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.Are SmartMeters Dangerous, Too?

PG&E's new meters have been vilified for allegedly overbilling customers. Now there's evidence that they may bad for your health, as well.

music in the park san jose

With a spectrum analyzer pointed skyward, Stephen Scott, a patient, self-described radio-frequency geek, tested for electromagnetic fields in the basement of an apartment building in downtown Oakland. He drew a wand-like instrument and directed it toward a small circular box affixed to a wall. He said he was measuring the strength of the radio frequency signals he caught on the spectrum analyzer. He directed the wand toward the appliance in question and laughed in quiet disbelief.

“I just got a big spike,” he said. The wand’s meter measures signals ranging in intensity from a weak green to a strong red with yellow and orange levels in between. For a split second, the lights shot into the red.

Scott is a remediation specialist for EMF Services, a company that surveys living and work environments for potentially harmful radiation. He was testing an electric SmartMeter recently installed by PG&E.

SmartMeters — automatic meter reading devices already in 73 percent of buildings in Alameda County — are the first step in creating a national smart grid that will enhance energy efficiency and make widespread adoption of renewable energy easier. The new meters communicate data from houses and businesses to PG&E through a mesh network of radio signals. In replacing antiquated analog meters that require a human to read, SmartMeters allow people to measure their energy consumption in real time in order to reduce it — or at least reduce their bills by using energy during off-peak hours.

But PG&E’s SmartMeters have generated considerable controversy. Critics contend they overstate home energy use and cause electricity bills to spike. The cities of Berkeley, San Francisco, Sebastopol, Fairfax, Camp Meeker, Cotati, and Bolinas, along with Santa Cruz County have all come out in favor of a SmartMeter moratorium. And now there are a small but growing number of activists who contend that SmartMeters may be harmful to human health.

For its part, PG&E maintains that SmartMeters are safe, and emit radio frequencies that are well within Federal Communications Commission standards. The utility says electric SmartMeters transmit data for only a fraction of a second every four hours and are far weaker than other everyday radio-frequency emitters like cellphones, cell towers, and wireless Internet.

But as PG&E races to outfit every home and business in the Bay Area with a SmartMeter, there’s some reason to doubt the utility’s assurances. Independent environmental and electromagnetic-fields consultants, for example, have found that SmartMeters pulse far more often that PG&E claims. In addition, there’s evidence to suggest that the peak pulses are far greater in intensity than the “average pulse” PG&E owns up to, thereby raising questions about safety, particularly in children, whose bodies absorb radiation at a far greater rate than adults. In dense urban areas, residents also have raised concerns about banks, or clusters of upwards of thirty meters on some apartment buildings.

However, the precise strength of the powerful “peak pulses” emitted by SmartMeters remains unclear. PG&E refuses to disclose that information, stating only that its calculations are in accordance with FCC specifications.

But how the utility calculates the pulses has become an issue of debate. PG&E’s calculations are time-averaged, or stretched out over all the time the meter’s not pulsing, making the average significantly lower than the peak. In addition, independent testers can accurately measure how many times a meter pulses, but without military-grade — and cost-prohibitive — equipment, it’s difficult to measure the intensity of the strongest bursts. Furthermore, because SmartMeters pulse and most other radio-frequency emitters remain low and constant like a cellphone, it’s still unclear how they might affect human health. Although the World Health Organization maintains there are no consistent studies showing adverse health affects from radio-frequency exposure, there is plenty of research that suggest long-term exposure is linked to cancer and other diseases.

In short, PG&E’s rapid deployment of SmartMeters appears to be something of a leap of faith, a “trust us” moment — not unlike the promises made over the years by plastics manufacturers who claimed the chemicals they used were safe, too.

Every evening, Kate Bernier of Berkeley deposits a day’s worth of ice into a cooler, then fills the cooler with the contents of her fridge. She turns the power off and crawls into bed. Sometimes she listens to French poetry on a battery-powered tape player. She kind of likes it. She says it makes her feel like she’s camping.

