Much has been and continues to be written and researched on the topic of wind farms and health effects. Debate continues around the world as to whether a wind farm causes physiological harm to residents living within its vicinity.
In 2016, the NHMRC announced the funding of two research studies into wind farms and health. One study is focused on the effects of wind farm noise on sleep and is led by Professor Peter Catcheside at Flinders University. The other study is focused on measuring the effects of infrasound and is led by Professor Guy Marks at the University of New South Wales.
In addition, in late 2015, the Australian Government established the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines to provide advice on a range of matters including wind farm noise levels and the relationship to health effects.
A number of complaints about wind farms received by the Office include references to health impacts as a result of wind farm operations. Health conditions cited in complaints include sleep disturbance, headaches, ear-aches, ‘pounding’ in the ears, tinnitus, tachycardia, high blood pressure, sight impairment, diabetes, chest-tightening, nausea and general fatigue. The complaints generally state that such conditions are caused by audible noise and low frequency noise, including infrasound, along with vibration sensations attributable to the operation of nearby turbines. In some cases, complaints have stated that some health conditions are persisting even when the turbines are not operating.
Numerous invitations have been extended to complainants to provide evidence of their medical conditions. Complaints regarding health concerns received by the Office have, in the main, provided only anecdotal evidence regarding stated health issues and perceived causality. It has therefore been difficult to form an opinion on whether or not the stated health conditions reported by complainants are valid and, if valid, whether or not the health conditions are possibly a result of the wind farm’s operations or from some other known cause.
The Office will continue to handle complaints, with supporting evidence, from community members regarding potential health effects from operating wind farms. Since the Office has commenced, 70 complaints about operating wind farms have been received. These complaints relate to 14 operating wind farms out of a total of more than 80 operating wind farms across Australia. Of these 70 complaints, approximately half of the complainants cited concerns about health impacts from the operating wind farms. Of these, a very small number of complainants agreed to work with the Office and provide evidence of the stated health issues. In all of these cases, the root cause of the stated health issue was not attributable to the wind farm.
Further, in 2019, only five complaints about operating wind farms were received. The clear majority of complaints received have been about proposed wind farms. On the basis that a wind farm has to be built and operating before it could possibly cause a physiological health effect, the potential cohort of potential physiological health complaints is very small.
It should also be noted that, for the last two years, the Office has not received any complaints regarding allegations of vibration sensations being caused by a wind turbine’s operation. The Office’s findings could not confirm any actual evidence of vibrations at a residence with causality from a turbine, findings which are consistent with advice received on this topic from Flinders University. The Office’s complaint data further substantiates these findings.
It is possible that stated health conditions that exist may be as a result of other known causes not related to the wind farm’s operations. Of material concern is the potential situation whereby a resident may fail to seek and obtain appropriate medical advice and treatment for a treatable health condition, due to the possibly incorrect assumption that an operating wind farm is the perceived cause of the condition. For example, if a resident is experiencing sleep difficulties, they may be advised by their general practitioner (GP) to consult a sleep specialist for a proper diagnosis of the root cause and advice on treatment to remedy the condition. If the GP’s advice is not followed, the cause of the condition may persist unnecessarily.
Health conditions may also arise as a result of stress, annoyance or anxiety related to the presence of an operating wind farm or concerns about the effects of a proposed wind farm. Further, uncertainties in relation to whether a proposed wind farm will actually proceed (a period which may extend for several years) may also contribute to stress and anxiety. Again, affected residents may need to seek appropriate medical treatment for these ancillary health conditions as well as seek ways to resolve their concerns.
In November 2019, the South Australia Supreme Court handed down its decision in relation to the proposed Palmer Wind Farm. The Court concluded that claims that the turbines would cause sickness and health issues for residents were unsubstantiated. Of note, the objectors did not provide sufficient evidence of causality from any expert medical witness. The Court’s finding has been consistent with the Commissioner’s observations and recommendations based on actual complaint experience.
The Office will continue to monitor relevant decisions that explore evidence about wind farms and health in consultation with the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines, such as the recent guidelines issued by the World Health Organization, as well as hearing outcomes, such as the Palmer Wind Farm decision and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision in Waubra Foundation v Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. The Office will also monitor and continue engagement regarding any results of the NHMRC funded studies and the work of the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines, as well as assessing any further evidence gathered through its complaint handling activities.
The Office has also observed the need for clearer, streamlined legislation that provides a balance of protecting the community while also providing a degree of certainty for the proponent. In Victoria, complaints made under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Victoria) have utilised the nuisance provisions under the Act to allege that wind farms are creating a ‘noise nuisance’, even when a wind farm has been deemed compliant with its permit conditions. Council’s should have in place clear procedures for investigating and determining whether or not a wind farm is causing a noise nuisance under the Act.
9.2.1.Federal and state governments should continue to assess the outcomes of research into wind farms and health, including outcomes of the two NHMRC funded wind farm health studies and findings of the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines. Environmental standards, such as noise standards, should be monitored and reviewed in line with any recommendations arising from these programs.
9.2.2. Residents living in the vicinity of an operating or proposed wind farm that are experiencing health conditions should be encouraged to seek appropriate medical advice to properly diagnose and treat any health related conditions accordingly. GP's receiving patients from wind farm locations should maintain an awareness of wind farm and health matters through bodies such as the Australian Medical Association and assist patients in understanding the need for appropriate testing, diagnosis and remedies for the presented health conditions or concerns.
9.2.3. Medical practitioners who identify potential causational links between a patient’s health condition and their proximity to the operation of a wind farm should report such incidences in an appropriate way to the relevant professional body, association and/or government agency.
9.2.4. Residents who are experiencing unacceptable noise levels from a wind farm should be encouraged to report such incidents to the wind farm operator, the compliance authority and/or the appropriate regulator to initiate the appropriate investigation and resolution of the noise incidents.
9.2.5. Residents lodging health-related complaints with the Office should assist with providing and sharing any evidence regarding their stated health conditions and any medical assessments that identify possible causality of the wind farm as a contributor to the health conditions.
9.2.6. State governments may need to identify and address potential overlapping regulations and/or legislation with regard to noise emissions from a wind farm and ensure clear procedures are in place to handle, investigate and resolve such complaints raised under the various avenues.