Wind Farm Syndrome Is the Fake Illness That Science Can't Kill
The Australian Medical Research Council is launching its third inquiry into whether wind farms cause illnesses. But is this just a excuse to slander renewable energy?
Image via Flickr user Tim Phillips
Wind Farm Syndrome (WFS) describes a range of ailments experienced by people living near wind farms. Sufferers have reported nausea, headaches, sleeplessness, and high blood pressure, all allegedly caused by the omnipresent low-frequency drone of rotating windmills.
The problem is that WFS probably doesn't exist. Two successive investigations by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) have failed to correlate wind farms with illness, which likely means the syndrome is a placebic effect of living near a wind farm and resenting the noise. This is the opinion held by most of the scientific community, which is why the NHMRC landed in hot water last week for launching another $500,000 health inquiry. And the most controversial part of the announcement? The allegation that WFS is being used to smear wind farms by fossil fuel interest groups, and that it has nothing to do with public health at all.
"The NHMRC is a public body," says Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at Sydney University. "If I was concerned about chemtrails, water fluoridation, and anti-vaccination conspiracies, there's no way they'd fund the research. Wind farm syndrome should be no different."
If you're thinking WFS deserves more attention than chemtrails, consider this: Infrasound, meaning any frequency lower than 20 hertz, is the alleged culprit behind the syndrome. Many things produce infrasound, including ceiling fans, traffic, storms, hi-fi equipment, and your own heart. Wind itself creates infrasound, with or without windmills. As Professor Chapman and 24 reviews on winds farms have concluded since 2003, WFS is seemingly all in people's heads.
"When I speak to my European colleagues about wind farms, they look at me like, What are you talking about? Apparently it's a disease that only speaks English." –Professor Simon Chapman
In his own study, Chapman audited all known health and noise complaints made about Australia's 51 wind farms between 1993 to 2012. What he discovered is that more than two-thirds of wind farms have never received a single complaint. And of the people who have complained, 73 percent were from areas targeted by anti–wind farm groups. "When I speak to my European colleagues about wind farms," he says, "they look at me like, What are you talking about? Apparently it's a disease that only speaks English."
I took this concern to professor Bruce Armstrong, who is chairing the NHMRC inquiry. He freely admits that the science has some problems, but insists that the government has a responsibility to investigate reoccurring health complaints. "And as a person interested in public health, I think it's wise to pursue all options until we have conclusive answers," he says. "There's certainly no political influence on us and I would have noticed if any other members felt otherwise."
Despite Armstrong's denial of political influence, there was a political event in Australia before the NHMRC's announcement. In November, a national inquiry into wind farms was initiated by cross-benchers David Leyonhjelm, John Madigan, Nick Xenophon, and their Federal Government torchbearer Chris Back. Of these four, Xenophon is the only one who isn't an outright climate-change skeptic, although he did vote for the repeal of the Carbon Tax.
In other words, the inquiry was called for by a bunch of ideologues endorse by anti-wind groups like the Waubra Foundation, which is chaired by Victorian mining investor Peter Mitchell. As Chapman says, "this is an inquiry that's been made in the context of a politically charged atmosphere, by a minority of cross-bench senators who just can't accept the umpire's decision."
Senator David Leyonhjelm doesn't agree. "That's 'the science is settled' argument," he says, "but the science is not settled and the idea of dismissing these people suffering chronic fatigue syndrome, amongst all sorts of problems, is unconscionable." Leyonhjelm was unwilling to enter into a debate on climate politics, simply saying that his issue is with the government subsidizing the wind industry. "If the climate is changing, the market will respond. I simply don't support corporate welfare."
However, government subsidies or even support for the renewable power source have been scarce. In 2011, the Victorian and New South Wales state governments imposed a two-kilometer buffer between new wind turbines and homes. Industry insiders say has made new wind farms almost untenable. The federal Coalition has also scrapped several wind incentive programs since 2013 as part of their wider push away from renewables.
Regardless of the environmental politics at the top, Chapman believes it all comes down to allocation of health resources. As he says, " We're now allocating money to something that isn't a health issue, away from all sorts of things that are."
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