Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Community Affairs References Committee
29/03/2011
Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR —Welcome and good afternoon, Professor Chapman. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been given to all of you—is that correct?

Prof. Chapman —That is correct; I understand the procedure.

CHAIR —We have your submission, which is numbered 605. I invite each of you or one of you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Dr Burke —I am happy to make an opening statement. The Climate and Health Alliance is a national alliance made up of organisations within the health sector that are concerned about the grave risks to health, biodiversity and human civilisation from climate change and other environmental threats. We have made this submission to the inquiry on the basis of our key concern that we need an urgent transition from fossil fuels to clean renewables as a way of reducing climate risks and the risks to human health. So in that context we have made a submission. We can talk to a number of different points. One point that we would like to make is that there is always a relationship between energy supply and health, but these impacts are different depending on the type of energy supply. For example, there are obvious health effects from nuclear, that we are seeing played out in Japan at the moment; we are not going to spend time talking about them today. Coal, which contributes a lot of the current energy supply, makes a definite contribution to death and disease. Then we can look at renewables, like wind, which have the least impact of those three and a very small health impact compared to the others. So we can talk about the direct and the indirect contribution that coal and gas and the burning of coal and gas to produce energy have on health, on disease and on mortality. We can also talk to the alleged adverse health effects of wind. We have examined the literature and made some conclusions on the basis of the evidence that exists. We concur with the conclusion that there is no published scientific evidence that there are any direct links between adverse health effects and wind turbines. We can also talk about the psychological and physiological responses to stress that may be implicated in the development of perceived health effects of wind turbines. We can also talk about the ways in which negative and positive attitudes to wind power and wind turbines can be affected or developed. That is some of what we can talk to.

CHAIR —Ms Reale, in terms of an opening address do you want to add anything to that?

Ms Reale —The Climate and Health Alliance is a coalition or alliance of healthcare organisations and individuals with an interest in participating in the debate on climate change, coming from a perspective of the effects of climate change on human health. The basis of our submission and our public statements is scientific and evidence based. We have a panel or a group of experts from the academic and scientific community from whom we seek advice when we make statements and submissions. That is the basis of our submission.

Prof. Chapman —I am a sociologist by background and I have worked in the public health area of scholarship and research for about 32 years. One of the issues that I am intensely interested in is the nature of perceived risk of new health hazards in communities. I am very interested in the phenomenon of why established health risks which are of large magnitude are often ignored by communities and why infinitesimally small or non-existent health risks are sometimes responsible for causing widespread alarm in communities. With that background, over the years I have published papers in areas like why people are afraid of mobile telephone towers being positioned in their neighbourhoods in the light of the scientific evidence about the dangers of telephone towers compared, for example, to the posited risks of actually using mobile telephones. The towers have a very small risk, yet a lot of people are concerned about them; whereas the same people will often use mobile phones extensively and heavily. So I have published in that area.

What caught my interest in this area were earlier reports that there were groups of people in certain communities, including in Australia, who were suggesting that wind turbines could cause disease and illness. When I started reading these reports, I thought it sounded, prima facie, as though this was another example of something where the scientific assessment of risk was basically that there was very low to zero risk, and yet there were people in communities who were suggesting that they were being made ill by exposure to this. So I put in a submission to the National Health and Medical Research Council, which I would be pleased to summarise for you. More recently I have taken the trouble to read the self-published book by Dr Nina Pierpont, who I understand addressed your committee last week. I have a number of important criticisms to make of the statements and the claims she makes in that book which might be of interest to your committee.

CHAIR —I am happy for you to continue with those comments. Also, any further papers that you have would be useful for us.

Prof. Chapman —Sure. Let me start on Dr Pierpont’s book. I have not seen a transcript of the evidence that she gave to you, so I am assuming that she summarised some of the statements in her book. The first thing that strikes you when you see this book is that it is a self-published book. It is not a book which has been handled by a commercial publisher. You can look at the peer-reviewed literature—people in universities are able to go onto extremely large databases and look up all the published work on particular subjects, including all the work by particular authors. I have taken the trouble to do that, and Dr Pierpont has no publications at all about wind turbine syndrome, which is a concept that I understand she coined herself—she has certainly been the person who is most responsible for that concept gaining currency in the media. So she has not done any research which has been published in peer-reviewed journals. She may well have submitted some that has not been published, but we do not know that. So most of her views, beliefs and ‘research’ are contained in that book.

