Senate Wind Farm Inquiry – Dr Sarah Laurie says: “Kill the Noise & give Neighbours a Fair Go”
The Senate Inquiry has had to wade through a fairly pungent cesspit of ‘material’ dropped on it by the wind industry, its parasites and spruikers. No doubt to their great relief (or, in the case of wind industry stooge, Anne Urquhart, infuriation) the Senators have heard from a raft of genuine and highly qualified people, who are clearly dedicated to protecting their fellow human beings – rather than ridiculing, denigrating or deriding them as “anti-wind farm wing-nuts” or “Dick Brains“.
One of those rare breaths of empathetic fresh air arrived before the Committee in the form of Dr Sarah Laurie (one of STT’s ‘Australians of the Year); and a Champion for human health and human rights.
Sarah has been out to protect people from all manner of excessive industrial noise since she pitched up with the Waubra Foundation in 2010.
In the finest tradition of what made (and STT would like to think still makes) Australia a decent place for all comers, Sarah has thrown everything she’s got at getting a solid set of truly relevant noise regulations – that will actually be enforced – with one thing in mind: a “fair go” for all.
STT’s covered the concept of a National Noise Regulator, with the sort of teeth needed to prevent industries of all descriptions – not just wind power outfits – from destroying peoples’ rights to sleep, live in and otherwise enjoy their homes, a couple of times:
Here’s Dr Laurie detailing to the Inquiry the common-sense-concept of having one noise rule for all.
Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines – 29 May 2015
LAURIE, Ms Sarah, Chief Executive Officer, Waubra Foundation
CHAIR: Welcome. Could you please confirm that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in evidence has been provided to you?
Ms Laurie: Yes, it has.
CHAIR: Thank you. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.
Ms Laurie: Thank you, Senators, for the invitation to attend this Senate inquiry into regulatory issues relating to industrial wind turbines.
The systemic regulatory failure with respect to the way industrial and environmental noise pollution is regulated in Australia is not confined to wind turbine noise. As you would have seen from the submissions of the Wollar Progress Association; and residents living near the coalmines in the Upper Hunter region and residents of Lithgow impacted by coal fired power stations and extractor fan noise and vibration. Their stories, both with respect to the range and severity of symptoms and the way they are treated by the noise polluters and the government regulatory authorities, are all too familiar to the growing numbers of rural residents living near industrial wind power generators.
Once sensitised, residents affected by infrasound and low-frequency noise from coal fired power stations find they also react to wind turbines in the same way. The body and the brain do not care about the source of the sound and vibration. The reactions are involuntary and hardwired, and part of our physiological fight/flight response.
At the heart of this systemic regulatory failure of environmental noise pollution is the failure of the planning and noise pollution regulations, because they all fail to varying degrees to predict, measure and regulate the excessive noise and vibration in the lower frequencies—in the infrasound and low-frequency noise regions, specifically between 0.1 and 200 hertz. These regulations also permit levels of audible noise which are guaranteed to cause adverse impacts because they are so much higher than the very quiet background noise environments in rural areas. These rules are not fit for purpose, and guarantee that some residents will be seriously harmed.
There has been pretence that there is no evidence of harm at the levels of infrasound and low-frequency noise being emitted. This is untrue. There is an extensive body of research conducted by NASA and the US Department of Energy 30 years ago, which: established direct causation of sleep disturbance and a range of physiological effects euphemistically called ‘annoyance’; acknowledged that people became sensitised or conditioned to the noise with ongoing exposure; and recommended exposure thresholds in order to ensure residents were protected from harm directly caused by this pulsing infrasound and low-frequency noise.
This research was conducted in residents living with sound and vibration from military aircraft, from gas and from wind turbines. Small rooms facing onto the noise source were described as being the worst. Residents described feeling unpleasant sensations at levels where the sound could not be heard but could still be perceived. These recommended exposure limits and the evidence of direct causation were widely known at the time but appeared to be ignored by noise pollution regulatory authorities and acousticians ever since and have never been adopted. This is a serious failure of the professional and ethical responsibilities of the acoustics profession.
