The Australian government's medical science funding body has announced two grants to investigate whether wind farms damage health. This is despite the same body finding no evidence for the theory. The decision has been heavily criticized by health researchers and the wind industry.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is Australia's primary funding source for medical research. As such, it is constantly facing difficult choices between projects that may contribute to cures for deadly diseases and treatments for debilitating illnesses. However, one condition has received special status and has secured funding without being assessed against alternative needs.
The beneficiary of this status is wind turbine syndrome (WTS), which most medical research on the topic suggests does not exist. The NHMRC announced that $1.3 million will go to Dr. Peter Catcheside of Flinders University to investigate whether wind farms affect sleeping patterns. Professor Guy Marks of the University of New South Wales will receive $1.9 million for a broader study of the effects of low-frequency noise (infrasound) from wind farms on health.
Proponents claim WTS is common around wind farms, with infrasound usually blamed. Alleged symptoms range from “accelerated aging” to “hair loss,” and while the NHMRC is responsible for treating human sickness, WTS supporters also blame it for its affect on animals, including “unexplained worm deaths” and “confused echidnas."
Wind turbine syndrome is claimed to have devastating effects on animals, but these sheep seem unperturbed by the Blayney to Carcoar wind farm, New South Wales. Leah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock.
As the last example suggests, WTS appears to be particularly acute in Australia, although there have also been reports from the U.K. and North America. Puzzlingly, however, the populations of Germany, Denmark and Spain, where large-scale wind turbines are far more common, and sited much closer to houses than in Australia, appear to be immune. There are almost no reports of the condition from non-English speaking countries.
Numerous investigations into WTS have concluded that sufferers are almost exclusively people who, before the construction of the wind farms, were told by anti-wind activists that the farms would be detrimental to their health.
Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman, Australia's most widely published public health researcher, told IFLScience: “My main criticism of the whole process is that there has never been anything preventing a researcher putting in an application for a grant on this through the usual process. But instead we have a special fund set aside. It is a very unfortunate message to have one alleged condition privileged.”
NHMRC CEO Professor Anne Kelso said in a statement: “Each application for this funding underwent the same stringent independent review process we apply to all NHMRC grant applications.” However, Chapman told IFLScience he is often called on to review papers on the topic, and was surprised he had not been asked to provide an assessment of any of the research proposals. Chapman is concerned he may have been ruled out as a reviewer because he has conducted research demonstrating associations between scare campaigns and WTS reports.