Around the same time Bernier shuts off the electricity, Annie Mills of Walnut Creek slides into a faraday cage, or a mesh box that shields from electromagnetic fields. Mills and her husband sleep in the cage every night.

What motivates such behavior? Both women are trying to escape the reach of electromagnetic radiation. Both say they’re electro-hypersensitive — that anything that’s electrically charged literally makes them sick. And they’re not alone. At least a dozen people interviewed for this story in recent weeks claim to suffer electro-hypersensitivity or have tumors caused by electromagnetic exposure. Sue, who asked her last name remain anonymous for this article, wrote in an e-mail: “I am living in the near vicinity of 32 SmartMeters and it has made my life a living hell.”

Although electro-hypersensitivity is not a disease recognized by most medical practitioners, Bernier, Mills and others insist their suffering is real. One by one, they approached the Berkeley City Council at meetings in June and July to speak publicly for the first time about what many consider to by a purely psychosomatic condition.

Dozens of anti-meter residents begged council members to send a strongly worded letter to the California Public Utilities Commission, the body that regulates utilities like PG&E. Speakers pleaded with council members, rattling off a long list of complaints, chief among them, electromagnetic-induced illness afflicting both normal and electro-hypersensitive residents.

The council seemed largely unsympathetic. Councilman Gordon Wozniak called the symptoms “phantom” — a comment that inspired hisses and boos from the audience. The council eventually decided to reconsider the issue at a later meeting.

The anti-meter crew was so outraged, they formed the citizen group ACRCASM, or Alameda County Residents Concerned About SmartMeters. The part-time group boasts a few dozen members. Cognizant of the controversy surrounding claims that SmartMeters may be unsafe, they drafted a letter outlining their grievances and listed overbilling, fire safety, data security, and job loss as their primary concerns. They left out any mention of meter-induced physical illness, but they did request a halt to the disposal of analog meters, a moratorium on the installation of new meters, and the ability opt-out of the SmartMeter program in the future.

Councilman Kriss Worthington was the first to support the letter. At a meeting earlier this month, the council voted to approve the letter, and thus support a moratorium on SmartMeters. Six councilmembers voted for it, one against, and one was absent. Mayor Tom Bates abstained.

Councilman Max Anderson generated cheers from the anti-meter crowd of about thirty people who stayed late into the night when he likened PG&E to a hitman, referring to the utility’s $40-plus million support of Proposition 16, a June ballot measure that sought to make it nearly impossible for local governments to jump into the public power market. “If somebody takes a shot at you and misses and then shows up on your doorstep with a care package for you with a suspicious ticking sound coming from it,” Anderson said, “I think you’d be very justified to be extremely suspicious of their intentions.”

Berkeley’s letter to the public utilities commission is one more in a small but growing stack. The commission said it had already received about 2,000 health-related complaints as of June 1, in addition to more than 1,500 non-health-related complaints pouring in from across the state — though most are from Northern California, and are specifically in reference to PG&E.

The commission contracted the Structure Group, headquartered in Houston, to provide an independent evaluation of PG&E’s SmartMeters. However, the evaluation will not look at radio-frequency emissions — only meter accuracy and the company’s billing and operational practices. PG&E is quick to point out that it already paid Richard Tell Associates to conduct a radio-frequency study and found that SmartMeters fall 15,000 times below FCC limits.

But many local activists are suspicious of the utility. “If one wants to believe PG&E, one would be considered naive,” said Lloyd Morgan, a 68-year-old retired electrical engineer and self-made radio-frequency expert. “Would that we had government agencies that actually checked to see if it’s all true.”

So are SmartMeters bad for your health? It’s a difficult question to answer. Though similar in wattage and frequency to cellphones, SmartMeters infrequently pulse at a greater intensity, while cellphones emit lower levels of constant radiation. Still, both devices emit radio frequencies, and recently, cellphones and cell towers have come under intense criticism as information has surfaced suggesting that they may cause cancer.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a bill in June that was signed into law by Mayor Gavin Newsom, requiring cellphone retailers to post radiation levels for each type of phone they sell. Last month, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio announced he would introduce a bill to create a national research program that would look at the safety of electromagnetic fields, particularly in cellphones. The World Health Organization has also said it would conduct a formal study of the effects of radio frequencies on human health by 2010, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer will review the carcinogenic potential of cellphones by next year.