Many medical practitioners remain completely ignorant of the effects of excessive noise in the lower frequencies, other than acknowledging that excessive night time noise could cause sleep disturbance which, if prolonged, could cause serious harm to physical and mental health. They do not realise that the neurophysiological stress, the cardiovascular pathology, the mental health pathology, and the cancers and chronic infections resulting from immunosuppression are all related to chronic sleep deprivation and chronic stress. Both these are designated as indirect effects from noise pollution by some, including the NHMRC in their 2010 rapid review.
However, the effects of chronic sleep deprivation are anything but indirect, as the UN committee against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment has specifically acknowledged. In addition, there is a substantial body of research which has established a disease complex called vibroacoustic disease, also caused by excessive infrasound and low-frequency noise. Most of that research has been done in an occupational setting. This disease causes permanent damage to a variety of organs and tissues including, for example, damage to cardiac valves from thickened collagen, which is now being reported in residents living near industrial wind turbines in Germany and in Australia. It is concerning that in Portugal this pathology has been identified in a child exposed to excessive infrasound and low-frequency noise in utero and in his early years. People living near coalmines in the Upper Hunter have also started to report pathology consistent with vibroacoustic disease.
Also of concern are the unexplained and life-threatening adrenaline surge pathologies being reported by residents living near coalmines and industrial-scale wind turbines in Canada and Australia: takotsubo heart attacks and acute adrenal crises with reported blood pressures well over 200 millimetres of mercury systolic. There is a concern among some cardiologists with an interest in takotsubo cardiomyopathies that excessive lower frequency sound energy could be causing some of these cases. At the moment we have minimal information about the exposure doses when these events occur but it is hoped that portable dosimeters which can accurately measure these exposures to infrasound will expand our knowledge.
In summary, there has been a fundamental failure of the health, planning and noise pollution regulatory authorities to listen, investigate and act decisively to stop the predictable and serious damage to the health of vulnerable rural community members. The systemic regulatory failure is not confined to rural areas, however. The culture of silence—the use of gag agreements to silence both sick people and independent acoustic consultants—has meant that important scientific knowledge is kept out of the public domain. This problem is increasing in scale because of the increasing industrialisation of our quiet rural areas and because machines are getting bigger, so there is a shift in frequencies generated down to the lower part of the spectrum. This problem is not going to go away. Planning and noise pollution regulatory authorities are invariably physically located hundreds of kilometres away from where the adverse impacts are experienced and are not held accountable to anyone for the public health disasters in rural communities which their decisions are creating.
The National Health and Medical Research Council has gravely failed the Australian public and the governments it advises by failing to ensure that serious conflicts of interest were not prevented with their choice of experts for their literature reviews. These have had a material impact on the quality of the advice from the NHMRC and have led to dangerously optimistic predictions about the safe distance of impact from wind turbine noise, for example. This has been achieved by cherry-picking data, ensuring the goalposts for the inclusion of studies were extremely narrow, and even resorting to misclassification of studies. The only possible reason for it was to ensure these studies were never included because they would damage the commercial interests of the wind industry. Incompetence is another, perhaps less likely, explanation.
The human cost of the failure to protect people from excessive noise pollution, especially at night, is terrible. I have personally helped to prevent a number of suicides of people who were utterly desperate because of the consequences of excessive noise pollution and who reached out for help. It was just lucky that I was available by phone or email and could help them find the help that they needed at the time. However, I am aware of others who did not receive such help and who did take their own lives. Sadly I have good reason to suspect that they are the tip of the iceberg and there will be more.
We need systemic regulatory reform and we need it now across all noise and vibration sources. The current system, where the noise polluters pay the acousticians handsomely to investigate, is not working to protect public health. He who pays the piper calls the tune. We also need tightly targeted research to accurately measure the exposure doses of people reporting adverse impacts inside their homes and to measure objectively their reactions to that noise as well as their reports of their symptoms. We need a commitment from the federal and state ministers of health and the chief medical officers in each state that this health-damaging excessive industrial noise pollution will be dealt with to protect people from further harm. A national noise pollution regulatory authority with strong powers to investigate, regulate, conduct targeted research and set standards free from commercial conflicts of interest, which are then actively and transparently enforced, is required right now.
