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COMMUNITY AFFAIRS REFERENCES COMMITTEE
31/03/2011
Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR —Welcome. I know that you will be fully used to giving evidence at Senate committees. Just to double check: I understand that you have information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence.

Prof. Anderson —Yes.

CHAIR —We have received your submission. We have both the rapid review and your submission, thank you. I would like to invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Prof. Anderson —I thank the committee for this opportunity. This issue was brought to us by the chief medical officers of the states of the National Health and Medical Research Council. They are members of our council. In 2009, being aware of growing concern about the possible health effects of wind farms or wind turbines as a result of their quest for us to look into it, we issued that public statement. We are keeping this under review, and we have always intended to do so, because the review that we undertook of the literature showed that at that time there was not a lot of high-quality, peer-reviewed literature there. On that basis we felt it very important to keep it under review. We have recently done another scan and we have begun a more thorough review of the literature, about two years on.

Senator FIELDING —I note from your submission that there was a December 2009 meeting of the council. Some scientific literature was submitted to the council in December 2009.

Prof. Anderson —That is correct.

Senator FIELDING —Is that public, and if not, could you table that document?

Prof. Anderson —It is public but we would be delighted to provide you with the link on our website.

Senator FIELDING —Not the public statement; I am after the literature that was submitted. It could be public; I just have not checked.

Prof. Anderson —Our review of the literature is public.

Senator FIELDING —That is correct. I am interested in the literature that was submitted to the council at the December 2009 meeting.

Prof. Anderson —The literature was not submitted to it. We surveyed the published public domain literature to see what was there. As would be the case with any review we do, whether it is into clinical guidelines of treating glaucoma or whatever, we look at what has been published in the public domain and then review what that means.

Senator FIELDING —Could you table the document that was submitted to the council’s December 2009 meeting, whatever it was, or take it on notice?

Prof. Anderson —I am delighted to do that. I just want to be sure that I have fully understood your wish. Do you want the information provided to the council meeting itself?

Senator FIELDING —That is correct.

CHAIR —By the health ministers.

Prof. Anderson —Thank you.

Senator FIELDING —Regarding the publications that were reviewed by three expert international and local peer reviews before being issued, could you give us the names of those three international experts and the local peer reviewers, or provide them on notice?

Prof. Anderson —I will take the question on notice. We normally get reviews on the basis of confidentiality and so we would need to contact those reviewers before we disclose their names. That is standard. You will understand that we get many thousands of peer review comments on all our grant applications each year, and that is our standard process. But I will take your question on notice, and we can certainly provide the reviews themselves.

Senator FIELDING —If it is confidential, you can provide that confidentially to the committee and provide reasons why, but you can still provide it to the committee on a confidential basis.

Prof. Anderson —Thank you for that clarification.

Senator FIELDING —In point 19 you say that the NHMRC has begun updating its review of the published scientific literature. Could you provide the committee with the terms of reference and the method to that?

Prof. Anderson —It is our own staff who are doing that.

Senator FIELDING —But are there terms of reference and a method for how you are going to be doing that?

Prof. Anderson —There are the standard scientific methods for the review of literature, and we are using the expertise of the departmental library. We are very happy to provide an explanation of how we are going about it.

Senator FIELDING —If you could provide that for me, I would appreciate it. When did you start that updating?

Prof. Anderson —We have kept it under pretty continuous review since the original public statement. As I said in my opening statement, we are very aware that the high-quality scientific literature in this area is very thin. That is why we were at pains to point out that we believe that a precautionary approach should be taken to this, because, as you would understand, the absence of evidence does not mean that there might not be evidence in the future; it is just that, at the stage when the review was done, it was not there. So we have kept an eye on the literature during the period of time, and we are aware of some papers that have since been published.

Prof. McCallum —If I may make a brief addition to that, the initiative for that really comes out of a constant dialogue with the states and the chief health officers. So that was already on our radar, if you like, from that discussion prior to this hearing.

Prof. Anderson —Our council has on it all the chief medical officers of every state and territory, and this has been an item that we have discussed or has been brought to our attention a number of times at council meetings. So it is one of those topics—not the only one—that we keep a watching brief on in the office of NHMRC.

Senator FIELDING —I would be interested to know the qualifications of the person or people undertaking the research for the literature review.

Prof. McCallum —There is of course a process following that. I am the leader of that, as the head of research translation group. I am a PhD from Oxford. I have a long experience in epidemiological research. Prior to joining NHMRC, a bit over 12 months ago, I was a senior deputy vice-chancellor at a university. That is in brief, but we can respond in detail.

