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Estimates: Richard asks the NHMRC about wind farms and health

Estimates & Committees
Richard Di Natale 27 Feb 2014

Only days after the NHMRC released a literature review related to wind farms and health, Dr Richard Di Natale was able to question them about their findings.

National Health and Medical Research Council

Senator DI NATALE: I do. Can I conclude from the NHMRC study into wind turbines that there is no evidence that a discrete condition known as wind turbine syndrome exists?
Prof. Anderson: I do not think our report says—
Senator DI NATALE: Would that be a fair statement?
Prof. Anderson: No, Senator. I think you are putting words in my mouth. I think the report says what it says. At this stage, there is no reliable or consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans. That is no reliable or consistent evidence at this time. So I do not think you should push me to conclude beyond what my expert committee has concluded.
Senator DI NATALE: Let us say I live next door to a telegraph pole. There is no evidence that that is not making me sick. I am asking you to prove a negative. I want to be clear here. You did not find any evidence for a condition known as wind turbine syndrome as part of your study? Is that a correct statement?
Prof. Anderson: No, it was not in the terms of reference for the expert group to do that. I just want to make sure we are on the same page here. This is an information paper, and draft, for that matter. It is not the NHMRC's position paper. Our position paper was put out in 2010. We will update our position paper after we have completed the feedback from the community on the information paper, looked at the evidence that has occurred since then, as we have said on our website, and then finalised the information paper. Then we will consider what extra research needs to be done. Since the research so far is poor quality, it is almost certain that there is research that needs to be done. The second thing is we will update our position paper. I think that position paper is more relevant to your point.
Senator DI NATALE: I am trying to understand why you are commissioning more research into this field given that nothing you have found indicates that this is a cause for concern.
Prof. Anderson: Well, I do not think, again with respect, you have quite summarised our position. We have said—
Senator DI NATALE: Let me ask you this question: have you found anything that gives you cause for concern here?
Prof. Anderson: Yes. The poor quality of the research so far.
Senator DI NATALE: But there is no research into whether aliens—
CHAIR: Senator Di Natale, can you ask questions, not debate the issue.
Senator DI NATALE: This goes to the heart of the question. The fact that there is no research to arrive at a particular position is not in and of itself a reason to conduct research into a particular area that most people in the scientific community would regard as being unlikely, or most people would suggest almost certainly not an area for concern. What I am asking is: given that you have not found any positive evidence to suggest that there is an area of concern and your only rationale for wanting to conduct more research into this is that there is very little good quality evidence, why are you suggesting that we go down that path?
Prof. Anderson: The conclusion of the report is there is consistent, though poor quality, evidence that proximity to wind farms is associated with annoyance and less consistent evidence with sleep disturbance and poorer quality of life. I am sure you would understand, Senator, given your training, that annoyance in the long term, as the report says, can turn into poor physical health through stress. We may have to disagree on this. I do not think that you can dismiss easily community concern about this matter. How well placed, how scientifically based, there is clearly some community concern. There was, after all, a Senate committee on wind farms. The Senate committee found that more research was needed. We responded through the department that we agreed with that. I think you are saying that even though the research is not very strong, no more research is needed. I think what the expert group has said is that in this area—and not with direct effects but indirect effects, where cause and effect is not known; the research was all-cross-sectional; the effects were all self-reported and so on— there are questions. We are here to improve community and individual health. This is an issue that was brought to us by the state health departments. I think it is important that we do not dismiss those concerns, we look at the evidence brought to us by the expert committee and then by the feedback and then make a decision.
CHAIR: Senator Di Natale, this is the last question, please.
Senator DI NATALE: I have only asked one question. I thought Senator Madigan had an opportunity to ask a few questions. I would like the same opportunity.
CHAIR: I am sorry, but if you want to debate the issue, that is different. You have had more than six minutes on this topic already, which is exactly what Senator Madigan had.
Senator DI NATALE: Are you concerned that, by concluding that more research is required, you may contribute to the fear and anxiety that exists around this issue because you are giving some succour to those people in the community who do hold those fears? Do you also hold concerns that every dollar spent in this area by the NHMRC is one less dollar that can be spent on cancer research or research into chronic disease and infant mortality across a range of conditions? Is that of any concern to you, Professor Anderson?
Prof. Anderson: We are certainly making our funding go as far as possible on important issues. The fact we call for research does not mean we will spend it, because we will need high-quality research. I remind you that there were similar concerns in this area around mobile phones earlier. It was only when very high-quality, long-term epidemiology research was done that we were able to dismiss those concerns.
Senator DI NATALE: Some people continue to have those concerns.
CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Di Natale.

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