Australians living near wind farms will soon know if wind turbine syndrome could be making them sick.
The National Health and Medical Research Council has awarded two grants totalling $3.3 million to enrich the evidence-based understanding of the effects of wind farms on human health.
NHMRC funded research at the Flinders University of South Australia will explore relationships between noise from wind farms and effects such as annoyances and reduced sleep and quality of life.
Research at the University of New South Wales will investigate the broader social and environmental circumstances that may influence the health of people living near wind farms.
Researchers on the second investigation, from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, plan to run two trials, one in the lab and another in homes, investigating the impact infrasound—inaudible sound that emanates from turbines—has on the individual.
“This is a hotly-debated area, with many residents convinced that their health is suffering and other people sure that it’s all a figment of their imagination,” says respiratory physician and UNSW Professor Guy Marks, who is chief investigator on the Woolcock Institute-led project.
“There is a genuine scientific question here that needs to be solved definitively so we can inform both the public and public policy.”
Australia is home to more than 75 wind farms housing about 2000 turbines. AGL’s Macarther Wind Farm in Western Victoria is the largest, followed by TrustPower’s Snowtown project in South Australia, completed in 2014.
With the growth of wind farms has come a rise in complaints from residents living nearby who report experiencing headaches, dizziness and sleep disturbances which they attribute to the turbines.
The symptoms, which also include nausea, tinnitus and irritability, are referred to collectively as wind turbine syndrome (WTS), a medical state they link to infrasound.
“As of yet, there’s no proof that WTS actually exists, as all the research available is seriously flawed,” Prof Marks says. He says those who experience it are certain that it’s affecting their health, and report convincingly that the problem disappears when they go on holiday and returns when they come home.
“On the other hand, there are several experts who firmly believe WTS symptoms are the result of a ‘nocebo effect’, where a person becomes certain something harmless is making them sick,” Prof Marks says.
“In other words, their health problems are triggered by the individual’s dislike of the turbines, rather than from any sound emanating from them.”
Prof Grunstein was a member of the NHMRC reference group and is intimately acquainted with WTS research to date, and he says the jury is still out on the issue.
“As far as I’m concerned the science isn’t settled yet,” he says. “It’s important to find out, for the sake of the communities and interests involved.”
If the trials reveal no link between wind turbines and health, the find will help policy makers respond to public concerns. If a link is found, it would likely lead to policy changes and vindication for the many whose claims of wind farm illness have been widely derided.
“Regardless of what we find, there will be passionate advocates that will never be convinced of our conclusion,” Prof Grunstein says.
“That’s not our focus though. We’re out to provide answers to a genuine and very important scientific question and that’s what we’re going to do.”
NHMRC CEO Professor Anne Kelso says that further research is needed to explore the relationships between wind farms and human health.
“Existing research in this area is of poor quality and targeted funding is warranted to support high quality, independent research on this issue,” says Prof Kelso.
“To address this, we need well designed studies conducted by excellent researchers in Australian conditions.
“These grants directly support the Australian Government’s commitment to determine any actual or potential effects of wind farms,” Prof Kelso says.
These grants are awarded in response to the 2015 Targeted Call for Research into Wind Farms and Human Health, following the release of the NHMRC Statement: Evidence on Wind Farms and Human Health.