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Battle in California over Potential Health Risks of Smart Meters

Health advocates press regulators to get answers before broad rollout of wireless devices into millions of homes

Jun 9, 2010

Last February, an article in GQ about the health hazards of cell phones caused a furor, reopening a debate that periodically flares up and dies down without firm scientific resolution. Do wireless radio frequencies increase cancer risks? Nobody knows for sure, which is one reason why communities all over the world have fought the installation of cell towers and municipal WiFi networks in their midst.

Now, electromagnetic field (EMF) and radio frequency (RF) safety advocates are setting their sights on the smart meters that will replace the dumb meters now in everyone's homes. Instead of just measuring electricity usage in order to generate a monthly bill, smart meters will communicate with the grid so that consumers can use power more efficiently and cheaply.

It's a device central to the coming clean energy economy, and like cell phones, smart meters are attracting the attention of health and safety advocates concerned about the effects of yet another network of radio signals that will surround consumers across the country.

Case in point: The Sebastopol, Calif.-based EMF Safety Network filed a formal petition with the California Public Utilities Commission asking the regulators to review the Smart Meter program of northern California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for potential health risks.

In its application, the Network is requesting the CPUC to get some answers. It wants an independently prepared RF Emissions Study, evidentiary hearings on RF health, environmental, and safety impacts, and performance reviews of actual Smart Meter programs. The Network also wants customers to be given the choice to opt out of having a smart meter installed in their houses, and a temporary moratorium on any further smart meter installations until the evidence is in.

The CPUC moved in late April to set a hearing on the subject, while PG&E submitted a request to dismiss the application altogether, on the grounds that the field of RF regulation is pre-empted by federal law.

"The FCC is the body that is responsible for RF regulation," PG&E argued. "All meters with SmartMeter™ technology have been licensed or certified by the FCC. Under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, the CPUC is precluded from regulating RF emissions. Any proceeding on this subject would be a waste of the CPUC's time and resources.”

PG&E also threw down a separate challenge to the EMF Safety Network's protest, saying it would "consider submitting evidence" if a hearing ever happened to demonstrate the lack of evidence of health risks and the evidence of economic harm to ratepayers if smart meters were prohibited, among other things. In other words, PG&E was telling the EMF Safety Network to bring it on.

But PG&E may face an uphill battle if the health advocates move away from conspiracy theories and link into existing public concern over cell phone-related health risks -- since both devices transmit and receive radio frequencies.

Reliable Studies?

At first glance, it seems like an unfair fight. PG&E, with on-staff attorneys and millions of dollars, versus the ragtag EMF Safety Network, armed only with one report already broadly discredited. It's called the BioInitiative Report, and it lacks scientific rigor, according to many international scientific bodies.

In its analysis of the BioInitiative Report, the Health Council of the Netherlands points out that the report’s authors did not follow standard scientific methods, that several of the reports authors are not scientists and that various chapters offer a selection of the available scientific studies but no information on how or why those particular studies were selected.

“The authors have also excluded various studies that did not find an association between breast cancer and exposure to magnetic fields from their analysis,” the brief reads. “It can be concluded that the scientific quality of the review sections is extremely varied. The first section, written by one of the main initiators of the BioInitiative report, contains the summary and conclusions, which in many cases go further than the conclusions reached by the authors of the review sections.”

It probably doesn’t help that Cindy Sage, the author of that section, also charges $2 to anyone trying to access the report or the BioInitiative site.

In the report’s executive summary, EMF and health consultant Sage writes: “Radiofrequency radiation from cell phone and cordless phone exposure has been linked in more than one dozen studies to increased risk for brain tumors and/or acoustic neuromas (a tumor in the brain on a nerve related to our hearing).” Sage goes on to note that people who have used a cell phone for 10 years or longer have a 20 percent increased chance of getting a brain tumor.

The results of the 13-country, four-year Interphone study, conducted by the International Agency for
Cancer Research (IARC), are less than conclusive. The published results state: “No elevated OR [odds ratio] was observed ≥ 10 years after first phone use.”

“An increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data from Interphone,” Dr. Christopher Wild, director of IARC, said in a statement about the study. “However, observations at the highest level of cumulative call time and the changing patterns of mobile phone use since the period studied by Interphone, particularly in young people, mean that further investigation of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk is merited."

Nagging concerns

While every study proving a link between RF and cancer seems to have an equal and opposite study claiming otherwise (many funded by telecom companies, but some independent and scientifically valid), the scientific jury is still out on whether or not it’s harmful to human health to be surrounded by radio frequencies.

“Much biological research has been done in recent years on possible biological effects of RF fields,” the Interphone authors write. “This work covers in vitro and in vivo exposure, alone and in combination with other physical or chemical agents, and has found no evidence that RF fields are carcinogenic in laboratory rodents or cause DNA damage in cells in culture. Possible effects of RF fields on other biological endpoints are still being explored."

The World Health Organization also is continuing to study the health effects of RF, and several European countries have initiated their own studies and, in some cases, moved away from municipal WiFi as a result. In 2008, for example, the French government got rid of WiFi in the France National Library, partially as a precautionary measure to protect the health of workers and the public.

Amid stories of skyrocketing bills and concerns over the security of an IP-based (and thus hack-able) smart grid, the addition of public health concerns might be enough to tip consumers completely against the smart grid.

In the California fight, the EMF Safety Network now has the support of The Utility Reform Network, State Senator Dean Florez, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo and the cities of Sebastopol, Cotati, Fairfax, Bolinas, and Camp Meeker in requesting a moratorium on smart meters.

Particularly problematic for utilities are the privacy and right-to-choice aspects of those who are calling attention to the potential health risks of the smart grid. “There are no RF warning signs and at this time you cannot opt out of smart meter installation,” the EMF Safety Network warns on its website.

“PG&E has been unable to give us a consistent, believable, straight answer about how often the meters transmit RF, or what the instantaneous peak power of the RF signal is at certain distances,” reads the group’s statement on smart meters.

“They do not know what the RF exposure levels will be for a home with multiple meters installed. They claim the meters transmit RF six times a day, or they say once an hour. Other RF experts have measured RF transmissions every 45 seconds. Why is PG&E hiding the numbers? “

Whether the CPUC will demand those numbers, or request more information about the health impacts of PG&E’s smart meters, remains to be seen. But if the RF and EMF folks get together with consumers who are angry about rate hikes or high bills, and privacy advocates concerned about the security of the systems, smart grid proponents and utilities could be in for more consumer backlash as the smart meter rollouts continue.

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