Senator FIELDING —Thank you. In point 22 you mention that the workshops will inform NHMRC in revision of the rapid review. Could you provide, on notice, what will be entailed in those workshops, what the scope of them is, what the terms of reference are—just to give the committee an understanding of what the process is going to be in that regard?

Prof. Anderson —We are certainly happy to do that. This is part of a series of workshops we often hold on issues for a wide range of things. I just want to make an important point. Whether we are talking about contentious areas in science—such as use of embryos or animals in research—ethical issues or clinical issues that are contentious, we make sure that we have good representation from all interested parties and we try not to restrict it to any particular part of society who have an interest in the area. So we will be making sure that the many people with whom we have been in very close contact over the two years who do have a concern about this issue are important parts of the workshop.

Senator FIELDING —On point 14 it is written:

NHMRC is aware of many anecdotes of people living near wind turbines experiencing health effects. These anecdotes, however, need further scientific investigation.

What are you proposing by ‘scientific investigation?’ What is the method and terms of reference? What do you mean by ‘further scientific investigation?’

Prof. Anderson —On the anecdotes, since our statement many groups and individuals have been in contact with us and we are aware of other descriptions and anecdotes of individuals, including from Dr Pierpont’s work. The point we are trying to make there is that although anecdotes can help form scientific investigation they are not by themselves that. So it was rather shorthand, I suppose, and it was followed up in the sentence below. We are encouraging scientists—epidemiologists and others—to think about this area and use the information that the anecdotes and individual patients have provided to better design epidemiological approaches to investigate the issues. Anecdotes are very valuable ways of honing the questions to be asked.

Senator FIELDING —So you are not proposing any scientific investigation yourselves?

Prof. Anderson —No, we do not do scientific investigations ourselves as the NHMRC; we fund others to do that. We have not funded anything in this area through our normal funding schemes at this stage. I have no doubt that one of the important questions that will be addressed at the workshop is whether there is a need for specific forms of research. In that regard, we have already begun some discussions with other international bodies in this area to see whether there are some international approaches that could be taken, which are often very valuable in these areas of epidemiology. We have been in contact with other authorities. As I said, I expect that the people who come to that workshop may wish to develop ideas or particular approaches that could be taken to address the specific concerns.

Senator FIELDING —Quite a few people have presented to this committee, albeit those who are convinced that their adverse health effects are from living near wind turbines. I understand that there are differing expert opinions on whether, conclusively, there are or are not. They have been critical of the NHMRC’s statement that was put out. All of the industry and most bodies approving the installation of wind turbines are relying on the NHMRC statement. The criticism has been that the rapid review statement has relied heavily on industry linked and industry funded research. What is your view of those statements—that is, that you have relied on industry research?

Prof. Anderson —You have raised a very important question. It is always an issue for health research. A lot of health research is funded by pharmaceutical companies, if it is around cancer, or by interested parties. That always has to be taken into account and we do. We looked at what literature was available. We did not do any particular selection of that; we looked at what was there. We tried to take into account the source of it, the scientific rigour of it and where it was from. We tried to weigh those things up, but I do want to make a point to anybody who is relying on this.

We regard this as a work in progress. We certainly do not believe that this question has been settled. That is why we are keeping it under constant review. That is why we said in our review that we believe authorities must take a precautionary approach to this. That is what we do say in medicine anyhow, but this is very important here because of the very early stage of the scientific literature. In any area we make statements on, we are robust, we are used to being criticised from all sorts of directions and we cannot be responsible for the use that others make of the literature as you would be aware.

The main thing I wanted to say is that, if there are ill effects, that is a very important thing for the NHMRC. We have not done something and walked away, we are keeping it under review and we would expect that as the literature matures and becomes more advanced and there are better studies that the possible ill effects will emerge strongly. I think you will recognise that we have said that if people do believe that they are suffering from ill effects, they should see their doctor because we need to build up the evidence about the occurrence of this and people who are feeling unwell should see their doctor anyhow.

Senator FIELDING —I understand and someone else may pick up that issue. I have one last area. As always this is a very tricky, very delicate area. Fairly or unfairly obviously when a statement has been made with certain caveats, which you have certainly put on that first statement, there are people who are going to say that it has over relied on industry linked or industry backed research. It is a real concern for a lot of people who want to get to the bottom of whether there are adverse health impacts caused by living close by to wind turbines. It is of huge concern and you are making some, I think, rightly qualified statements that we have to take a precautionary approach. It seems to me that that precaution may not be being taken because everyone is putting a very large weight on the NHMRC’s rapid review statement and saying that there are no adverse health impacts from living near wind turbines and everyone is just approving them on that basis. That is of huge concern to me.

