The newest opposition to "smart" electric meters is gaining traction -- even if its validity is questionable.
Amid claims of malfunctioning meters, privacy issues and dubious economic value, health issues stemming from electromagnetic waves are the latest objection that smart meter opponents have seized upon to block California's multibillion-dollar rollout.
Northern California residents and lawmakers have been sounding the alarm for the past year, saying that the meters, when layered on top of microwaves, cell phones, wireless routers and other emitters, are the final straw.
Things came to a head last week when the Marin County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that deems the installation of smart meters a misdemeanor in some areas of the county (Greenwire, Jan. 5).
"What we're trying to say is, it's not just endangered species we need to watch out for," said Katharina Sandizell, a co-director of the nonprofit West Marin Community Coalition for Public Health who was arrested last month for blocking smart meter installers' trucks. "Humans are also the canaries in the closet."
Sandizell believes that her two children could suffer developmental problems, brain tumors or other disorders as a result of electromagnetic radiation.
State Rep. Jared Huffman (D), who represents Marin, introduced a bill last month that would require the California Public Utilities Commission to suspend smart meter installation until there is a provision to allow residents to opt out of the program with a wired meter. He has also requested a report on the potential health effects of smart meters from the state Council on Science and Technology, an advisory group established by the state Legislature, that is due out this month.
"This bill is about giving consumers reasonable choices," Huffman said. "Whether or not you believe RF [radio frequency] exposures from smart meters are harmful, it's only fair that consumers who are concerned about health effects be given complete technical information and the choice of another technology for devices that are installed at their homes."
But are they actually dangerous? A study released last week by environmental consulting firm Sage Associates contends that they are. The report claims violations of federal emissions standards at a variety of distances from the meters and argues that the devices are more dangerous when grouped together and when coupled with other wireless technologies.
"Indiscriminate exposure to environmentally ubiquitous pulsed RF from the rollout of millions of new RF sources (smart meters) will mean far greater general population exposures, and potential health consequences," the study says.
The Federal Communications Commission has classified the meters as devices that will be used more than 20 centimeters away from the body and thus can meet an emissions standard that is averaged over time, taking into account the maximum emissions during each transmission. Determining the specific absorption rate (SAR) by the body is not necessary, as it is for cell phones, FCC says.
Additionally, the dangers of several smart meters clustered together is a nonissue because they all use the same transmitter. "The general issue of cumulative exposure from an arbitrary group of transmitter installations or from all transmitters distributed in the environment can appear to be complex, but as discussed, the need for orderly communications requires that a few sources normally dominate," Julius Knapp, FCC's head of engineering and technology, wrote in an August 2010 letter to Sage.
Utility Consumers' Action Network, a watchdog group in San Diego, cites a November 2010 study by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention that found no dangers associated with smart meters. "Smart meters appear to be similar to having a wireless router on the side of a house that operates only 10 percent of the time," UCAN says.
The World Health Organization is concerned about cell phones, but not smart meters. "It sort of sounds, I wouldn't say specious, but far-fetched, really," said Daniel Epstein, spokesman for the WHO's Americas region. "If the U.S. or some other country wanted help with that, we'd provide some expertise, but this is not really an issue on our radar at all, with all the major public health problems that we have."
A review of the literature on cell phone use is due out sometime this year, he said, and a 2007 WHO review found that low-frequency electromagnetic fields in general are not associated with cancer, depression, suicide, cardiovascular disorders, reproductive dysfunction, developmental disorders, immunological modifications, neurobehavioral effects or neurodegenerative disease. In the case of childhood leukemia, which has been found to have a positive association with low-frequency fields, WHO did not find a causal relationship.
The CPUC itself has been reluctant to enter the debate, but its consumer watchdog arm, the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, has been an avid observer. The sheer amount of concern compels the agency to act, said Joe Como, DRA's acting director and general counsel.
"We're not saying there is a health-related problem from exposure to smart meters, but we're saying there is enough public concern and enough studies out there that indicate there may be a health threat in terms of EMF exposure generally that the commission needs to take it seriously and be aboveboard -- having the right kind of experts addressing the problem, making reports available -- so there's an open dialogue about what should be done," Como said.
But Sandizell said she did not have much faith in the CPUC.
"The CPUC is neutered, really; it's regulated by [Pacific Gas & Electric Co.], so if you're saying CPUC has jurisdiction, it's like saying PG&E is the law," she said. Her group is planning on sending a letter airing its concerns to Gov. Jerry Brown (D).