Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Matters of Public Interest
I rise to contribute some comments on industrial wind turbines. Whilst the whole question of the economic benefit or otherwise of turbines to the renewable energy debate is the subject of debate, I will not be addressing it today. However, what I do want to address is the evidence—and there is a question mark here—of the adverse health impacts of industrial wind turbines and to remind the Senate that in June last year a Senate inquiry into the social and economic impacts of rural wind farms made a number of recommendations, under the chairmanship of Senator Rachel Siewert. The committee made seven recommendations and it is disappointing that to date, August 2012, some 14 months later, there has been no government response to those recommendations or the report.
In July this year, I placed on my website a document to open up some of this discussion. It was titled 'Wind turbines: the untold story'. To date, there have been 900-plus hits on that document. What is interesting to me is that in oral testimony to the Senate inquiry on 31 March last year, the CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council, Professor Warwick Anderson, said, 'We are very aware that the high-quality scientific literature in this area is very thin.' He went on to say, 'That is why we are at pains to point out that we believe 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.'
As a person with a scientific background, I could do no more than endorse Professor Anderson's comments. It was the outcome of a so-called rapid review undertaken by NHMRC that has been the subject of so much quoting by parties subsequent to the appearance at the hearing in March last year that I think has helped frame some of the decisions being made by local and indeed state governments around Australia. In Senate estimates in February this year, I put to Professor Anderson that it might be wise for the NHMRC to withdraw the conclusions of the rapid review, given the caution that he had expressed in testimony. He said that, no, it was not appropriate; it was not necessary to do that.
What is surprising and disappointing to me is a statement from 2009 on the NHMRC website that says, 'There is currently no published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects.' To this day, that still appears on the website of that Australian government agency. I strongly urge the NHMRC to review that particular statement and remove it from its website. The NHMRC has appointed a wind farms and human health reference group, under the chairmanship of Professor Bruce Armstrong, a highly acknowledged epidemiologist and fellow in public health at the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney. As I suggested to Professor Anderson in estimates this year, that is another reason for the NHMRC to step back from its decision about the absence of health effects.
As one would expect, there have been a wide range of comments on the document that I placed on my website in July. It is unfortunate that most people have not agreed with Professor Anderson about taking the precautionary approach. If I could point to one of the key recommendations of the committee—which, again, the government has not yet replied to—recommendation 4 says:
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government initiate as a matter of priority thorough, adequately resourced epidemiological and laboratory studies of the possible effects of wind farms on human health. This research must engage across industry and community, and include an advisory process representing the range of interests and concerns.
If that was relevant in June 2011, I assure you it is even more relevant now.
I have had the opportunity in the last few weeks to review what, if anything, has happened in the world of wind turbines, health or other possible adverse effects since the time the report came down. I can report to you that in June this year in the United States the Falmouth Board of Health requested that the Massachusetts department of health immediately initiate a health assessment of the impacts of the operations of turbines in that area. It said:
This appeal is compelled by two years of consistent and persistent complaints of health impacts during turbine operations and the fact that a recent turbine health impact study suggested that certain elements of wind turbine operation propagate health impacts.
When I first started looking in some detail at this particular area, one of the cynics said to me:
Well, Chris, it's most interesting. It is this case: if you happen to be the host and have industrial wind turbines on your farming property in a rural area and you are earning somewhere between $9,000 and $15,000 a year you don't seem to suffer health effects; but if you're a neighbour down the road and you don't get the benefit of that annual income from having the turbines on your property it's amazing that you do seem to suffer the health effects.
I can assure you from my own communications in recent times that that theory, cynically as it has been expressed, has been debunked.
There are now people who themselves do enjoy the benefit of an income from industrial wind turbines on their properties who are coming out publicly and stating the adverse health effects that they are experiencing. In response to my question, 'Can you see the turbines from your home?' they say, 'No, I can't.' When I ask, 'Do you know when they are on?' they say, 'Yes, I do.' I ask how they know. They say, 'Because I suffer the health effects when they are on, but I do not suffer them when they are not.' I have challenged one particular family to set up a blind trial so that we can test whether or not the sorts of clinical signs they are seeing are evident or absent when the turbines are on or not. But, as a person with some scientific background and training, I am sufficiently concerned to support the view expressed by Professor Anderson, and that is that we should be taking a precautionary approach.