Prof Anderson —I know that the headline on that public statement says that, but the document does not say that. It did say that there was no published scientific evidence at that stage to positively link the two. That is a very different thing to saying that there are no ill effects and we do not say that there are no ill effects. We definitely do not say it that way. I guess we felt a little bit damned if you do and damned if you don’t because there had been no statement about it. We were aware, because of our council’s concern about this, that there was growing concern. We are certainly aware of it more generally and we felt that, given our council had asked us to address it and given that we had looked at the public literature at that time, it would have been irresponsible then to be silent on it. We were aware that it came with that sort of impact so early on. I am trying to emphasise that the council takes its responsibility very seriously and we will keep this under constant review because of the very large public interest in it. As you are implying if there are ill effects they are really very important. All we can do is make a statement on the basis of what was available in the public domain with a gradation across that on its reliability and call it as we saw it at the time.

Prof. McCallum —Could I make a quick comment?

Senator FIELDING —You probably can. I am sorry that I am being so rushed, I do have to leave but the other senators will probably follow on from some of those discussions.

CHAIR —Mr McCallum, yes, of course you can make a statement.

Prof. McCallum —It is in relation to the use of industry funded research. The critical factor for us in what is a sparse literature field was that the evidence had been peer reviewed. Professor Anderson has indicated that industry funded research will appear in various systematic reviews but the critical factor is that it is peer reviewed so to get if you like a different answer to this question it will need new evidence that is scientific and peer reviewed that does show a positive impact on health from wind turbines. That is really where the field has to advance to to get to that question.

Senator ADAMS —You did not hear the witness before. There will be a transcript of evidence from the Oil Mallee Association. They had a number of adverse comments about your literature, so I think it would be very good for you to read that. The other thing I would like to follow up is the conclusion in your rapid response paper, right at the bottom of page 8. We have had a number of developers come before the committee and they have relied so much on this. You say:

This review of the available evidence, including journal articles, surveys, literature reviews and government reports, supports the statement that: There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines.

That statement seems to have gone right through the whole area and we have had it quoted back to us time and time again. I am sure that you are aware of Haste makes waste: an analysis of the National Health and Medical Research Council “Wind turbines and health—a rapid review of the evidence, July 2010”, prepared by the Society for Wind Vigilance. Have you got a response to the comments they have made against this paper?

Prof. Anderson —We have been in a very large amount of toing and froing and letters and our staff have been talking to a very large number of groups. We are very aware of a great deal of criticism. It comes with the territory for the NHMRC. It comes through in any contentious health area when the evidence is still very early. I know your own interest in cancer and you will know that there are many areas of cancer therapy and cancer treatments that are still controversial because the evidence is not strong. As I said to Senator Fielding, if others have used our literature in a way that we might not agree with, there is not that much I can do about it. I want to point out that the beginning of that paragraph refers to the ‘review of the available literature’.

Senator ADAMS —I realise that, but it has been used very loosely, I suppose, and it has possibly increased community concern. It is just that those who have problems are very upset about it, and of course the promoters are using it to their advantage. So it has caused quite a lot of grief. I have just been going through your public statement of July 2010 to see if I could find anything about this being reviewed again. I cannot, but I do not have the whole statement with me, I don’t think. But it would be very good if NHMRC could relieve a few people. The fact is these are being constantly reviewed. I think that is a very important piece of information for the public at this stage.

Prof. McCallum —I think that is implied by the fact that the relevant authorities, of which we are one, take a precautionary approach. So we totally exclude ourselves from that responsibility in terms of that review.

Prof. Anderson —I fully understand the point you are making, Senator Adams, and I just make the statement again that I made to Senator Fielding. I think we could have been quiet. We could have said, ‘This is all too controversial.’ We could have said, ‘We have done this work and this is what we found, but we won’t stick our head up above the parapet.’ But we felt we should publish this because there are many questions here. There are relative risks from different forms of energy. We know that there are health risks from any form of energy generation, so I think it is a very important public arena.

I hope that other people who you have been in contact with or who have made submissions have felt that when they have contacted my office about this they have had a respectful interaction with the staff. I know that there have been many contacts and that we have written many letters. We are not dismissing those concerns at all, in fact, and we will make sure that those voices are heard in any further work that we do.

Senator ADAMS —I know of one person who rang your office and did not have a very satisfactory response—Mrs Pam McGregor from Kojonup. She rang and asked for a list of the peer reviewed authors who produced the first document that you put out and she did not receive a very favourable comment. For the second question she asked I have not got her exact words in front of me at the moment, but perhaps I could ask her when she returns from Scotland to ring again and ask the same questions and she may get a better answer.

