FEARS over adverse health impacts caused by wind farms are being heavily scrutinised during a parliamentary inquiry into the controversial renewable energy source.
The Senate select committee inquiry into the regulatory governance and economic impact of wind turbines, established last November, is due to report by August 3.
The inquiry’s extensive terms of reference include investigating the impacts of wind farms on household power prices and the Clean Energy Regulator’s effectiveness in performing its legislative responsibilities.
The role and capacity of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in providing guidance to state and territory authorities is also under scrutiny.
The first public hearing was held at Portland in Victoria on March 30 while two were held in Cairns and Canberra in May.
About 460 public submissions have been received with four more public hearings scheduled for June in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra.
At the most recent hearing in Canberra on May 19, witnesses presented a range of conflicting views about the adverse health impacts of wind turbines, particularly around low-frequency infrasound.
Family First Senator Bob Day said the inquiry had heard extensive evidence from state and local governments that they were struggling with regulating the wind turbine industry.
Senator Day said infrasound did not appear to be covered by regulations, “which mostly cover audible decibel measured sound”.
He said evidence from hearing expert Dr Andrew Bell claimed infrasound cannot be measured, and it was unknown how the ear coped with infrasound.
“It is just not possible to measure it - all you can do is accept the overwhelming evidence that people are affected by it,” he said.
Dr Bell said large infrasonic impulses - whether from a wind turbine, coal mine or a gas turbine or “whatever” - can have an effect of altering the middle ear and causing a pressure effect, “maybe headaches, maybe seasickness and things like that”.
“I think infrasound by itself with very large low-frequency pressure pulses does disturb the human ear,” he said.
“Exactly how it happens is unknown; my suspicion is that it is the middle ear muscle - the gain-control before the cochlea - but we are just beginning to do work in this area.”
The annoyance factor
The Australia Institute research director Roderick Campbell referred to a report on the wider impacts of wind energy written by researchers at the Nossal Research Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne.
Mr Campbell said the institute’s medical researchers concluded in the report that there was “no credible peer-reviewed scientific evidence that demonstrates a causal link between wind turbines and adverse physiological health impacts on people”.
But he said they found that there was some connection between annoyance from wind turbines and sleep disturbance.
“They felt that attitudes towards wind farms have a considerable influence on these factors and the extent to which noise, visual disruption and social change resulting from wind farms can cause stress or annoyance, which in turn can contribute to health issues,” he said.
“Any effects from such exposures are therefore likely to vary considerably across communities and are best considered indirect effects.”
Mr Campbell said the Warburton review - along with almost every other review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) “which is dominated by wind energy” - found that the RET either has a minimal impact on household prices or, in the longer term, is likely to put downward pressure on wholesale electricity prices.
'No problems whatsoever'
Australian Wind Alliance national co-ordinator Andrew Bray said evidence also existed of people living near wind farms with no reported problems.
Mr Bray said he had also spoken personally to people who were in “great distress” - and “I certainly do not want to say that they are making stuff up”.
However the danger of looking at those cases selectively was “that you miss the much larger pool of people who live near wind farms who have no health problems whatsoever”.
Mr Bray said if a study was undertaken of all people living around a wind turbine, “you would find that the incidence of health problems is not high”.
However, NSW Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm said: “With cigarettes, the incidence of lung cancer was not high either”.
Public Health Association of Australia CEO Melanie Walker said complaints from people affected by noise from wind turbines must be recognised and managed, with fair and reasonable solutions developed.
Ms Walker said allegations of harm to health from wind turbines must also be placed in the context of minimal evidence supporting some claims and the considerable evidence supporting harm from other energy sources.
She said governments should also support wind power as one of the viable evidence-based renewable energy options to rapidly transition the economy from fossil fuels.
“This is supported by the Public Health Association on both health and safe climate grounds,” she said.
“We know that people who are disturbed by noise become annoyed, and we know that if you are annoyed you become more acutely sensitive to the cause of your disturbance,” she said.
“We are also aware that if you are annoyed and disturbed that you are going to have interrupted sleep, and we know that this is not good for people's health in the short term.
“The linkage from the short-term annoyance to longer term health problems is more problematic, because there is a chain of events that takes decades to work through.
“But we do know from the broader social determinants of health literature that there are some connections between psychological distress and, over a period of years, the emergence of chronic diseases.
“So we are not saying that this does not happen, but we are saying that it is a long-term, not immediate, effect.
“We are also aware that people who live near coalmines in the Hunter Valley or people who live in Morwell in Victoria also have sources of stress in their environment which is contributing to their sense of unease as well.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said the committee had heard from people who favoured having wind turbines erected on their properties and were also very supportive of renewable energy.
But he said after the wind turbines were erected, some of those people then reported suffering adverse health effects.
Ms Walker said she could not comment on the specific cases and “We would have to look at what those concerns were”.
“I think what we are saying is that the best available evidence shows that the acute impacts of wind turbines do not cause physical disease,” she said.
“Noise-related issues such as sleep deprivation and those sorts of things can cause ill health over the longer term.
"(But) these things can be managed if the initial concerns are recognised and managed and fair and reasonable solutions are developed for them to ensure that those impacts are mitigated for people who are having wind turbines coming into their communities.”
Department of the Environment First Assistant Secretary, Climate Change and Renewable Energy Division, Brad Archer said when considering the health impacts on wind farms, the Department looked to the scientific and medical evidence presented to them.
Mr Archer said the Department referred to periodic reviews by the NHMRC on the question of adverse health impacts of wind farms and discussions with the Council.
“To date, the findings of those reviews have not really provided compelling evidence to us that there is a need to make significant changes to the way the Renewable Energy Target Scheme operates,” he said.
“Again, the department does not have the health expertise.
“But we do provide advice on the general operation of the scheme and, of course, we do have an interest in relation to environmental impacts to the extent that there may be impacts that are of national significance.”
Infigen Energy Government Affairs manager Jonathon Upson said he was unaware of any government, scientific, medical or regulatory organisation in the world that had come to the conclusion that wind turbines had a detrimental impact on health.
However Mr Upson’s presentation drew the ire of long-term wind farm critic and committee chair, Victorian Senator John Madigan.
“The problem is that, in spite of the fact that you say they are the most stringent rules and regulations, people are still claiming to have health effects and annoyance and sleep deprivation,” the self-titled Manufacturing and Farming Party Senator said.
“What we are trying to establish here is: what needs to be done to remedy this situation so that people - the general public; the people who are suffering - have a greater sense that they are being listened to and that there are stringent guidelines in place for the development of wind farms.”
However, Mr Upson said asbestos caused a particular illness that was “peculiar to asbestos” and sleep deprivation was the number one health complaint in Australia, “whether they live next to a wind farm or not”.
“The question is: is there a causal relationship between the turbines and that?” he said.
“Is there an acoustic or electrical energy from the turbines that is then directly causing that illness?
“As I said, the science has measured the acoustic energy which we are focusing on today; infrasound, low-frequency sound, has been measured countless times.
“The EPA in South Australia did a very thorough infrasound study. That is an independent organisation - nothing to do with the wind energy industry.
“They measured infrasound inside houses and outside houses (and) the lowest infrasound reading they came up with was actually in a house neighbouring a wind farm.
“Wind turbines do produce infrasound; that is true. But every peer-reviewed scientific study has shown the infrasound level is orders of magnitude below the level that humans can perceive, let alone causing detrimental health impacts.”