrote to Federal Health Minister Peter Dutton, offering a $100,000 contribution to a new health study into "wind turbine syndrome". There’s little reason to doubt the same conspiracy theory won’t be unceremoniously dumped on any new research authored on the issue, given the association between the Victorian DOH report and the proposed study.

If the research clears wind farms of health impacts, it will likely be dismissed and heaped instantaneously with an array of inventive conspiracy theories. As I’ve previously discussed here at NM, there might be benefits for communities looking for recent scientific evidence on the issue. But it comes at the cost of entertaining the idea of "wind turbine syndrome" for several more years. The justification for the study seems to be waning, and there are better ways to serve communities considering wind farms.

Improved local engagement and ownership of renewable assets seems a mutually beneficial way of empowering communities and reducing the friction that often leads to the adoption of misinformation proffered by anti-wind groups.

"Provocation testing", in which people are exposed to both "real" and "sham" instances of an implied toxic agent, served to inform the scientific community on a similar issue, "Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity". Tests demonstrated that sufferers display very real symptoms but that these symptoms are unrelated to exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

The same style of inquiry has been used to examine the question of wind farm infrasound and more research of this kind would serve communities well, regarding the reality of wind farm exposure.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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