Finally, there is the matter of which ministers are the most appropriate to have responsibility for this issue. It is the World Health Organization, not the world environment organisation, that has issued major reports over the last 10 or 15 years, such as the 2009 Night noise guidelines for Europe. It is our strong view that this is a public health issue and therefore should be under the direct and regulatory control of ministers for health, not ministers for the environment. Ministers for health have a stronger direct incentive to help prevent disease.
Senator DAY: Thank you, Ms Laurie. You have been here all day today and have heard evidence from a number of witnesses. For me, being on this inquiry has been a bit like living in a parallel universe. We have had people citing evidence from all over the world about the adverse health effects of wind turbines and then we have had evidence from people completely dismissing any connection whatsoever. He who pays the piper calls the tune. I accept that that could explain some, but it would not explain all of it. Can you shed any light on the rest? Why are so many people—public servants and others—so dismissive of there being any health impacts at all?
Ms Laurie: I think there are a variety of motivations. I am quite shocked that even now not one health authority has gone and directly investigated for themselves—not one. I think that says it all, really, in terms of the responsibility of health departments. I think there is enormous ignorance, as I have said, amongst the medical profession. There is a bias against believing that there is a problem with wind turbine noise.
I think people come at it from a variety of different standpoints. I know I myself was very reluctant to accept that there could be anything wrong. I used to take my children to go and watch wind turbines being built locally near our home. I had no idea about any adverse health impacts from wind turbines. I have a lot of friends who are Green-voting environmentalists, very concerned about the planet, very concerned about their children’s futures. I wonder if that has something to do with it.
But, when you listen to the stories of people affected by noise when they are trying to sleep in their beds at night, it does not matter what the source of the noise is if they cannot sleep and they are having these other very distressing symptoms and deteriorating health. The people I speak to do not mind what the source of the noise is; they just want it to stop.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Ms Laurie, I have read your submission and I have heard your comments at various times. I am interested in your thoughts on this because you have spent a lot of time working on this. You are a medical doctor, aren’t you?
Ms Laurie: That is correct.
Senator LEYONHJELM: It seems to me that it is a well-established scientific fact that infrasound can cause human harm.
Ms Laurie: That is correct.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I do not think anybody disputes that, do they?
Ms Laurie: Some do. It depends on the dose and it depends on the exposure time.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Yes. That is where I am going. So infrasound can cause harm. It is also not disputed by anybody that wind turbines emit infrasound. Have you heard anybody deny that, apart from the South Australian government?
Ms Laurie: No. Increasingly now I think the comments are that there is evidence proving that it is in fact emitted.
Senator LEYONHJELM: It seems to me the issue is whether enough infrasound is emitted from wind farms, under some circumstances if not all circumstances, to cause human harm. Would that be the proposition?
Ms Laurie: I think that is right. It is certainly a dose response relationship. However, people living near sources of industrial noise talk at various times about audible noise that is clearly disturbing to them if it is above the level of their television. I think Clive and Petrina Gare talked about that in their evidence. For some it is the pulsating, radiating quality of the sound that penetrates into their home and for some it is the sensations that they feel, which might be correlated to vibrations. Steven Cooper’s work down at Cape Bridgewater went into that in the most considerable detail of anyone in the world.
There is still a lot we do not know, but it is the combination of the frequency that people are exposed to and the features of the house, the acoustic resonance that might happen in certain rooms. Even the position in the a room can have an impact, together with the individual’s susceptibility. But until we measure what people are actually exposed to inside their homes—the sound and the pressure pulsations together with the vibration coming up through the ground—we will not know what their exposures are.
Senator LEYONHJELM: You mentioned chronic sleep deprivation and chronic stress as being key elements in this.
Ms Laurie: Yes.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Is there any particular reason for that? The reason for my question is that we have had other witnesses mention the Canadian health study, which focused on annoyance, which may not include those things. We have also had people suggest it involves the middle ear. I think somebody suggested it relates to the inner ear. We are hearing from a witness this afternoon who thinks it has a relationship to the vestibular mechanism. So why do you think chronic sleep deprivation is the key to it?