When you start looking at the book and seeing what she has done, you will see that she has produced case reports on just 10 families. The data is a little hard to work your way through but, as far as I can see, these 10 families involved 38 people, among whom are 21 adults. They are scattered across five countries—Canada, United States, Italy and some other nations. These are all people who once lived near wind turbines and are convinced that the turbines made them ill. My understanding is that there are something like 100,000 turbines worldwide. So the first observation I would make is that interviewing 10 families is a sample of such low representativeness I am tempted to even call it ‘homeopathic-strength’ representativeness; it is incredibly small.

The next point I would make is: how did she get onto these people? There is no description in the book about how she located them, but there is considerable material in the book about her period of activism about wind turbines before she wrote the book. So it is highly suggestive of these people knowing about her and her knowing about them through her activism against wind turbines. So what she has done is selected, in her own words, people who had strong symptoms, who had complaints that they were making a lot of noise about. This is not how you go about investigating whether or not a phenomenon or an agent causes disease. What you do in epidemiology is to engage in cohort studies where you take a bunch of people who would be exposed to an agent which is said to possibly cause harm. You would follow those people over time and you would see how many of those people faced with that exposure—ideally different levels of exposure, different distances and all that sort of thing—became ill and whether there were any characteristics in the people who became ill or who said that they became ill which may be what we call ‘confounders’ and had nothing to do at all with the fact that they were exposed to the wind turbines. There is none of that in this book at all. She just has a sample which we would probably describe as a self-selected sample of people who believe earnestly that the wind turbines had made them ill. She also states that she has chosen an articulate group of subjects. Again, you would not normally, in doing research, choose only people who were able to be very articulate about what was happening to them or what they believed was happening to them. You would approach people randomly and put every care into trying to ensure that the people that you involved in your study were people who did not exhibit any kind of selection bias, either from your side or from their side, to get into the study. So none of that is there.

Amazingly, Dr Pierpont, who is a medically qualified person, did not medically examine any of the people. Nor, as far as I can see from the book, did she access any of their medical records. So her entire study is based upon her rather aggravated informants’ accounts. Even here, she does not describe whom among the 10 families she actually interviewed. She says that she interviewed them on the phone. Remembering that many of them lived in other countries, not the United States, she does not consider for a moment questions about the accuracy of people giving reports about other people’s health in their family. That sort of stuff is very, very sloppy and, if that sort of material were submitted to a proper research journal, it would not get past first base—and I can say that with the authority of having been a medical editor for 17 years.

She provides interesting material summarising the prevalence of various health problems which these people say they had prior to the arrival of the turbines in the neighbourhoods that they once lived. These are particularly revealing. A third, for example, of the adults had past or current mental illness; a quarter of them had pre-existing episodes of migraine or permanent hearing impairment, and a large proportion also had permanent tinnitus. These rates I have just quoted are much higher than those in the general population; it is simply not the case that a quarter of the population would have migraine headaches or a third of adults would have mental illness. So the subjects that she interviewed were obviously quite unrepresentative of the general problem. One would want to ask whether there were characteristics of some of those subjects which may have been relevant to their description and their understanding of the illnesses that they said they had.

