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13 Apr 2016

The nation’s peak medical research organisation has committed more than $3 million to investigate whether or not wind farms effect human health amid ongoing controversy on the issue.

There have been persistent claims that wind farms are responsible for a range of health problems despite a lack of evidence, and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has commissioned two studies to try to determine if there is a link.

The Sydney-based Woolcock Institute of Medical Research has been awarded $1.94 million to conduct two randomised controlled trials to examine whether inaudible sounds emanating from wind turbines are causing health problems including headaches, dizziness, nausea and sleep disturbances, while a Flinders University researcher has been provided with $1.36 million to compare the relative effects of wind farms and traffic noise on sleep.

The announcement has come less than a year after the NHMRC completed its own exhaustive study, which found that there was “currently no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse effects in humans”.

A year earlier, the AMA had come to a similar conclusion. In a Position Statement released in 2014, the AMA found that “available Australian and international evidence does not support the view that the…sound generated by wind farms…causes adverse health effects”.

The-then Chair of the AMA’s Public Health Committee, Professor Geoffrey Dobb, said that although some people living near wind farms may genuinely experience health problems, these were not directly attributable to wind turbines.

Instead, it has been suggested many may be suffering from a ‘nocebo’ effect, and are becoming ill because of anxiety and dislike of wind farms rather than as a result of any sounds emanating from them.

But this has been vociferously rejected by advocates, who insist the health effects are real, and have campaigned hard for more research.

They have influential political backers in Parliament, including senior Nationals MPs and key crossbench senators, and found a receptive audience in former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Under Mr Abbott’s leadership, the Government appointed a National Wind Farm Commissioner to monitor and investigate complaints about the wind industry, and established an Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines to advise on the potential health and environmental effects of the industry, at a combined cost of more than $2.5 million over four years.

An investigation by Fairfax Media has found that a third of all complaints to the Commissioner have related to wind farms not yet constructed, while the Scientific Committee has held just two brief meetings since it was formed and is yet to provide any advice to Government.

A leading critic of the Government’s policy agenda, including the NHMRC’s research program, Sydney University public health expert Professor Simon Chapman, said internationally there had been at least 25 reviews which found little evidence that wind farms harmed health.

Professor Chapman told the Sydney Morning Herald the health effects that did exist could be put down psycho-social factors like pre-existing antipathy to wind farms and anxiety, and the research was a waste of money.

“It’s really quite disgraceful – it’s money literally poured down the drain,” he told the SMH.

But lead researcher for the Woolcock project, Professor Guy Marks, defended the research, arguing that there existed a “genuine scientific question that needs to be solved”.

“This is a hotly debated area, with many residents convinced that their health is suffering, and other people sure that it’s all a figment of their imagination,” Professor Marks said.

“As far as I am concerned, the science isn’t settled yet [and] it’s important to find out, for the sake of the communities and interests involved,” his co-researcher, Professor Ron Grunstein, said.

But even if the Woolcock and Flinders University studies find that there is no link, few expect it to be the end of the matter.

“Regardless of what we find, there will be passionate advocates that will never be convinced of our conclusion,” Professor Grunstein admitted.

The AMA Position Statement on Wind Farms and Health 2014 can be viewed at:

Adrian Rollins

Published: 13 Apr 2016