By Dr George Crisp
It is regrettable that our Prime Minister has expressed a desire to reduce new wind farm developments in Australia, citing potential health effects as one of the reasons.
This echoes the statements made by crossbench senators who have suggested that inaudible low frequency, or “infrasound”, is responsible. A rather extraordinary claim in itself when considering there are many other environmental sources of low frequency sound at higher sound pressures than those produced by wind turbines.
The Prime Minister’s comments are both surprising and concerning because there is currently no evidence to implicate wind turbines as a risk to health. Over 20 reviews have been performed all finding similar results, with Australia’s NHMRC National Health and Medical Research Council) recently concluding the absence of a link between turbines and ill health.
In addition to a lack of epidemiological evidence, there is also no described or currently plausible mechanism whereby wind turbines could cause harm.
In contrast to this there is no doubt at all that pollution from coal mining and coal fired power stations, our major current source of electricity generation, are responsible for significant illness in communities, including heart disease, respiratory disease and lung cancer.
Air pollution accounts for the majority of these health impacts. In Australia the costs were estimated by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering to be $2.6 billion in 2009.
A 2011 study at Harvard Medical School in the US, found the health and environmental consequences of coal cost the US economy between one third and one half a trillion dollars each year. Inclusion of these costs would double or triple the wholesale price of electricity in the US.
Air pollution has recently been estimated to be responsible for around 3000 deaths in Australia’s 4 largest cities.
Reducing air pollution has clearly been demonstrated to have benefits over the near term. For example, the 2011 US EPA review of their Clean Air Act introduced in 1970 concluded that every dollar spent on cleaner air produced $30 in health benefits.
As well as short-term health effects from pollution, the long-term health effects arising from climate change, have been cited as a major threat to human health this century. By sector, stationary electricity generation is the largest single contributor.
The Prime Minister’s statement is therefore doubly wrong because replacing polluting fossil fuel powered electricity generation with renewable energy, such as wind and solar, would not only have minimal if any health impacts, but would result in a significant reduction in both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, with significant immediate and sustained health benefits and consequent economic benefits.
Dr George Crisp is a GP and WA chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia