The Science of SmartMeters

news-1Exactly what is known about the safety of SmartMeters?
Penelope Joaquin has been a kindergarten teacher in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District for 15 years, and, this past year, she thought the stress was finally getting to her.

“I started to get this noise in my ears,” she says. “You know, that noise you get right before you go to sleep or like champagne bubbles? It’s hard to explain. It’s not even that loud, but it’s all the time.” The sensation Joaquin noticed turned out to be tinnitus, which is usually described as a ringing noise, high-pitched whining, electric buzzing, hissing, humming, tingling or a number of other continuous or intermittent noises in the ear.

“It was the end of the school year and I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep and so forth so I thought, ‘Oh it’s probably just because I’m overworked, tired and stressed,’” Joaquin recalls. “I figured as soon as the school year ends and I start getting some sleep I’ll be fine and it’ll go away.” The school year ended and Joaquin’s tinnitus persists. Having eliminated stress as the cause of her fairly mild symptom, she started looking elsewhere. 

“It was just the other day when it finally dawned on me [that the ringing in my ears] came around the time that [the SmartMeter] was installed,” she says. A SmartMeter—the wireless digital utility meters that PG&E is installing on homes in their service areas to replace traditional analog meters—had been installed on the Joaquin household in late May, a few days before Joaquin’s tinnitus began.

Initially, Joaquin did not give her new meter a second thought. “I mean, really, how many people go out and make sure their meter is working, much less notice if it has been replaced. People have too many things to think about already,” she says.

Joaquin lives in Santa Barbara County, where SmartMeters were already installed earlier this year. PG&E began installation of SmartMeters in Santa Cruz County late this June, and opponents are fearful of similar symptoms cropping up locally.

Devices that use wireless technology (such as cell phones, cordless phones, microwave ovens, and SmartMeters) emit radio frequency emissions. Being subject to these emissions can lead to thermal and non-thermal effects on the body. Extensive studies have been conducted on thermal effects on humans, and it has been determined that they can be harmful to people in large doses. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has regulations unchanged since 1996—in place to protect the public from health hazards related to the thermal impacts of radio frequencies.

Non-thermal effects, on the other hand, have not been studied as heavily and are less understood by the scientific community. Various studies that have been conducted, mainly focused on the effects of cell phone use, indicate that non-thermal effects can lead to fatigue, headaches, irritability and even cancer. According to a study about SmartMeters done by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) those assertions “have not been scientifically established, and the mechanisms that might lead to non-thermal effects remain uncertain.” The CCST suggests that more research needs to be done.

Joaquin is among a number of PG&E customers with newly installed SmartMeters who claim to be suffering from symptoms that they say are caused by the radio frequencies emitted by the new technology. Those afflicted, as well as many SmartMeter and other wireless technology critics, believe that they are suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), or electrosensitivity. This disorder is believed to be caused and exacerbated by exposure to radio frequencies and electromagnetic frequencies. Symptoms can include but are not limited to: tinnitus, chronic fatigue, headaches, insomnia, learning and immune system problems, dermatitis, heart palpitations, nausea, joint pain, swelling of face, neck, eye problems, rashes etc. There is no American medical association that recognizes this condition, yet the numbers of individuals asserting their experience with electrosensitivity is growing.

The CCST was recruited by Assemblymembers Jared Huffman (D-6th District) and Bill Monning (D-27th District) to conduct an “independent, science-based study … [that] would help policy makers and the general public resolve the debate over whether smart meters present a significant risk of adverse health effects.” This is the main study that PG&E has cited on their website to assert the safety of the SmartMeter.

The CCST study found that SmartMeters, when used and installed properly, emit smaller levels of radio frequency than many “common household electronic devices, particularly cell phones and microwave ovens.” It is also recognized that “not enough is currently known about potential non-thermal impacts of radio frequency emissions to identify or recommend additional standards for such impacts” but to date, “scientific studies have not identified or confirmed negative health effects from potential non-thermal impacts of radio frequency emissions.”

For the CCST, the FCC guidelines provide “an adequate factor of safety against known thermally induced health impacts” but do not claim to protect against the potential non-thermal effects.

Concerns surrounding the actual amounts of radio frequency the public is being exposed to are brought up in an independent study done by Sage Associates, a Santa Barbara consulting firm specializing in electro-magnetic radiation issues.

The Sage report maintained that “neither the FCC, the CPUC, the utility nor the consumer know what portion of the allowable public safety limit is already being used up or pre-empted by radio frequency from other sources already present in the particular location a smart meter may be installed and operated.” The study also asserts that if consumers have already used up their “allowance” of wireless exposure on other devices for whatever reason, they “may now face excessively high radio frequency exposures in their homes [and communities] from SmartMeters. This may force limitations on use of their otherwise occupied space, depending on how the meter is located, building materials in the structure, and how it is furnished.”

Among the critics of the CCST study is Daniel Hirsch, a senior lecturer and expert in nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz. He expounds on his points of contention in a video on the website of local SmartMeter opposition group StopSmartMeters!, stopsmartmeters.org.

“What troubles me is that instead of doing an independent review [as requested by the assemblymembers], CCST just reproduced claims that the Electric Power Research Institute had made, which, in turn, turned out to be conducted by the same person at PG&E that made the claims that it was supposed to be an independent review,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch recently finished a report analyzing the CCST study on the potential health impacts of SmartMeters. Hirsch’s report reassessed the CCST study, correcting for whole-body, cumulative exposure, and concluded that, “SmartMeters are at least 100 times more powerful than cell phones.”

PG&E recognizes that it does not specialize in radio frequency emissions. “We’re not scientific experts,” says PG&E spokesperson Jeff Smith, “so we’ve relied on the leading organizations that study these issues, including the FCC as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), who’ve looked at the issue extensively and have evaluated the acceptable levels of radio frequency.”

This past May, a working group from WHO and accompanying International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radio frequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.”

Glen Chase, an anti-SmartMeter advocate and former professor of systems management in environmental economics and statistics at CSU Monterey Bay, disputes PG&E’s “baseless claims of safety.”

“With the strength and power and finances behind the industry that does not want radio frequency electromagnetic fields on the possible carcinogen list, the placement of it on the list is a tremendously strong demonstration of the danger it poses,” he tells GT. Chase’s concern is that the “possibly carcinogenic” label sounds benign enough to sway the public into believing that these emissions are safe.

“The name of the category does not negate the likelihood that [these emissions] are dangerous,” says Chase. “The WHO cataloging these emissions as Class 2B carcinogens overwhelmingly indicates that the mandatory nature of the SmartMeter program needs to stop immediately.”

StopSmartMeters! Director Joshua Hart says that local efforts against SmartMeters are still going strong. The group holds frequent protests, hosted a Town Hall Forum on Aug. 3 that aimed to inform the community with a panel of specialists and other knowledgeable speakers, and will hold another on Thursday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Satellite Telework Center in Felton. “We need to listen to the canaries [in the coal mine]—the electrosensitive people—to prevent the harm being done to the rest,” says Hart. “Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it isn’t doing you harm.”

The debate about the safety of the SmartMeters may persist, but those who believe SmartMeters are causing them harm have to wait until science confirms their symptoms. Joaquin has yet to see a doctor, but is unsure of what good it will do. “It’s kind of nerve wracking in a way, because right when you think you’d get some peace and quiet, there’s this sound still going on in my ears,” she says. ”That’s pretty annoying—believe me. I’ve tried to block it out, as much as I can, because you have to go on with your life.”

Learn more about the SmartMeters debate by visiting the following websites: pge.com/myhome/customerservice/smartmeter

To Top