Many Are Claiming Health Problems Caused by Smart Meters

October 12, 2011

A broad consortium of government agencies, environmental groups, and utilities and their industry organizations is touting the benefits of a "smart grid." Generally, this is conceived as an extensive revamp of the electrical system to make it more efficient and reliable, less polluting, and less expensive. Proponents of the smart grid envision it as having many benefits to both electric utilities and their customers — and see its costs largely as the dollar costs of building infrastructure.

One component of the smart grid is smart meters, which operate as part of electric, gas, or water systems, and transmit meter readings to the utility many times a day, often via radio waves but sometimes via hard-wiring. This allows utilities to save money since meter readers are no longer needed. It also gives utilities frequent input on how much demand there is on their system at any one time, allowing them to fine tune their operations, use various tools (such as demand-based pricing) to equalize demand throughout the day and reduce peak loads, and plan for future supply needs.

The concepts sound good to many people, but serious flaws are becoming apparent as utilities rapidly install smart meters across the country, according to a rising chorus of critics. They are concerned about privacy (since they say utilities can interpolate many behavioral aspects of building occupants via the detailed reporting of utility use), security (since any utility's system could be hacked), and accuracy (with reports of very inaccurate readings from a small percentage of meters). Each of these issues warrants investigation and coverage.

Another major issue is possible human health impacts from smart meters. That is the focus of the remainder of this Tip.

SMART METER HEALTH IMPACTS?

The health impacts of smart meters is a difficult topic, due in large part to the scarcity of pertinent science. As a result, some of your coverage will need to focus on the unknowns, rather than the knowns.

But the numerous allegations of health damage from people in the US and around the globe, the common threads in the descriptions of health damage (often appearing to involve the neurological, immune, and/or endocrine systems), and the evidence from thousands of published studies that address a wide range of electrical, magnetic field, and radio-frequency impacts, suggest this could be a major public health issue that warrants coverage.

The main questions are: with no smart meter-specific evidence of safety regarding a wide range of possible health impacts, should utilities be allowed to force smart meters on people? Should the meters be proven safe before they are installed — or should the "precautionary principle" be reversed, as it often is with US law regarding chemical pollution? In other words, is it acceptable to allow utilities to install these meters, then require people to prove they are being harmed? And in this case, with many government agencies and major environmental groups supporting smart meters, who will be the watchdogs?

Regarding the science, there appears to be virtually none specifically addressing smart meters, based on a search of PubMed using the term "smart meter." PubMed is the repository for the vast majority of the world's health-related research in the past half-century or so.

Looking beyond smart meter-specific research, there have been many studies of the electromagnetic spectrum involving cell phones and other electrical devices. You can find these on PubMed using search terms such as "radiowave," "cell phone," or "electromagnetic field." You may want to narrow your search to radiowave frequencies of 902-928 MHz, the band in which smart meters tend to operate, just above that of cell phones. Or you can scan more than 5,000 studies inventoried by an advocacy group:

However, the great majority of this research has focused only on thermal effects and cancer. Thermal effects (think of cooking meat in a microwave oven) are the health endpoint addressed by current FCC guidelines for wireless emissions. There has been relatively little research on health concerns such as damage to the immune, neurological, endocrine, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and other physiological or biological systems.

Another key issue is that the vast majority of the research has been conducted either in vitro, on animals, or on healthy humans. There has been almost no research on people with underlying health disorders, even though it's widely accepted that the body's defense systems in such people tend to be impaired. With about half the US population suffering from one or more chronic disorders, that's a large pool of people who could plausibly be more vulnerable to forces such as wireless emissions.

One ongoing study that is attempting to investigate effects beyond thermal and cancer endpoints, at least for cell phones, is being led by Michael Wyde, a toxicologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. His study is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

CLAIMS AND COUNTERCLAIMS

Given the existing evidence, the Council of Europe (an advisory body to the European Parliament that has been tasked with promoting democracy and protecting human rights and the rule of law) issued a resolution in May 2011 expressing numerous concerns about possible harm from various electromagnetic emissions, and generally recommending a cautious approach, saying "there could be extremely high health and economic costs if early warnings are neglected," similar to what happened with asbestos, leaded gasoline, and tobacco. The Council also said current international standards "have serious limitations."