The other issue that particularly interests me is this: as far as I can see and as far as I have heard—and I have conversations with several of the wind energy companies—the people who claim to have been made ill or to have symptoms from wind turbines have never included any individuals who have those wind turbines on their own land. When you think about it, people who have turbines on their own land are going to include people who are living most closely to those turbines. So, if there is any relationship between the proximity of these turbines and the idea that they cause illness, you would expect to see illness expressed in people who live most closely, including residents who had the turbines on their land. Interestingly, no-one has put up their hand and said, ‘I’ve got them on my land and I’ve been made ill by them.’ One of the reasons for that, I suggest in my submission to the NHMRC, is that people who have these turbines on their land are given, I understand, approximately $7,000 to $10,000 per turbine each year. So, if you have, let’s say, 15 of these turbines on your land, you might be waking up each morning knowing that you have already made $150,000 that year and that the land that you own has probably greatly increased in value. Not so the land around you. So, if you were a neighbour and you do not have the correct topography to have a wind turbine or wind turbines put on your land and you can see down the road that your neighbour who does have the correct topography has $150,000 worth of earner each year, you would understandably perhaps feel annoyed. You might feel that it was unfair and you might feel that perhaps the value of your land had depreciated because of the advantage of the surrounding land—these people’s land is worth a lot more than yours because it has the wind turbines on it. These sorts of feelings may build resentment, they may cause stress. So, indirectly, one could argue that perhaps wind turbines make people upset, even ill—but it is perhaps not the wind turbines themselves; it is the effect of not being able to cash in on them.

Some of the people who are the activists in this movement who say that wind turbines cause illness go around saying that people are gagged from talking about their illnesses if they have entered into deals with the wind farm companies. My understanding is that, firstly, if you enter into any contract with somebody and, as part of entering into that contract, you suffer negligence, your common law rights are not extinguished, no matter what you have signed. So, if you were a landowner with turbines and you felt that you were ill and you had that illness diagnosed by a medical practitioner, you would not be precluded from taking a negligent action against the owner.

CHAIR —Professor Chapman, we are going to have to ask you to conclude very shortly because we are going to run out of time.

Prof. Chapman —They are probably the main points I would like to make. I think that a lot of this hue and cry about wind turbines is basically people living in sometimes-depressed rural circumstances where they see some of their neighbours becoming well-off as a result of having them, getting resentful and perhaps expressing symptoms as a result of that.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator FIELDING —I have just been online and read that 59 minutes ago you were on ABC Online with the arguments you have just presented. Some people could argue that you are an activist writing op eds on the ABC Online. We have to be careful about who is an activist, on which side of the camp, and the arguments. Who wrote the submission for the Climate and Health Alliance?

Dr Burke —The convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance, Fiona Armstrong.

Prof. Chapman —Yes. Fiona Armstrong.

Dr Burke —It was a collaborative effort of members of the Climate and Health Alliance.

Senator FIELDING —What is Fiona Armstrong’s background?

Dr Burke —She is a policy analyst and the convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance. Members of the board of the Climate and Health Alliance also contributed to the writing of the submission. We also have an expert advisory committee, which Elizabeth talked about before, that reviews what we prepare and comment.

Prof. Chapman —Senator Fielding, in relation to your comment about whether I am an activist: for many years, I have been an academic who does not believe in just parking my work in obscure research journals which are available on subscription only to other researchers and nobody ever gets to read those articles or to understand what sort of research is going on. I have always made it my business to not only publish work in the scientific literature—and I have over 400 papers in scientific journals—but also to write things for the popular press and try to explain science and medical issues to the community whenever I can, which is why I put the article online today.

Senator FIELDING —Would you folks be opposed to some research being done on the adverse health impacts? Claims are being made by both sides of the debate, and we are trying to get to the bottom of those issues.

Prof. Chapman —I think it would be a wonderful idea. The only caveat I would put on that is that the research would be very expensive and it would need to go on for quite some time. It is not the sort of research where you could walk in and have it completed within a week. It would not be quick and dirty research. Ideally, it would involve cohorts who would be followed over time and it would need to involve sufficient numbers of people to get sufficient statistical power to show any differences between people who were exposed and non-exposed.

Senator MOORE —My only question is about the form of research that would be undertaken. We have heard general agreement that there has not been an independent research process done on the issues of health around wind farms in Australia or overseas; there is consensus around that process. Professor, you have just said that it would have to be long term. Do any of the people here or on the phone have any ideas about whether and how such a research process should happen? You have not had the advantage of hearing the evidence at yesterday’s hearing in Ballarat; many people came forward talking about their concerns about their health as a result of the process and they are calling for independent assessment.