In the British Medical Journal in 2012, authors Hanning and Evans question this whole issue of the adverse impact on health in rural communities of wind turbines where they are placed too close to residences. Furthermore, a Dr Carl Phillips reported in a paper in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society in August 2011 that there should be greater scrutiny. His paper is entitled 'Properly interpreting the epidemiological evidence about the health effects of industrial wind turbines on nearby residents'. In the abstract of that paper he says:
There is overwhelming evidence that wind turbines can cause serious health problems in nearby residents, usually stress-disorder-type diseases, as a nontrivial rate.
He concludes in that abstract:
The attempts to deny the evidence cannot be seen as honest scientific disagreement …
Others such as Dr Pierpont in the USA and Ms Krog in Canada are seriously questioning the cynicism and the sceptics who are simply refusing to accept the possibility of genuine adverse health effects of wind turbines close to residences in rural communities. I am also aware of as yet unpublished work by Dr Robert Thorne, who supports previous peer reviewed empirical data collection from Canada, the UK and the USA, all of which reference empirical data and challenge the assertions that there is no evidence of adverse effects from wind turbines on people who are downstream of them. All of this causes me to publicly question those assertions and to plead for the government to respond to the report made to this chamber in June last year and initiate the recommendations of that report.
It is of interest to me that one of the loudest critics is himself a person who was a champion of proving the link between nicotine from cigarette, cigar or pipe smoking and the various respiratory conditions including lung cancers. Today we accept that immediately, but there was a time when that sort of evidence was being ridiculed in the public arena. It is 56 years ago since we first started to look at the possible relationship between asbestos and respiratory conditions, especially from the asbestos originating in my state of Western Australia. The asbestos mines there were closed 56 years ago, yet we still see to this day the terrible effects of mesothelioma and asbestosis occurring in the community. They tell me that the second wave of those conditions will occur in the tradesmen who worked with asbestos and they believe there will even be a third wave in people who, because of where they resided or in some other way, have been affected by asbestos dust.
There was a time when the link between asbestos and lung conditions was ridiculed. Regrettably, that is no longer the subject of any scrutiny or concern; nor is there particularly any doubt as to the link between the two. In November last year this chamber moved to accept that firefighters may in fact have suffered the effects of carcinogens absorbed through their clothing in the event of fires in the past. I was very, very proud to have been part of the committee that made the recommendation and to have spoken to the debate on that legislation. But again, I can assure you, Mr Acting Deputy President, there were sceptics at that time who were saying, 'How could you possibly draw the link between those two?'
I believe we should adopt a precautionary approach. People have expressed concern, I believe, that the various noise-monitoring exercises that have been going on to prove the case that there are no effects from sound have actually been conducted in frequencies above those which are causing the possible pathologies and that they are conducted outside buildings. On the other hand, the evidence would appear to indicate that it is inside buildings that the low-frequency sound and the infrasound are having their adverse effects. We must adopt the precautionary approach. As was pointed out in the recommendations of the report of last year, I believe that independently conducted sound impact studies are vital. In the meantime we must, in my view, put a stop to what are currently being regarded as acceptable distances between wind turbines and residences in rural areas of Australia.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had responsibility for power generation in a small community in Western Australia, which did include industrial wind turbines. They were, I believe, the first to be placed into position in Western Australia. They failed. Three of the four never became operational—the fourth did. What was interesting to me then was the fact that, in terms of the efficiency of that generation, we actually lost efficiency in our diesel generators at the time we were trying to absorb the wind power itself. We had the various fires—they are still being reported—and eventually the last wind turbine failed when one of the blades sheared off and landed in front of a tourist bus with some 40 frightened tourists on board.
We have got a long way to go in this whole question. But I come back to the point that was made by Professor Anderson in his evidence to the committee, and that simply is the fact that we do not yet know what the adverse health effects are or whether there are adverse health effects. On that basis, as Professor Anderson says, we should take a precautionary approach. I look forward to evidence from the reference group chaired by Professor Armstrong and believe that there will be further discussion on this question in this chamber.
Sitting suspended from 13:55 to 14:00