Prof. Anderson —She should contact me and I will make sure that we answer the questions to the best of our ability. As I said to Senator Fielding, we do not normally disclose the identity of peer reviewers. There are a number of reasons for that. But I gave Senator Fielding an assurance around that as well. If she wishes to, I do invite her to contact me personally.

Senator ADAMS —No. 15 on the NHMRC statement that we received this morning suggests that people who believe they are experiencing any health problems should consult their GP promptly and in doing so they will contribute to the body of knowledge to inform future health and medical research on this issue. Earlier we heard from Doctors for the Environment. Dr Crisp was representing them. He is a suburban GP here in Perth. He said that is completely invalid. I asked him how they would go about their research if, hypothetically, he had a large grant and a group of GPs—the General Practice Network or something like that—and they were complaining about these issues. He felt that, if somebody came individually to speak to them about something, that knowledge would be retained within their surgery and would not go any further. He certainly was not very happy with the statement under No. 15. Can you comment on that?

Prof. Anderson —Thank you. Perhaps we have been too shorthand and that is a bit misleading. What we have in mind is the approach where researchers working in clinical care, primary care and other areas often frame their research questions on the basis of the input from their individual patients—infectious disease or whatever it may be. So patients talking to research doctors helps form the question. Also, think about the case studies that are often published in the literature. They are always anonymous of course. People publish very interesting case studies that lead on to systematic research and the sort of book that Dr Pierpont has put out, which has some descriptions of individual circumstances. Again, I am sure that will be interesting input into the design of experiments in the future. We did not mean around individual patients but just building up the knowledge in the sector of the sorts of issues that are being brought to the health system by patients.

Senator ADAMS —As a nurse, I really could not understand where he was coming from with that, because I would have thought it would be a cohort of GPs working with the network. Or even, later on, if we have got the Medicare locals, I suppose that would be an area where they could do that research. If you get a number of people complaining of the same thing and then you speak to one of your friends and they are getting the same thing, if it were an infectious issue that would be the way to go.

CHAIR —We had quite a bit of discussion around this. I think you would probably need to look at the context of the comments that Dr Crisp was making, because he was saying was that you collect a body of information from GPs that builds up about a disease—as Senator Adams just said—and then you have to go to bigger-picture research because otherwise you have got a biased cohort because you have only got the mob that is sick. I think perhaps you should have a look at the transcript to look at the dialogue that we had around that. Again, I think we are talking at cross purposes, which is what we were doing at the time.

Prof. Anderson —I withdraw the analogy. I thought that the Senator described the situation really quite well because when new diseases arise it is often in primary care and by GPs that it is identified—HIV would be one, SARS would be another—so the need for research comes out of the experience of those working in the health system.

CHAIR —The point he was making is that we have gone beyond that with this issue—that data is out there now—and that perhaps we are now at the bigger-picture research stage, because there are now people out there going to their GPs.

Prof. Anderson —That is certainly an arguable position.

CHAIR —Senator Adams was coming from somewhere a bit differently. There was a conversation where there was a bit of cross-purpose discussion going on. In other words, I think that both were probably right but they were coming from different perspectives. If you could have a look at the transcript and give us some feedback that would be really appreciated.

Prof. Anderson —I will do that.

Senator MOORE —Dr Anderson, does your website now reflect the fact that there is ongoing work being done on this issue by the NHMRC?

Prof. McCallum —It is not on the website but it has come out through our regular communication, which is called Tracker.

Prof. Anderson ——Tracker is on the website, actually.

Senator MOORE —I would just suggest that because of the number of people interested in this area and the way it has been discussed, it would be useful to have that clearly on the website. My understanding of this particular group of people is that they are very reliant on the internet and website, and communicate very effectively in that way. So it would be useful if it was available.

Dr Anderson, it seems to me that a couple of the statements, particularly your public statement and the background submission you provided to us, do suffer a little bit from shorthand. That has led to different understandings from some of the people who have been reading them most closely. You did clarify that NHMRC does not in itself do scientific research. A number of the people coming before our committee did not understand that. I think it is important that that is very clear—that this is a review of the literature not a scientific investigation. I just want to clarify whether, to the best of you knowledge, you have had any requests for research grants on these issues in the last two to three years?

Prof. Anderson —We have certainly not funded anything. I will need to take that one on notice in terms of requests.