Prof. Chapman —Yes. What they mean presumably by independent are people who are not affiliated in any way with the energy companies. There are many scientists in the Australian community who could be involved who have no affiliation at all with the energy companies. I do not have any relationship with them at all. I have never been to any of their meetings. I have never received any money. I have never received any research funding—nothing like that. There are many epidemiologists who are employed in Victoria, New South Wales and all over the country—Australia has an excellent reputation in the epidemiological study of disease—who could be involved. But I would caution that there are individuals who have made careers almost out of aligning themselves with claims that wind turbine syndrome is a real phenomenon. Those people ought to be viewed with circumspection when the time comes to appoint people to independent investigative panels.

Dr Burke —Our belief is that any examination of health effects from wind should also consider the adverse health effects from existing energy generation. There is already a lot of evidence of the significant contribution made to mortality and disease burden across the world from burning coal and other processes involved in the extraction, mining, transportation and so forth of coal. So, when a study is done examining the health effects of wind, it also has to take into consideration the considerable known and existing health impacts from our existing energy supply.

Ms Reale —I concur with Susie that, while there is negligible evidence of negative health effects caused by wind farms, there is evidence that demonstrates significant health effects from the burning of fossil fuels, both indirectly and directly from particulate matter that is released in the burning of fossil fuels and in the longer term of its contribution to climate change and the negative health implications associated with that, which we are beginning to see.

Senator MOORE —A number of contributors today have made that comment. I am concerned that there is some inference that, because there are known dangers with one form of energy, we should not investigate another. I want to give you the chance to make it clear that there is no causal linkage there. This particular group is charged with looking at concerns that have been raised about wind energy. We have heard evidence from people who claim that there have been health concerns. It is documented that there has not been an independent investigation through epidemiological processes to investigate that. That was the question. We thank you for your comment about coal and we acknowledge that, but the question was about wind.

Dr Burke —Fine. I concur with what Simon said.

Senator BOYCE —I am somewhat intrigued by the idea of a psychological condition called annoyance, which was mentioned several times. Could someone explain to me the basis for the evidence around such a condition?

Dr Burke —No, there is no psychological condition called annoyance. Annoyance is not a health problem; annoyance is annoying. The three major reviews that have been done looking at the health effects of wind, which have all concluded that there are no direct causal links between wind turbines and pathological adverse health impacts, have also noted that there is some evidence that annoyance levels increase in close proximity to wind turbines for some people and that protracted annoyance can increase stress, which can lead to a number of stress conditions that can manifest in a number of different responses that a person can have. Curiously, they are very similar to the symptoms that are described by wind turbine syndrome. For example, a stress condition can include dizziness, nausea, drowsiness and so forth. So, no, annoyance is not in any way a psychological health problem.

Prof Chapman —Perhaps I can come in there with an analogy. I live in Sydney in the suburb of Stanmore, which is directly under the flight path on the way to Sydney airport. You will recall that a few years ago the government put the levy on arrivals and departures into Sydney to pay for a noise insulation program. At the time the department in which I worked, the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, was commissioned to undertake a study as to whether people living under the flight path were being made ill by the sound and the vibration of the aircraft coming in. Certainly there were a lot of expressions of annoyance. I would have put my hand up and said that I was very annoyed by it as well. I have had an uncounted number of conversations stopped by noisy aircraft going overhead. But as to whether it makes you sick—one could identify a noise-induced syndrome in people living underneath those aircraft, which are much, much louder than anything emanating from wind turbines—was not found to be the case in the investigation that was undertaken by our department.

Senator BOYCE —The question for me still comes down to whether annoyance, as some people have suggested, is because some people are annoyed that their neighbour is getting an income stream from the wind turbines and they are not or whether it is caused by non-stop sound. Some people yesterday were talking about vibrations. How much of a cause and effect are we talking about here? We cannot simply dismiss annoyance altogether, if the cause of the annoyance is leading to people being so stressed that they become ill.

Dr Burke —Annoyance is also associated with fears. Media focus on alleged adverse health effects is one example of something that can exacerbate a person’s perceived discomfort or annoyance from wind turbines. So there are a number of situational and contextual factors that will also increase a person’s subjective experience of annoyance, because annoyance is a subjective effect. There is also an association with higher annoyance levels in relation to wind turbines from negative attitudes towards wind turbines. I would like to talk about negative attitudes towards turbines because I think that is an important part of this discussion. There is also the visual factor. The visual aspect of the wind turbines in proximity will also be related to annoyance. That has nothing to do with sound; that is only visual.