Ms Laurie: I think there are four key areas. Chronic sleep deprivation is the most widely reported symptom, and that seems to be the thing that really undoes people. Chronic stress can be associated with that. If you are chronically sleep deprived, that in itself can cause a chronic stress response. However, the chronic physiological stress is also part of what we are hearing from people.
The Japanese study, the Inagaki study, which measured the brain responses of Japanese wind turbine workers when exposed to reproduced wind turbine sound, showed clearly and objectively that the brain could not attain a relaxed state. Those EEG studies are precisely the sorts of studies I believe we need to do inside people’s homes to measure what their brains are responding to, because the clinical stories that they are giving are very consistent—that they are getting a physiological response.
Sometimes it can be that they are waking up in a very anxious, frightened, panicked state, and that can happen repeatedly. One of my colleagues from America, Dr Sandy Reider, has talked about a patient of his who woke up repeatedly in that state 30 to 40 times a night. It did not take long for that combination of sleep deprivation and repeated stress to wear this person down. He left and came back repeatedly. He was fine when he was away. He came back and got the same symptoms. He eventually moved away and his health is now improving. So the two are linked but separate.
However, I believe the vestibular system is actually the mechanism by which the brain is being affected by the sound energy. So it is via the vestibular system. Professor Salt’s work has shown that, if you stimulate the outer hair cells in the inner ear, some of the afferent fibres will take that sound energy and translate it into pulses into the brain that stimulate the alerting response in the brain. I think that is really the crux of the physiological response in what we are seeing.
Senator LEYONHJELM: But we have heard evidence that obviously not everybody—in fact, not even a majority—of people exposed to wind turbine noise or sound are adversely affected. Dr McMurtry suggested it was somewhere between five and 30 per cent of people. If that were the case, it would tend to suggest that there is a source of individual variation and that something like the motion sickness mechanism, a middle ear or vestibular mechanism, might explain it. If chronic sleep deprivation was the explanation, I think you would expect—and I am interested in your thoughts on this—people to be broadly affected the same way, wouldn’t you?
Ms Laurie: No, because everybody is impacted to different levels by the sound. Perhaps some examples will help. There are some couples where one partner was affected immediately when the turbines started operating and for the other partner it was months or years before they noticed an impact. I believe David Mortimer has given evidence to the inquiry. David and Alida are a good example. David was impacted very early on, within days to weeks of being exposed. Alida was fine for four years, and now she is quite badly impacted. Everybody is different, and everybody has different susceptibilities. Malcolm Swinbanks has shared with me some research from the 1970s related to the size of the helicotrema, which is a little hole in the inner ear. The smaller the hole, the greater the sensitivity to low-frequency sound. Alec Salt’s work with guinea pig models has provided some confirmatory evidence of that. Apparently when that hole is blocked the sensitivity to infrasound and low-frequency noise increases markedly. I also have heard from pharmacologists, pharmacists, that if people are on narcotic medication for pain relief then that can increase their sensitivity to sound.
So, a wide variety of individual factors can influence that. From my experience there is a subset of people who are terribly impacted very early on. Those people are the ones who tend to present with acute vestibular disorder type of symptoms—dizziness and motion sickness, which can be accompanied by extreme anxiety. Those people often just cannot last very long, and they move if they can. Trish Godfrey is one who has given evidence; Mrs Stepnell is another. They would fit in that category. However, for people in the same house, exposed to the same levels, like Carl Stepnell, it took a lot longer. Eventually he was impacted but in a different way.
In understanding the public health consequences, when you look at the population surveys that have been done, just looking at the sleep issue, a number have been done in Australia, one by an Adelaide University master’s student called Frank Wang. It was a population survey out to five kilometres, and 50 per cent of the people reported moderate to severe impacts from the turbine noise at Waterloo. From that, Mary Morris repeated his survey out to 10 kilometres—a smaller percentage, because it is a bigger area, so you get the dilution effect, but nevertheless she found that people were adversely impacted in terms of their sleep. Some of those people have subsequently had acoustic measurements done inside their house, which has confirmed that they are being subjected to excessive levels of low-frequency noise and that infrasound from the turbines is present. These people cannot see the turbines. Sometimes they can hear them. But they are being reliably and predictably disturbed—for example, when the wind is blowing towards them or when there is a cold, frosty night, because that cold air acts as a blanket to keep the sound energy down and stop the refraction up. That was something that Kelley and the NASA research showed 30 years ago. So, we have a lot of knowledge about what the impacts are and the distance of impacts.
