CLIMATE SPECTATOR: Worried sick by anti-wind lobbyers

Anti-wind lobbyers may be making people sick with anxiety. Australian lawmakers should reserve judgement on wind farms until the findings of an independent review are published.

On Thursday Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan and Independent Senator Nick Xenophon introduced an onerous bill to parliament that seeks to cause roadblocks for wind power based on scientific evidence that doesn’t exist.

The senators took the bill to parliament despite a Senate committee finding that it should not be considered.

As discussed previously on Climate Spectator, the bill seeks to tighten noise restrictions to a level much more stringent than current state regulations (which are already strong on a global basis) and make wind farm owners publish information about noise, wind speed and direction, weather conditions and power output on the internet.

The senators insist they are concerned about the health of residents in the proximity of wind farms, yet realistically the number of grievances is far less than they make out.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry saw a number of complaints about health effects of wind farms by residents, but the majority came from people where there was yet to be a wind farm in the vicinity. They were simply concerned about the potential for health effects from the possible building of a wind farm near their home. And who could blame them given the rise of the likes of the Waubra Foundation and Landscape Guardians.

"The committee received just over 160 submissions, of which a little under 140 supported the bill and/or expressed concern about noise effects. Of these, the majority were from people worried about whether they might experience noise or health effects from proposed wind farms, rather than from people who claimed to have actually experienced annoyance or other adverse effects,” the final report advised.

For all the discussion of a wave of concern among residents near wind farms, hardly anyone bothered to make their feelings known to a committee that could actually help them. More to the point, most of the complaints came from a select few wind farms.

"The number of health-related complaints about wind farms is small in proportion to the number of people living near these facilities. The numbers also vary greatly from one facility to the next, for reasons not apparently related to the number of residents in the area.”

This point is crucial as it shows how much of an impact Waubra and the Landscape Guardians are having. The anti-wind lobbyers are entering communities and spreading the message that ‘wind turbine syndrome’ is a major concern. It is leading to the ‘nocebo’ effect and sadly, likely causing sickness where it would otherwise not be present.

Take submission 31 for example:

"I support the proposal amendments to this Bill because I will be close to (a) proposed wind development if it is built, and don’t want to be getting sick in my own home and unable to sleep just like the people at Waubra who came and told me about their situation.”

There is strong reason to believe that much of the distress caused to the minority over wind farms is coming through anxiety; the expectation that they will become ill is making them ill.

A peer reviewed study to be published in January by Health Psychology, an official scientific publication of the American Psychological Association, finds that "psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints”. In other words, if you are informed about ‘wind turbine syndrome’ then you are likely to report symptoms even when there is no exposure to infrasound*.

Professor Simon Chapman, professor in public health at the University of Sydney, told the committee the feelings of distress are typically real but the cause is misinterpreted.

"I want to emphasise that, by talking about nocebo effects or psychogenic effects, I am not saying at all that people who say that they are feeling nauseous or have any of the other 207 diseases or symptoms I have seen on the internet are making it up. They very often genuinely do have those symptoms, but it is whether or not they are actually being caused by the turbines or by the anxiety which is being spread about the turbines,” he said.

As a simple example of this, earlier this week I accidentally ate mouldy cheese. Upon realising I became concerned it would cause me to become ill. A few minutes later I found myself sweating and thinking I was getting a stomach ache. Increasingly worried, I turned to the internet and discovered the small quantity I had eaten was unlikely to cause any trouble. Following that my anxiety dissipated and the stomach ache and sweating quickly faded.

Highlighting the toxicity of the debate is some ridiculous claims from those against wind farms. Pacific Hydro, in a response to a submission, noted that some of the complaints it receives are strange, to say the least.

"We have had complaints which include increased mosquitos in the area and another where it is alleged an earth tremor was caused by the wind farm. We have also had a complaint about significant noise and health impacts from one of our wind farms while it was shut down for maintenance for an extended period,” Pacific Hydro’s Lane Crockett said.

It’s time we took a step back and waited for the National Health and Medical Research Council to release its latest analysis of research into the health impacts of wind farms in mid-2013. Rash decisions thanks to a vocal minority with influence but no evidence won’t do the country any favours.

*The abstract of the study can be found here. It is submission five in the correspondence section.