Is the "smart meter" scare justified?

It is difficult to understand the scare and hype surrounding Photo: graphic by author

HELSINKI, February 18, 2012–In the old days a person was reading an electricity meter. In the spirit of technological progress and making everything possible wirelessly, in recent years, electric companies introduced “smart meters”.  Nobody needs to read them. The meters send readings automatically to the electric company.

Meter reading reporting happens either wire or wirelessly. The wireless approach is cheaper for the electric utility companies, but met strong opposition from some citizens. The concerned citizens formed groups that vehemently oppose installation of wireless “smart meters”. Such groups are very vocal e.g. in USA, Canada and Australia.

What is the problem? The opponents of the “smart meters” list a number of concerns: pricing hikes, invasion of privacy, cyber security, and new radiation source that adds emissions to the existing “EMF smog” and might cause health effects.

According to some citizen grass roots groups, we should be very worried about what they assert are certain health risks.  This “certainty” was recently supported by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM).

In a statement published on January 19, 2012, the AAEM urges a moratorium on installation of smart meters in California because: “…environmental hazard that is sufficiently well documented to warrant immediate preventive public health action…”.

The statement refers also to the 2011 IARC classification of cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen: “…Emissions given off by “smart meters” have been classified by the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Possible Human Carcinogen…”.

Should we be worried about the possible health effects of the radiation emitted by the “smart meters”?

How much of “smart meter” radiation the citizens will encounter in their daily life predetermines how “dangerous” the meters are.

There are different technologies used in sending information by “smart meters“. In Finland, wireless “smart meters” use the existing GSM base stations network to transmit information. The wireless “smart meters” do not operate continuously but are set to send readings at certain time intervals. The remaining time, the vast majority of time, the “smart meters” sit inertly and wait. The meter reading that is send to electric utility company is like a sending a text message from the cell phone.

The additional amount of exposure caused by the “smart meters” is therefore very, very, very small.

For example, person living in a house with “smart meter” will be “exposed” from time to time at amounts much lower than a person sending a text message.

For an individual to somehow be really exposed to the radiation emitted by the “smart meter”, comparable to exposure when talking on cell phone, a person needs to physically be in contact with the “smart meter” antenna at the time of sending the reading. This is very brief exposure and very unlikely to happen because nobody will in practice touch “smart meter” antennas.

There are also places where many “smart meters” are located in one site. Even then, the exposure is minimal unless someone comes into physical contact with the antenna. The distance of few meters from the battery of “smart meters” makes radiation exposure close to nothing.

This is the reality of the exposures to smart meter radiation.

The vast majority of our exposure to radiation comes from using the cell phone. Then, there is a very low level (1/10.000 to 1/100.000 part of cell phone exposure) exposure to cell tower radiation but, because it is 24/7, we need to make research taking a closer look into the possibility of long term effects.

In comparison with cell phones and cell towers, exposures of citizens to “smart meters” radiation is close to negligible, comparable with exposures when other people, around us, send text messages.

The use of the IARC classification of cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen is clear abuse of the classification and it misrepresents the decision made last year in Lyon.

The IARC classification was about the cell phone radiation at the levels comparable with cell phone operating close to a users head in talk-mode. The debates in Lyon did not concern very low exposures from cell towers or extremely low exposures from the “smart meters”.

The IARC decision does not directly apply to “smart meters”. It might apply as to the “quality” of the emitted radiation but not to the “quantity” of the emitted radiation.

The support by AAEM of the recommendation of moratorium on smart meters by the IARC classification is misleading.

It is difficult to understand where the scare of “smart meters” comes from. Most likely the lack of reliable information causes “gossip” and “misinformation” to spread. It is also possible to ask who is profiting from spreading this scare. Is some potential conflict of interest discussion necessary?

While it is possible to understand and accept that cell phone and cell tower radiation might have some impact on our health, accepting the same for the “smart meters” borders on impossible.

It is also necessary to consider that the propagation of the “smart meter” scare has, and will have, negative impact on the scientists’ efforts to get funding for the cell phone and cell tower radiation research.

On the other hand, when there are available wired “smart meters” and in the situation of scientific uncertainty, citizens should have a choice between wired and wireless options, if choosing the wired option helps them to cope with the uncertainty.

Such approach would be in line with the WHO definition of health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

Take home message:

There is no need for serious concern. Radiation emitted by “smart meters” is similar to this emitted by cell phones but the exposures that citizens will encounter in their daily life are negligible from the point of possible health effects for the majority of population.

Read more from Dariusz Leszczynski in his science blog “BRHP - Between a Rock and a Hard Place” at http://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com  Dariusz is a Research Professor at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland.

Follow Dariusz on twitter: @blogBRHP

Disclaimer: the opinions presented in this column are author’s own and should NOT be considered as the official opinions of the STUK - Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland.


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Dariusz Leszczynski

Dariusz Leszczynski is an expert in the biological and health effects of cell phone radiation.

Since 2009 he publishes a science blog dealing with the issue of cell phone radiation and health: http://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com  

Disclaimer: the opinions presented in this column are authors' own and SHOULD NOT be considered as opinions of any of his employers.

Contact Dariusz Leszczynski

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