Senator LEYONHJELM: But I have one final question: you mentioned this distance out to 10 kilometres; I have asked Steven Cooper what he thinks is an appropriate distance for wind turbines currently being constructed, and he says that 10 kilometres is probably about right. What is your view on that?
Ms Laurie: It depends on the size of the turbines and the power-generating capacity.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I mean the ones currently being constructed—three megawatts—
Ms Laurie: Yes, for three megawatts, 10, just based on the reports from the residents.
Senator LEYONHJELM: So, 10 kilometres for three megawatts?
Ms Laurie: Yes.
Senator URQUHART: There has been some controversy over your qualifications and professional standing so, for the record, could you let us know what your standing and professional qualifications are now?
Ms Laurie: Certainly. I am a medical graduate. I graduated from Flinders University with a bachelor of medicine, a bachelor of surgery, in 1995. I subsequently did postgraduate training in rural general practice. I attained my fellowship of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in 1998, I think it was, and subsequently was invited to become a clinical examiner for that college, which I did for a couple of years, until I became unwell. I attained my fellowship for the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine just after that, and I was one of the councillors on the South Australian Medical Association branch for a period of time, but that was prematurely cut short when I was diagnosed with an illness. I took time off and then subsequently had children, and I had intended to go back to work professionally as a country GP. A few other things got in the way, including finding out about what low-frequency noise is doing to people.
Senator URQUHART: So, currently you are not registered as a—
Ms Laurie: I am not currently registered to practise; that is correct. However, I am very keen to return. I really want to see some progress on this issue, because I do not want to abandon people who have invested a fair amount of trust and hope that things will change.
CHAIR: Just for the record: you have never been deregistered, have you?
Ms Laurie: I have never been deregistered, and apart from the defamatory complaint that was publicised and circulated from the Public Health Association of Australia, in which I believe the wind industry had a fair hand, I have never had any disciplinary complaints against me whatsoever.
Senator URQUHART: Thank you.
Senator BACK: Dr David Iser appeared before the committee in Melbourne. When did Dr Iser first report on what he believed to be the impacts and their causing of adverse health effects to people in the vicinity of industrial wind turbines?
Ms Laurie: May 2004 was when he wrote to Premier Bracks, Minister Brumby, Minister Delahunty and Minister Thwaites about the results of his population survey at Toora in Victoria. That was a world first. To my knowledge nobody else had ever done a population survey which demonstrated that not everybody was impacted but, of the people who were impacted, three were severely impacted, and I think five were moderately impacted.
Senator BACK: Did he report the actual clinical signs he was observing and did he validate medically the symptoms people were reporting to him?
Ms Laurie: He did in the sense that for some of them he was their treating doctor. In fact, that was why he became concerned about what was going on, because these people were presenting. People he had treated and known for a long time were presenting with these new problems, and some of them were very unwell, and that was why he did his research.
Senator BACK: That was the original work done. Can you tell me when the Waubra Foundation formed?
Ms Laurie: The foundation was established by Peter Mitchell in March or April 2010. I was invited to join in July or August 2010. I can give you the exact date, but I cannot remember it off the top of my head.
Senator BACK: We are actually talking about a six-year time gap between when Dr Iser first presented the population survey to the ministers of the Victorian government and when the Waubra Foundation was formed.
Ms Laurie: That is correct.
Senator BACK: Can you explain to me then why it is the Waubra Foundation that has been the butt of so many allegations and accusations of the spreading of fear if indeed Iser’s work was out in the public arena for six years?