Senator BOYCE —No, it is just the sight.

Dr Burke —Yes, which is a different issue altogether. Most of the research that has looked at these alleged health effects has looked at the issue of sound, both the audible sound and the infrasound, but not the sight of the turbines.

Ms Reale —Annoyance is surely relative, too. I live on a busy road with trams and trains nearby. They are not going to stop the trains or the trams because I get woken up at five o’clock in the morning. It is an annoyance, but it is relative—

Senator BOYCE —I suggest that what you perceive to be the level of choice you had in that annoyance would be very relevant to how annoying you found it.

Ms Reale —There are factors; it is not entirely a matter of choice.

Senator ADAMS —You knew you were going there and those roads and things were there. I would like to ask the three of you whether you feel that rural communities are being imposed upon by wind farms

Dr Burke —That is a good segue to what I did want to talk about, which was people’s perception of wind farm developments in their communities. I am now talking a bit about the Australian Psychological Society’s submission that we made to this inquiry as well, where we looked at the research done into positive and negative attitudes to wind farms. Certainly, where people feel as if a wind farm has been imposed on them, they have been brought in late to the picture, and there is a sense that they have not had much control over the process, they are more likely to have a negative attitude to the farms.

Another very important way of understanding people’s negative attitudes is around this concept that environmental psychologists call ‘place protective factors’. We all have a place identity and people feel that in different ways. We are attached to our place. So when there is a perception that a wind farm coming into a community threatens the identity and the meaning that the place has to you, it is likely to be perceived more negatively than if it fits within your perceptions of place. But it very much depends on the type of place perception a person has.

A person might have a perception of place as an economic entity, or they might have a perception of a place to do with their local ownership of the area, in which case they would like to be consulted early in the picture and have a lot of say in what happens there. It might be associated with nature, in which case the visual impact might be a very significant factor. Or their place identity may be associated with their place as a resource, in which case the economic and local benefits that come to the community from having a wind farm there might be perceived in a very positive way. So there is a lot of research that environmental psychologists are doing which looks at place attachment and place protective behaviours in association with people’s attitudes about wind farms.

I have just talked about the negative perceptions. I could also talk about the factors that have an impact on individuals and communities having a positive perception of wind farms, because that is a very important question for the inquiry to consider. If a wind farm is seen to be bringing direct benefits to the people in a community—and we have heard how landowners often receive those direct benefits—by bringing local jobs and stimulating the local economy, it is going to be perceived more favourably. If the developers are held in high trust, if they are seen as good citizens and if the community is engaged in the process from the outset, they are more likely to have positive perceptions. Also, if the placement of the wind farm is not at odds with people’s conceptions of their place and identity, if the local construction impacts and the impact on the natural environment are reduced or minimised, and if it is not too large and too close to other wind farms or series of wind turbines, that is also associated with more positive attitudes. All of those factors are associated with individual and communities having positive attitudes.

There is an association between negative attitudes towards wind farms and annoyance levels. Protracted annoyance can lead to stress related conditions that can lead to a number of distressing symptoms for people, but these are not pathological health effects.

Senator ADAMS —Have any of you been to a small rural community that is undergoing the consultation phase of having a wind farm in it and with no other wind farm within cooee? It has all of a sudden arrived, nobody knew anything about it and a lot of the planning has been done. Have you been to those sorts of communities to talk to people?

Dr Burke —I live close to Hepburn where a very different process was engaged in and where the community was involved.

Senator ADAMS —We visited that yesterday, so we are fully aware of the background to it.

Ms Reale —I was going to say the same thing. I have been around the Daylesford area and the process, I understand, was quite consultative and encouraged by the local community.

Prof. Chapman —In 2006 I lived in France. Wind turbines are very common in France. Because I had not seen them before, I often used to ask my friends and associates about them. I did not hear anybody talk about any community concerns regarding them at all. They just seemed to be part of the landscape and very well accepted in the French community.

