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The wind health issue being discussed in Australia


Last Friday I had a very interesting call with Ketan Joshi to help me get a bit of a better understanding on the background of the wind/health conundrum. Ketan works in renewable energy and is, by his own admission, biased towards renewables. He has, however, been following this issue actively, is very well-informed on the subject, and I’ve found the information and thoughts he’s been sharing on twitter very interesting.

I’ve never come across this issue before. In South Africa, where there is a lot of wind going up (3.3GW procured to date), a lot of the issues that are being faced are around the visual impact, potential impact on other infrastructure / activities (e.g. SKA/airport radars etc) or around technical considerations like grid connection or structural engineering & designs.

So, when I arrived in Australia and heard someone talking about the health impacts associated with wind I thought it was a joke. I laughed a literal LOL. But let’s unpack it a bit.

In 2009/10 a couple living in New York State, opposed to wind turbine installations in the area, her with a medical background, started looking into the potential health effects of wind turbines. Nina Pierpont hypothesised that people get sick when they live near a wind farm. Initially this was considered to be linked to ultrasound (high frequency sound), however this later changed to infrasound (20Hz or lower). She coined the phrase ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ and wrote a heavily criticised book on the subject. They claim that the book has been peer-reviewed, but I have read that the review team involved her husband (an anti-wind activist), a professor of literature and an ecologist and biologist. Many consider that the book was effectively self-published, and Joshi indicated to me that no journal would accept this study. More of this here.

There is so much written on the bad science used in this study; on the selection bias in play, on the small sample size used, on the dubious methods used to find respondents, on the conclusions reached etc. There is also a lot written about the dangers in writing an un-reviewed and un-interrogated study like this; as poor studies can still become used as a reference (or red herring) in what should be a sound, scientific and thoroughly researched debate.

In Australia, initially the main opposition to wind farms was linked to their visual impact, and opposition was led by landscape guardians who wanted to protect the existing vistas. In 2009/10, when Pierpont began writing about this syndrome, the focus of opposition to wind shifted quite drastically. Health concerns became the primary discourse; something surprising to many people in the industry. This raised the question as to what defines a medical condition, and placed this question at the feet of wind developers, who were alien to the concept.

I raised with Joshi that a responsible industry response would be to take claims of health impacts seriously, on a ‘first do no harm basis’ regardless of the merit of the initial study. He confirmed that the wind industry in Australia was involved in commissioning the first studies, to determine if there was any credence to these claims.

In 2011 a first enquiry was conducted into the impact of wind farms on the health of the local residents. This enquiry makes a number of references to Pierpont’s study, with notes from people criticising and supporting the study’s methodology and findings. Joshi indicated that this enquiry had a strong political thread to it, but what it did do was alert the federal medical and scientific bodies to the issue. Their interest is in determining if there is any credible evidence to support the claims, and they have therefore set out in commissioning research on this.

In Joshi’s view, there are three types of research that you can do:

  1. Conduct an acoustic based investigation. This would check whether there was a) any acoustic emissions that were known to be harmful and b) quantify the level of infrasound emitted by wind farms and compare this to other environments.
  2. Conduct an epidemiological study. This is a long-term study (i.e. a decade), based on a large sample of people. It therefore costs a lot of money, and you wait a while before any conclusive results are available. This raises the question of whether this is the best use of public funds. This question is for the medical authorities to decide on and should be out of political influence. Overhead power lines and mobile phones are other examples of where epidemiological studies have been proposed to determine long-term health impacts.
  3. Carrying out lab based assessments. This involves putting people into a lab and exposing them to the wind turbine noises and selectively exposing people to different levels of infrasound (with controls in place). This is considerably cheaper than option 2, and would possibly help to identify if there is a marked link between a person’s opposition to wind and their stress levels when exposed to wind audible noise and possible infrasound.

One of the questions apparently posed to the wind industry often is ‘if you have nothing to hide, why not do more research.’ Joshi’s concern with this is that it becomes a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. If you support more research, the anti-wind lobby picks this up as admission that there are health impacts. If you don’t support it, you’ve got something to hide. His point is that supporting more research doesn’t mean that you believe the current agreement on the interpretation of results is incorrect and just because it’s good to do more research doesn’t means that an opinion or conclusion is wrong.

It’s difficult to do this type of research in such a heavily politically charged environment.

Finally, we chatted about Canada, and how both Australia and Canada seem to be walking down the same road, one before the other. In Canada, they have just completed a large-scale study (making use of options 1 and 3 above). The methodology was peer-reviewed before the study began. The results were released late last year. The findings? If you can hear the noise and if you’re against the wind farm development, you will experience symptoms of stress. They found no impact from infrasound.

The study has been rejected by the anti-wind farm movement as it was released, saying that the fact that they didn’t find anyone with issues means they didn’t carry out the study properly.

Joshi worries that this is a prediction of what will happen in Australia. No matter how thorough a study, no matter who conducts it, how impartial the investigative body, no matter how large the sample size, or how objective the methodology, findings not in accordance with the ‘wind turbine syndrome’ concept will be rejected outright. If the conclusion has been predetermined, what should the focus of the discussion really be on then?

[Thanks Ketan for your time – follow Ketan on (@KetanJ0). He_’s a source of useful info on what__’s going on in Australia_]