Ms Laurie: I think there are a whole lot of reasons for that. I think it is a case of shooting the messenger—clinical whistleblowers—particularly if there are significant sums of money involved, as well as some ideology and concern about the environment. I think there are a whole lot of reasons that the message of the foundation has not been well received. And I should say that from the inception Peter Mitchell, as an engineer, was well aware that large rotating fans could generate noise, some of which was subaudible, so could therefore potentially have an impact on human health. So, from the beginning the foundation has been concerned about a variety of noise sources. We are concerned about the interface of the sound energy on people and promoting research that will help protect people. The source of the noise is a secondary consideration. We have been targeted particularly by the wind industry. If the coal industry and the gas industry were more aware of what we do, helping people directly impacted in communities like Tara in Queensland, up in the Hunter, in Lithgow, in Wellington and at some other sites, perhaps we would generate the same heat from them.
There is clearly a problem. The industry itself has admitted there is a problem. It is time that the facts were faced and we got some hard, objective evidence of what people are exposed to inside their homes, worked out exactly what thresholds are triggering this response and made sure that the noise pollution levels and vibration levels inside homes, no matter the noise source, do not exceed those thresholds.
Senator BACK: As a person with medical degrees and having been a fellow, as you have explained, of the college of rural practice and related areas, can you explain to me the circumstance of why you believe the Australian Medical Association has come out with its statement to the effect that there are no adverse health effects from industrial wind turbines in the face of evidence presented by peers within the medical profession refuting that.
Ms Laurie: I really cannot explain—I really do not understand—why they have come out and said that in the face of the clinical evidence that we know already about what sleep deprivation and chronic stress do to people. That position is not based on scientific evidence. The AMA have been repeatedly asked by people impacted by wind turbine noise to come and visit them, listen to their stories and listen to their own doctors. There are a number of doctors who have been prepared to stick their heads up above the parapet and say, ‘I believe my patient is impacted by wind turbine noise.’ Many of the people I speak to say that their doctors are not prepared to put that opinion in writing because they have seen what has happened to me and they are very concerned that they will be attacked, denigrated and publicly vilified and have their reputations smashed in the media. I can understand why the treating doctors are reluctant to put some of this in writing. For the Australian Medical Association to have come out with that position statement, in the face of the evidence that it was subsequently presented with, and refuse to either change it or investigate it, I think it reflects very poorly on the organisation.
Senator BACK: I have been nonplussed about it, but I just thought you might have had a more recent explanation, particularly given the history of some in the medical profession over time. Thank you very much and thank you for the work you do.
Ms Laurie: It is a pleasure. I should add that I have written on a number of occasions to the AMA and I am yet to receive any response whatsoever from them.
CHAIR: Ms Laurie, could you tell us when it was first known that people exposed to chronic excessive infrasound and low-frequency noise did not get used to that sound?
Ms Laurie: The first reference I can find is in Dr Kelley’s work, the extensive acoustic survey that was conducted in Boone County in America with NASA and, I think, 15 or so American research institutions—General Electric were part of it; there were quite a number of aero-acoustics and mechanical engineering university faculties involved. I was very interested to read that because on, I think, page 199 of that 1985 acoustic survey they specifically say that there are residents who have become conditioned to the sound—the later terminology is ‘sensitised’ to it. What that means is that they do not become used to it and they get progressively more sensitive as time goes on. The reason this is important is that, if you do not have sufficiently low thresholds set to protect people, over time they are going to get worse and we are going to have more and more people in our communities who are chronically sensitised to the sound. That really is a terrible thing for the people concerned because then they can pick up very low-frequency sound energy from other sources. They end up in a situation where they find it often very hard to sleep—they are perpetually sleep deprived—and they have a physiological stress response. They do not do well. They can become profoundly depressed and acutely suicidal.
One of the interesting pieces of research which a marine biologist and acoustician sent to me the other day—and I believe Geoff McPherson gave evidence to the inquiring in Cairns on this—was done into wild seal populations in Scotland. The researchers subjected the seals to different sorts of sound energy but at the same levels. There was sound energy that had a rapid acceleration, so it was very impulsive. And there was sound energy which was at the same level but had a much slower rise of the impulse. They found that the seals that were exposed to the rapidly impulsive sound did really badly. They showed signs of being conditioned and sensitised to the sound. But the seals that were exposed to the slower rising sound energy at the same peak level became used to the noise. They were habituated to it; it just did not worry them. I think there is something very profoundly important about the rate of acceleration.