The EPA agreed in 2002 with the Council's caveat about existing standards, saying frequently-made claims that the FCC guidelines provide protection against a wide range of possible health effects from wireless emissions are unjustified.

Nonetheless, many utility officials and others addressing this issue today are making just those kinds of claims, and saying smart meters pose no risk.

In addition to the dearth of research on nonthermal or noncancer effects, there is little or no research addressing the fact that smart meters are connected to a building's electrical system, and could interact with it in a variety of ways. That condition makes existing research on cell phones inapplicable, since cell phones have no such connection. In addition, smart meter critics say some manufacturers acknowledge their smart meter emits almost constantly for function, security, and operational reasons; this is in contrast to the claim by many utilities that the meters operate for only a very brief time, such as a fraction of a second once each hour, when transmitting a reading to the utility. Long-term, 24/7 emissions seldom, if ever, are studied in wireless emission research.

METER INDUSTRY

A few of the many meter manufacturers you might consider contacting to check on this angle are listed below, along with their newly-formed national organization. Or ask the utilities you are covering which manufacturer(s) they are using or considering.

HYPERSENSITIVITY IN SOME?

Another issue that distinguishes smart meters from cell phones, wireless computers, microwave ovens, and similar devices is that users of the latter typically have a choice whether to use them; with many utilities forcing customers to have a smart meter installed, no one served by that utility has a choice.

The number of people who are vulnerable to emissions from smart meters and other electrical devices — who are typically described as having electrical hypersensitivity — likely is small. A limited number of studies suggest the numbers may be 1.5-5% of the general population.

Based on decades of anecdotal accounts, health problems can show up within seconds of exposure in some people, or in months in others. With the longer time frames, most people, and their doctors, will have a very difficult time making the connection between their health problems and a wireless device. That difficulty is illustrated in the following media article, and in some of the accounts inventoried at the second URL below:

One prominent person who has discussed her pronounced, rapid-onset electrical hypersensitivity, long before the advent of smart meters, is Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and director-general of the World Health Organization.

In many cases, people with known or suspected electrical hypersensitivities are knowledgeable and proactive enough to ask their utility to allow them to opt out of having a smart meter. For people who are unknowingly electrically hypersensitive, and in whom symptoms may not show up for months, they likely won't know enough to ask to opt out, and may suffer severe consequences. Until much more science is available — pinning down the specific electrical forces that may be doing the damage, the types of damage that are possible, and the traits of people who are vulnerable — current efforts to mitigate problems will be based on guesses.

UTILITIES FACE QUESTIONS

As utilities increasingly are being forced to respond to customer concerns about smart meters, they have numerous issues they may be considering:

Given there is no mandate from the federal government requiring utilities to install smart meters, do utilities want to go this route?

If they do, should they conduct more research, in order to protect their customers, and themselves from future lawsuits?

There are many smart meter manufacturers. Are any of their systems safer than others? Can they prove it?

Even though there is little research on the potential health effects of hard-wired smart meters, and there are some indications this option may also be harmful to people with electrical hypersensitivity, should utilities consider this option instead of wireless smart meters (which appear to be the dominant system being selected by utilities)?

Should utilities allow any customers to opt out? If not, are they willing to accept legal liability for any short- or long-term health problems that may occur? If they do allow opt outs, under what circumstances (for instance, do they need proof of health vulnerability, or is concern about possible health effects sufficient grounds)? Are utilities justified in charging such customers extra, or is this an anticipated expense that should be shared by all customers? Is there a way to minimize any additional expenses, such as allowing customers to self-report their monthly readings (with random checks by the utility), or charging a customer a flat monthly amount, based on historical usage, and reading the meter once a year and adjusting the final bill each year accordingly? What percentage of people can utilities allow to opt out, and still have a functional, more-efficient system?