Senator ADAMS —They would be part of the landscape because there are a lot around. But that is different when you have a very small, isolated community that has not had the experience of something like that and all of a sudden it is coming and nothing can be done about it. If you had a wind tower in close proximity to where you had bought your property I know I would not be too happy. It is fine to be able to review papers and talk about the academic side, but I think we have to get back to the grassroots feelings of the people who have an income and an investment and all of a sudden they see that threatened. There are a lot of different sides to this and I feel that those people are being ignored.

Dr Burke —You are right. Within their concerns are an enormous number of issues that can be addressed in proposed developments that will meet their concerns and address their needs. That includes their being involved, it being a participatory process, for the benefits to be felt in the local community and for it also to be considered what their place identity is—what the place means to people, because it differs within a community and from one community to the next. They are important considerations, I agree.

Senator ADAMS —One of the things that stood out from this inquiry is the fact that community consultation has been very poor. The Hepburn project is a very different project, but that is the only one where we have had community consultation in the way it has been done. But with the others, unfortunately, the problem is that they have been secret societies. We have had that come back and back and back to us. People have invested in property and are feeling quite hurt because they were not involved and all of a sudden it has been imposed upon them.

Dr Burke —Yes, and within that there are lots of keys as to how to do it better and bring them along with it.

Senator ADAMS —I am a nurse as well, and yesterday I was quite concerned about some of our witnesses who came forward to the panel with their health problems. They were stressed—that is fine—but there definitely was a problem. Just from the description of what they were hearing and what they had been suffering from, those people need some help. I would like to come to the conclusion somehow that we can do the research and find out what is going on. As far as the measurements go, a number of them were upset because the noise within their homes was quite considerable, with the vibration and the other issues that went with their concerns. We have been told that now the monitoring is done at least 10 meters from their home—it is done 24 hours a day—to determine whether the turbines are working or not working. So the data is being collected like that, but the sounds that occur within the confines of their home are not physically being collected from where those people live. I know that is difficult if the radio is on and all the rest of it, but I do not think the research has been done well enough to completely dismiss it as an annoyance factor.

Dr Burke —A lot of research has been done in the UK because there are lots of proposed wind developments there. One of the colleagues we have referenced in our paper, Patrick Devine-Wright, who is an environmental psychologist there, is studying community perceptions of wind turbines, wind and other renewables. A lot of the work I was talking about with place-protectiveness comes from his work. Certainly looking at the stress impacts and how to minimise those impacts is an important part. They use the term ‘NIMBY-ism’, which we often understand as a pejorative term to denigrate people who are opposed to having wind farms in their backyard. But from an environmental psychologist perspective, it is considered to be a derogatory term because it minimises the genuine concerns people have about the need to be consulted and to be able to protect the place they live in. That is not to say that the wind turbines are having a direct health effect on them, but it is to take into consideration, in the ways in which they are planned and put into place, the needs of the community.

Prof. Chapman —Your concerns, which you expressed so well then, Senator, underline the need to do the sort of research that we were asked about before. In a proper study you would put these monitors and this reading apparatus next to or adjacent to the houses of people who had the turbines on their land and who were being paid. Then you would be able to ascertain whether the fact of being paid is what we would call a ‘protective factor’ from expressing wind turbine syndrome and some of these conditions that you saw with your witnesses the other day. If objectively this noise is capable of hurting people, why does it tend to hurt or harm only people who do not have them on their land, if that is indeed a finding that could emerge from this?

Senator BOYCE —The Department of Climate Change has developed some best practice guidelines around the topic of wind farms, including community consultation. I do not know whether the alliance has had a chance to look at them. If not, would you mind doing so and giving us your comments in terms of how you think they might be improved or changed. These have been developed by the Department of Climate Change at COAG’s request, so you will appreciate that they might be a consensual guideline in some cases.

Dr Burke —Yes. It would be a pleasure for us to do that.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. You have a bit of homework, or questions that you have taken on notice. If you could get it to us within a couple of weeks, that would be much appreciated because we have a fairly tight reporting deadline. That concludes our hearing today. We will reconvene on 31 March for a public hearing in Perth.

Prof. Chapman —Thank you.

Committee adjourned at 5.41 pm