Late last year a group of rural residents met me to discuss their concerns over wind farms in their communities. They came from several different areas and presented as sensible, down to earth people who you would be pleased to have as neighbours.
What I heard from them was a litany of planning ineptitude, government and industry indifference, and people becoming sick in homes they had lived in for decades.
I was so disturbed by this that I moved a motion in the Senate to establish a committee to inquire into the regulation and governance of wind farms. All Government and most crossbench senators supported my motion.
The inquiry has just completed its third public hearing. Although there are more to come, some matters are now apparent.
Firstly, it is beyond dispute that wind turbines emit infrasound and low frequency noise, much of which is inaudible to most people. It is also well established that inappropriate levels of infrasound, regardless of the source, cause adverse health impacts.
We have known this since 1987, when Dr Neil Kelley identified a direct causal link between impulsive infrasound and low frequency noise, and adverse effects on people. Research by NASA two years later established that wind turbines could generate surprisingly high levels of infrasound and low frequency noise.
It is also clear that 10 to 15 per cent of the population is more sensitive to noise, including low frequency noise and infrasound. It is a mystery why some people are affected and not others, but their symptoms are similar to motion sickness, which also only affects some people.
I have met some of those affected. They tell me they mainly suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, but some also suffer sinus pressure, tinnitus, pains in the chest, headaches, nausea, and vertigo. Their symptoms vary, but the similarities are striking for people who live so far apart.
This is not just a problem with wind turbines. Infrasound from any source has the potential to make people sick, including people living close to huge ventilator fans in coal mines or near gas and coal-fired power stations. Indeed, the federal government confirmed this in 2009.
The evidentiary finger points mainly at the big turbines erected in Australia over the last few years, many taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, that produce more infrasound and broadcast it over a larger area than smaller, older turbines. Around 1,800 additional turbines of the same or greater size will be built over the next five years, following the government and Labor agreeing on a new renewable energy target of 33,000 GWh.
What disturbs me about this is that, as the inquiry has heard, wind farms are not required to limit or even monitor their infrasound emissions. And unless something changes, it is absolutely certain that tens of thousands of people who live within a few kilometres of these new turbines will become sick.
Some argue the evidence linking wind turbines to adverse health effects is too tenuous to warrant action. It is true that it is not yet well understood. Nonetheless, there is already quite a lot of evidence and it is building. A recent study by Australian acoustician Steven Cooper demonstrated that some people can sense infrasound even though they cannot see or hear the turbines. And doctors in Germany are now calling for a halt to further wind farm developments until more is known.
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