Senator MOORE —That would be really useful because we read with interest, as you know Dr Anderson, the ones that get funded. I am interested because there was clearly a recommendation in the work that you did that there needed to be more research. I think to an extent that recommendation—that you considered that there needed to be research—has been lost. I am interested as to whether there has been an uptake in the scientific community to come forward with requests for funding for that.

There was one other thing. In terms of the paper that came out in 2010, and also your public statement, does the NHMRC ever in their documentation make comment about the use of material that has been funded by people who may be seen to have a conflict of interest?

Prof. Anderson —We have a lot of documentation around all our processes around the issue of conflicts of interest. We do not usually make a value judgment on it but we have rules around it. In fact, a discussion document is about to be released, having been through our council, on this whole area of conflict of interest. It is not just in research here, but it is in guideline development. Indeed it is in community advocacy for that matter. People often cloak a health concern over a different concern.

Parliamentarians would know, more than anybody, that the need to be transparent is crucial in our society and our democracy. So we take this very seriously. We would be very happy to share with you this forthcoming document we have on conflicts of interest. It is at the heart of things. Those of you on the committee will remember the problem we got into with the ADHD guidelines. When we were just about to publish them it was made known to us that one of the key researchers had not disclosed his conflict of interest with pharmaceutical companies in this area, and this led to an inquiry around research integrity, which has still not been resolved. So we cannot move these guidelines forward because of this hanging over it. So it is a terribly important issue. As I said earlier on, it is an issue across health research. At times claims have been made—in this case too—that the literature can be very heavily based on support from a particular industry area. I would not dismiss for a moment people’s concern about that issue but I can assure you that we are as vigilant as we can be about it.

Senator MOORE —Professor Anderson, we know that because we work with the NHRMC regularly. What has not been known in the wider community is that statement. I am actually drawing your attention to the public document that was widely read in July last year. Nowhere in the document did it restate what Professor McCallum said, which is that your basis was looking at public peer researched information. We know that is the basis of your research but there has been subsequent angst caused by the fact that that statement was not even footnoted in the public document. That would have actually made people aware. One of the previous witnesses said half the key points you put on record could be seen by someone who did not understand your process fully as not being without bias. The public statements are being read not only by the scientific community; therefore some care in their formulation may have taken away one level of antagonism by making it clear that you were using peer documented research that happened to be done for companies that were linked to the wind industry—rather than running a line that was supporting the wind industry. For future public usage documents, some footnoting that makes that clear might be a bit useful.

Prof. Anderson —That is very wise advice and thank you for it. We might need to clarify that sooner rather than later.

Senator MOORE —I know Senator Adams drew your attention to it, but we had extensive evidence from Mr Lex Hardie today which would constitute adverse comment to the NHMRC. We would really appreciate a detailed response to that for our records. It would make it a lot easier for us.

CHAIR —You might want to look at the transcripts from the last couple of days because there has been various adverse comment made, including Dr Pierpont from last Friday. We had her give evidence via teleconference. You may want to look at that as well.

Prof. Anderson —Yes, we are aware of Dr Pierpont’s evidence, and we will certainly look at it. You would like us to come back to you with some specific comments on those criticisms?

CHAIR —Yes, it would be appreciated if you could. Going to the issue around peer review, I think there is some confusion around that. It has been bandied around here extensively—what has been peer reviewed and what has not been. You can take this question on notice: what is a peer reviewed document?  People need to understand the technical term.

Prof. Anderson —I will take that on notice so I can provide a proper full explanation.

16:14:50

CHAIR —That would be appreciated. We have one more question on notice. Today also Mr Hardy referred to some work by Professor John McMurtry from Canada, who made a submission into the legal case that was being run in Canada. There is quite extensive documentation that Mr Hardy has provided to the committee. I am wondering whether you peer reviewed it or whether you understand that his work has been peer reviewed?

Mr Anderson —We would not have picked up through our methodology to find the peer reviewed literature. We would go to the scientific literature on the databases in science. If it was in the legal domain we probably would not pick it up. We will have a look at it and see what we can do.

CHAIR —Do I infer from that that Professor McMurtry is not published in the peer reviewed literature on this issue?

Mr Anderson —I cannot answer that off the top of my head. My staff are drawing to my attention that Dr Pierpont said that he is a dean at a medical school in Canada. We will need to take that on notice and make sure that we follow it up.

We will search the peer review literature databases to find Dr McMurtry but this other information you can provide—

CHAIR —You said McMurray; it is Professor McMurtry.

Mr Anderson —You are right. It is my glasses; it lies a distance from me.

CHAIR —We have run out of time. We very much appreciate your attendance at such short notice. We have given you quite a bit of homework.

Mr Anderson —You have, but that is fine.

[4.17 pm]