There is actually one paper—although, I have not managed to track it down—that was cited by Dr Norm Broner, who you will be hearing from this afternoon, and also Dr Leventhall. It was in Dr Broner’s fairly major review from 1978 of infrasound and low-frequency noise. This was a paper by a man called Bryan. It specifically talked about the rate of rise in acceleration of the sound impulse being important with annoyance for this particular case that he was reporting on. I do think there are scientific clues from a long time ago that help us to understand that, perhaps, it is not just the level but the rate of acceleration as well.
CHAIR: Going back to the AMA’s position statement, why does the AMA’s position statement not address audible noise concerns? Do you know?
Ms Laurie: Again, I do not know. You would have to ask the AMA. I think audible noise is reported by the residents to be a major problem. As I said in my opening address, if you have loud levels of audible noise pollution way above the background level, acoustic experts say that anything that is background plus five you are going to start to notice it. Background plus 10 is excessive and is going to cause an impact. Background noise levels in Australia might be 18, 20 dB—maybe 25. You have allowable levels in South Australia of 40 or 35. That is going to cause an impact, a significant adverse impact, particularly because this sound energy is being transmitted especially at night when people are trying to sleep. Quite apart from low-frequency noise or infrasound, if you have excessive audible noise then you have regulations that are not protecting people.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I would be interested in your thoughts again. You have spent so much time on this. In light of the fact there is a paucity of research, I think your investigations are as good as we are likely to get on some of these areas, so I appreciate your thoughts. You can get used to loud noises without becoming sensitised when they are not infrasound. I am a living example. I live under the flight path of Sydney airport. I have done so for 30 odd years. Unless it blocks out the TV, I sort of tune it out. Yet we are not hearing that people, or some people at least, are capable of doing that with very low-frequency sound. Do you have any thoughts on whether anyone can do it? And if they cannot, why not?
Ms Laurie: Professor Salt has done some interesting work looking at this. He uses an analogy which, I think, is a useful one. If you think of the cochlea as being a little bit like the pupil in the eye that regulates the amount of light that gets into your eye, then, in an environment with a lot of light, your pupil constricts, and so less light gets in. And the converse happens. In quiet country environments at night, when people are asleep, because there is not a lot of loud background noise in their environment, the cochlea opens wide open. What happens, according to Professor Salt, is that a higher proportion of the low-frequency sound gets through to the afferent fibres, which are stimulated and send a message to the brain, and that, we believe, is the basis for this waking at night in a panic state, or the disturbed sleep. As to the evidence that supports this, you might remember Mrs Gare talking about how she sleeps with a radio on and ear plugs in her ears. Having some additional noise helps to close the cochlea down, if you like, in terms of the amount of the very-low-frequency sound and infrasound energy that gets transmitted through the brain.
That is where I think EEG studies inside people’s homes would help. We cannot do to the people what Professor Salt did to the guinea pigs, but I think if you have the EEGs you have objective evidence of what is going on. If you have concurrent full-spectrum acoustic monitoring at the same time, then you can see what people are exposed to and see what the brain response is.
Senator LEYONHJELM: Full spectrum, and do you have any thoughts on this argument amongst the acousticians that every 10 minutes is all right—and averages and so forth?
Ms Laurie: It is rubbish. We are talking millisecond responses. We are talking of a stimulus response. So, no, 10-minute averages will not cover it. It hides the peaks. The ear and the brain respond to the peaks.
Senator LEYONHJELM: I have no better idea than you, but I wonder whether it is the peaks we are talking about, rather than anything else, that are responsible for these adverse reactions?
Ms Laurie: My hypothesis is that it is these sudden peaks. That is why I am so interested in this idea that where you have more than one wind turbine generator and you have the synergy of the different frequencies from a number of towers, and the pressure bolt effects that people are describing, I actually think that that is a very, very important point. People are reporting being dropped to their knees suddenly with pressure waves—big, burly farmers being dropped to their knees. That is not happening at developments where there is only one wind turbine, in my experience. This is happening where there are multiple wind turbines. I suspect there is a cumulative impact from the forces.
CHAIR: Thank you for attending and for your evidence.
Hansard, 29 May June 2015
Dr Laurie’s evidence is available from the Parliament’s website here.