HELSINKI, February 24, 2012-Last week’s post on “smart meters” led to vigorous debate. Some issues that came up in the comments need clarification and further explanation.
“Smart meter” technology is very fast developing all around the world, but there are differences how it is implemented in different countries. There is no single good answer to the question how much radiation will be added to our environment by this wireless technology.
What the manufacturers and electric utility companies say in public is that independently of whether the meter is working around-the-clock or whether it sends information every-now-and-then, the electro-magnetic field (EMF) exposures should be low and comparable with other wireless technologies, such as wlan exposures, or significantly lower than the consumers receive from the operating cell towers.
This information is met with great skepticism by persons considering themselves as “sensitive” to EMF. Whether this skepticism is founded remains to be seen because not all pertinent information is publicly available.
At home, people meet a variety of electro-magnetic fields emitted by different appliances located inside and on outside homes. Not all EMFs are the same. There are differences in frequency and modulation and there are differences in power, the amount of energy emitted by different EMF sources. Therefore, even though some EMF sources emit similar radiation, like microwaves, the energy that is emitted is very different.
Most of the exposures to microwaves come from the use of cell phones. The more people talk on the phone and the longer the conversations are, the more radiation is absorbed by the brain.
The second source of exposure is cell towers, but the exposures are 1/1.000 to 1/100.000 part of the cell phone exposure. It means that the exposures are minimal. The problem with cell tower exposure is that it is happening 24/7.
Similar 24/7 exposures are in some places with wlan networks and, in due time, exposures to “smart meters” and their wireless networks.
An important distinction to remember is that cell tower and wlan exposures have much lower power as compared with cell phones.
What are the impacts of exposures to people’s health? At this time, we have no scientific certainty. However, if the potential health effects are confirmed by further research, these effects will surely depend on quality and on quantity of the radiation absorbed by the human body.
In case of the cell phone radiation, the biggest worry is that the exposure might cause a brain cancer. Unfortunately, because the two largest epidemiology studies, INTERPHONE and Danish Cohort, were executed very poorly, they did not provide any reliable answers as to the possible causality link between brain cancer and cell phone radiation. The brain cancer question remains unanswered.
Other exposures, like wlan, cell towers and “smart meters” are being considered by the part of population as causes of the so-called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). People who consider themselves EHS are of the opinion that the deployment of “smart meters” may lead to the increase of EHS in the so far non-EHS majority of population.
This suggestion is difficult to accept because deployment of the “smart meters” will add very little radiation beyond existing exposures to cell phones and cell towers. Currently, 5.7 billons of people use cell phones and more than that is exposed 24/7 to cell tower radiation. Are they all sick?
According to some extreme voices from the EHS community the answer is yes, all people might be already sick but they might not recognize yet that the EMFs cause their existing health problems.
To justify the claims of the “pan-sickness” these individuals site examples of increase in sleep problems, cognitive problems, increase in different types of allergies but also claim more serous ailments like the increase in the numbers of children born with different disorders.
Such claims, without good quality scientific evidence are difficult to accept. There might be other “scenarios” to explain these ailments. These scenarios” will not satisfy everyone but they are, nonetheless, possible.
The introduction of cell phones has changed in astounding way how people function in the society. In the old days, it was possible to leave the work office and go home and have a break from work-related phone calls – now it is not. It was possible to go for a walk to relax and recharge but now, unless someone has sufficiently strong will power, it is not possible. Cell phones go for walks too.
This new way of living leads to blurring the line between home and office, causing work stress to be increasingly part of the time that before was free, to “recharge and relax”. As a consequence of the new lifestyle, with 24/7 availability, people may experience higher levels of stress leading to sleeplessness and cognitive problems. This 24/7 availability concerns not only adults but also children. Stress to youngsters’ could be, and should be, remedied by parental supervision.
The stress can also come from the “on-line” life, not necessarily the radiation from the new wireless world.
The serious health claims of the developmental problems in newborn children cannot be easily explained by just the “EMF-connection”. There are very, very, very many environmental pollutants. Singling out EMF without solid evidence and supporting the claims using small studies with few cases is not good way to stimulate science and regulatory authorities to action.
Besides the ongoing “environmental assault”, human kind is slowly “genetically deteriorating” because the laws of natural selection do not work anymore. Thanks to progress in medicine, many persons, who in older days would pass away, live and pass on their genes and coded in them ailments.
Making EMFs guilty of every possible disease or ailment that causes are unknown is too far fetched to accept.
The applicability of the 2011 IARC classification of the cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen to the “smart meters” was one point of the debate.
The “smart meters” as such were not debated in
Of course the IARC decision classifying cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen can be extended to cover all sources of cell-phone-like radiation, including cell towers, wlan and “smart meters”. However, there is not equality between the sources of radiofrequency radiation and there will not be equality in their potential effects on the living organisms.
Sources like cell towers, wlan and “smart meters” emit thousands of times less energy than cell phones and therefore it is logical to expect that the effects, if any, caused by their radiation will be far lesser than the effects caused by cell phone exposures.
Treating different sources of EMF as potentially equally important sources of health hazard and justifying such with the IARC classification is a clear abuse of the IARC decision. All concerned with the possible health risks should carefully consider not only the quality of radiation but even more importantly the quantity. Too little of radiation will be unable to trigger any effects even if the quality would be suitable to do so.
The jury is still out and more studies are necessary to determine whether cell phone radiation causes brain cancer and whether EMF are solely responsible for the symptoms experienced by the self-diagnosed EHS people.
In this scientific uncertainty time, the one thing is certain – there is no return to pre-wireless society.
The health reasons are not anymore sufficient reason to reverse or even slow down wireless technological development. The problem has become policy and politics issue. The problem will be solved by politicians, deciding what “collateral damage” is an acceptable price for the society to pay for the technological and economical development. Any attempts to stop development and deployment of wireless technologies would cause economical catastrophe.
Take home message
The prudent thing to do, in the time of scientific uncertainty, is to implement precautionary policies including free choice between wireless and wired options, whenever technologically feasible. In parallel, politicians, policy makers and industry should set aside funds for further, well designed and specifically targeted, research into the possible health effects of EMFs. Only with the knowledge in hand, development of approaches mitigating the health risks will be possible.
The next column will be published on March 11/12, 2012.
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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