But so far, the science on cellphones has been somewhat contradictory. Recent studies from Sweden have found that placing a cellphone to your head everyday for ten years or more increases your chance of developing a brain tumor by 280 percent in adults and 420 percent in teenagers.

However, the overall conclusion of the separate, and costly, 13-country Interphone study found no connection between cellphone use and brain tumors. Some scientists have criticized this ongoing study as flawed because some of its sub-studies concluded that cellphones actually prevent brain tumors.

More interesting still, different interpretations of the Interphone study yield different results. Henry Lai, a professor in the bioengineering department at the University of Washington found that studies not funded by the industry were far more likely to find that cellphones cause cancer. Industry-funded studies found electromagnetic fields affect our health just 28 percent of the time, while non-industry-funded studies found human health is affected 67 percent of the time.

And most people don’t realize that cellphone manufacturers acknowledge a link between phone use and human health. To meet FCC standards, the fine print in most cellphone manuals state that users are not supposed to put the devices up to their bodies. A Motorola V195 GMS, for example, is supposed to be held an inch away from the head while in use.

Lloyd Morgan says he almost died from exposure to electromagnetic fields. In 1995, Morgan was having lunch with a friend when he suffered a grand mal seizure that literally knocked him off his feet. Turns out, Morgan had a tumor the size of his fist growing inside his head.

“My neurosurgeon said to me, perhaps EMFs [electromagnetic fields] caused your tumor — and that was fifteen years ago,” Morgan said. He’s since engaged in a battle against the cellphone industry, attempting to save others from untimely deaths by brain tumor.

As an electrical engineer, Morgan was certainly exposed to electromagnetic fields. He was also a ham radio operator in high school, had a full dental X-ray when he was young, and slept next to a clock radio for several decades — all possible contributors, he believes, to his tumor. Morgan does not use a cellphone and he does not have WiFi in his North Berkeley home. But he does have SmartMeters.

Though Morgan doesn’t appear as concerned about the gas and electric SmartMeters affixed to the wall outside his living room, he took time during a recent interview to point out a bank of about a dozen SmartMeters just a few yards away on the wall of the apartment building next door. And a dozen more across the street.

Morgan likens exposure to electromagnetic fields to smoking: If constant cellphone exposure is like sucking down a cigarette, SmartMeters are analogous to second-hand smoke. Cigarettes are generally believed to cause lung cancer in about 10 percent of heavy smokers. If the same holds true for heavy cellphone users, Morgan foresees an epidemic of disastrous proportions. “I believe there will be a tsunami of brain tumors that will show up in ten to fifteen years,” he said. If 10 percent of cellphone users worldwide developed a brain tumor, that could mean tens of millions of people.

Lafayette resident Alan Marks is a prime example of an early cellphone adopter/brain cancer victim. His wife Ellie, his greatest advocate, says Marks has been on the phone for at least an hour a day since the late 1980s. Marks suffered a grand mal seizure in 2008 and was diagnosed with a malignant glioma a month later. Ellie sent her husband’s cellphone and medical records to experts around the world and says she got a collective “absolutely” — absolutely his cellphone use could have contributed to his brain tumor. Ellie has filed a large lawsuit against The Wireless Association and others. She has testified before Congress and appeared on Larry King Live. As a side note, she says she received a phone call from Erin Brockovich.

Consequently, Ellie Marks was extremely upset to find a SmartMeter installed on her property. She called PG&E, explained her husband’s condition, and the company soon agreed to come out and remove the SmartMeter. Ellie says by doing so, PG&E acknowledged there was cause for concern. She has since received a letter stating her SmartMeter will be reinstalled, along with a packet of what she called, “propaganda,” stating that there is no known health risk associated with exposure to electromagnetic fields.