Should utilities comply with the Institute of Medicine's report released June 21, 2011, recommending that all levels of federal government consider the health impacts of their actions — even when those actions don't seem to have a direct health component — since utilities are playing a quasi-governmental role and making decisions that affect a significant number of people?

  • "For the Public's Health: Revitalizing Law and Policy to Meet New Challenges," Institute of Medicine, June 2011. Release (with link to the report).

The US Dept. of Health and Human Services has kept a very low profile regarding the health concerns being raised by critics of smart meters. It may be worthwhile to ask DHHS officials what efforts they may be making, in light of the IOM recommendations. A possible starting point is:

  • Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary for Health, 202-690-7694.

STATES AND MUNICIPALITIES

As noted above, there is no federal mandate to install smart meters. After reviewing currently available information, PNM, a major New Mexico utility, says it won't be installing smart meters for at least 5 years, saying they aren't cost-effective.

Other utilities are allowing, or have been forced to allow, customers to opt out, under certain circumstances, and with varying cost structures. Examples include:

  • Central Maine Power: MPUC Decides Smart Meter Investigation, May 17, 2011, and Skelton, Taintor & Abbott Wins Landmark Smart Meter Case, May 25, 2011.
  • In Colorado, Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, and Poudre Valley REA have allowed opt outs on a case-by-case basis.
  • For Xcel's experimental program in Boulder, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission is recommending a voluntary opt-in program, which is just the opposite of a mandatory participation program that allows no opt out.
  • Arizona Public Service is discussing whether and how to allow opt outs.

Some states are taking an active role. In California, the state is requiring Pacific Gas & Electric to revisit its proposed opt out policy, after vehement reaction against the initial proposal.

Cities and counties also are responding to the concerns of their constituents, even though they may have no legal authority to force a utility to comply, since that power often is vested in a state utility agency. For instance, in California, 36 cities, 10 counties, and one tribal jurisdiction that are home to nearly 2.7 million people have expressed some level of opposition to installation of smart meters.

When you're exploring the politics of who has the authority to make decisions on this issue, a few points to keep in mind are:

  • Utilities generally have a monopoly in any given location, and customers usually don't have any other provider to choose from.
  • There usually is some type of state utility commission that has legal oversight over a utility. However, in some states, such as Colorado, the utility commission has no power over utilities such as member-owned cooperatives. One of the reasons state legislators exempted member-owned cooperatives from oversight was because they assumed members could have any problems addressed through the directors, who are elected. But there have been a number of cases where directors were unresponsive or didn't provide independent oversight. The net result may be an unregulated monopoly.

ADVOCACY GROUPS

There are many advocacy groups, with various levels of sophistication and representing a wide range of geographic areas. In addition to ones referred to above, others you might consider as sources include:

Dozens of advocacy groups met Oct. 5-6, 2011, in Washington, D.C. The speakers and sponsors of this conference are possible sources for your coverage.

IN THE NEWS

One example of media coverage of the smart grid issue that provides an overview of many political, economic, historical, health, and technological aspects is:

For many other examples of media coverage of the smart grid and smart meters, search:

As indicated by the discussion above about Gro Harlem Brundtland, smart meters are just one of the latest electrical devices of concern to people with electrical hypersensitivity. Though these concerns have been expressed for decades, there is little data documenting whether the number of people being affected may be increasing with the rapid expansion in the number of wireless devices and the geographic areas affected. This and many other aspects of electrical hypersensitivity are fodder for additional media coverage, and some of the sources noted above may be helpful.

One related angle is that the U.S. Supreme Court has been pondering whether to hear a class action case (technically known as multidistrict litigation) involving cell phones. The case involves a suit against 19 defendants, primarily cell phone manufacturers and telecommunications companies. The suit is being led by the Public Citizen Litigation Group's Allison Zieve.

Any Supreme Court decision might influence the FCC, which has considered whether to eliminate the current telephone landline system and have everyone use wireless or wired broadband. If that strategy is adopted, and wireless is the dominant system, that could seriously impair the ability of people with electrical hypersensitivity to communicate.