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Professor Simon Chapman, from the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, outlines why wind farms are subject to complaints and how those complaints stack up with the scientific evidence.     
Professor Chapman has had a long association with risk communication and risk perception, especially in the area of tobacco control. To this end he is not only interested in why people take obvious risks, such as in smoking, but also why community panic occurs when the available evidence points to a low risk situation.
This is especially the case when new technology and inventions comes on board, with associated backlashes from minor sections of the community.

 
Electric blankets, microwave ovens, television, computer screens, wi-fi, mobile telephone towers and mobile phones have all been demonised in their day. Indeed, when the old style telephones first appeared journals like The Lancet reported people suffering from diseases, complaints and symptoms after using these telephones, a position unthinkable today.

There is a similar alarm culture being built around wind farms here in Australia, although Professor Chapman predicts that that will lessen in the next few years just as the alarms about microwave ovens did. With between 120,000 and130,000 wind farms world wide it is interesting to note that complaints about wind farms are virtually all from the Anglophone nations of Canada, the USA and Australia with lesser complaints from England and New Zealand. Wind farms in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, Spain and Portugal, although widespread, only receive very isolated complaints, an interesting sociological phenomenon.

Activists who feed the hysteria and community panic about wind farms in Australia point to symptoms that are prevalent in Australian society (for example: high blood pressure - 20%, sleep problems - 40%) seeking to link those problems with wind farms. Indeed, the list of symptoms attributed to wind farms is instructive. Weight gain and weight loss are both seen as the culprits of wind farms and the list of such apparently attributed symptoms grows, contributing to the mass hysteria about them.

 
For a comprehensive overview of wind farms, their operation and investigations of health effects an outstanding website is
http://ramblingsdc.net/Australia/index.html#Wind_in_the_Bush

 
Activists against wind farms think that the parallels with tobacco manufacturers which denied any causal links for years can help their cause, blind to the fact that there was a great deal of scientific evidence and consensus about tobacco smoking, which is not the case with wind farms. There have been 17 peer reviewed, published reviews of the 'evidence' associating wind farm with health issues, since 2003 and every one has concluded that there is, at best, very poor evidence that wind farms cause disease. The studies also show that those who complain are in the small minority and typically, have negative attitudes towards them. Often there is also a scepticism held about climate change.

Curiously, those people who have wind turbines on their properties and, it must be said get paid an estimated $3 - 10,000 for each one, are not the ones who complain. It is those who don’t have turbines on their property that do. They maintain that those being paid are gagged but as any lawyer knows, negligence overrides any signed contract.

We all surrounded by noise no matter where we live. In terms of risk assessment, non natural sounds are seen as harmful whereas natural sounds (wind, surf) are not. There are some people who literally worry themselves sick but whether their conditions can be or even should be, attributed directly to technology such as wind farms is another matter.

What is clear, however, is that at present, in Australia, it has been demonstrated that several major groups promoting dissent and anxiety about wind farms have clear links to the fossil fuel industry. The Australian Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation both share a post office box with the mining investment company Lowell Resources which has interests in coal, coal seam gas and uranium.

A recent CSIRO report showed that there was overwhelming community support for the development of wind farming in Australia and that China and India are investing heavily in wind turbines. It seems that complaints about wind farms here are just a wind up.

 

Professor Chapman was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Image provided by Professor Chapman. Summary text by Victor Barry, March 2012.

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