So how do SmartMeters compare to cellphones? Cellphones, cell towers, and other electronic devices emit a near-constant stream of radio frequencies that can vary in strength, while SmartMeters emit short, fraction-of-a-second-long bursts called “pulses.” In addition, most health studies on electromagnetic fields have focused on cellphones and other sources that cause constant, low-level exposure — but not on electronic devices that pulse. Moreover, there’s disagreement about how strong the SmartMeter pulses are, and how often they pulse in the first place.

For example, PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said that electric SmartMeters emit low-level radio frequency bursts that last a fraction of a second, and occur only once every four hours.

But Dan Mattson, an independent electromagnetic-fields consultant and a former Navy technician in North Oakland discovered that a client in San Leandro had a SmartMeter that pulsed about 100 times in fifteen minutes. And Cindy Sage, a Santa Barbara-based environmental consultant and an outspoken critic of SmartMeters and the utility companies that install them, has measured several SmartMeters in the Bay Area: one in Berkeley pulsed about six times in one minute. Another just north of Berkeley pulsed between eight and fifteen times a minute.

And Stan Hartman, an engineer in Colorado with a different, but similar smart meter installed by Xcel, measured his meter and said it rapidly transmitted four or five signals in a short period, and then sat idle for fifteen minutes. “There’s a lot that’s not known about them, because it’s hard to get information about them,” Hartman said. “But I do know there are some really high spikes that go through the walls, I do know that.”

Stephen Scott measured a SmartMeter in the basement of a downtown Oakland apartment that pulsed erratically, several times a minute.

Why the discrepancy? Brian Seal, senior project manager for the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit, science and technology research organization that has studied automatic meters, said a SmartMeter firing more frequently than the PG&E estimate of once every four hours is likely acting as a relay, or a go-between. It transmits data from houses whose SmartMeters cannot reach all the way to the “access point” where the information is gathered before it’s sent back to PG&E. The smart grid is set up so that if, for some reason, one SmartMeter cannot transmit data all the way to the end goal, it can pass the information off to another SmartMeter. Any well-positioned SmartMeter can pass along the information of up to 1,000 homes, if necessary. But a single SmartMeter carrying too large a load would be a flaw in the smart grid design, Seal said, and too many “bottleneck” meters would indicate the mesh isn’t functioning in proper mesh fashion.

PG&E’s Moreno says he does not know why independent electromagnetic-fields consultants are measuring pulses at greater far frequency than once every four hours. Moreno also insists that that SmartMeters pose less of a threat than practically any other appliance in your house. The Electric Power Research Institute seconds that assertion. Senior Technical Executive Rob Kavet said a typical SmartMeter transmits data only 1 percent of the day, at an average power of 1/100th of a watt, and falls way below FCC standards. Furthermore, following the inverse square law, radiation strength rapidly drops off. So positioning your body a foot away from the source dramatically reduces your exposure.

However, it gets a bit more complicated than that.

FCC safety standards are calculated through a complex formula, but are based entirely on thermal affects — meaning: How high can radiation go before body tissue literally starts cooking? (Think of a small man in a microwave. How long will it take for that man to heat up?). So take that number, reduce it by a lot, and the FCC says you’re safe.

But Sage, co-editor of the BioInitiative Report, a self-published study co-authored by fourteen scientists, researchers, and health policy professionals, has been insisting for years that studies have shown electromagnetic fields damage DNA at levels well below the FCC limit — possibly 6,000 times below the limit. Such studies have prompted medical professionals like UC Berkeley School of Public Health director Joel Moskowitz to suggest FCC standards might be woefully inadequate.

The standards also are time-averaged, which means the peak pulse is considered over a thirty-minute period. So if a SmartMeter pulses for a fraction of a second, and that pulse is averaged over all the time the meter is not pulsing, the average will be far lower than the peak. Sage says this calculation gives an inaccurate “safety” reading. Sage likens SmartMeters to radio-frequency nail guns. “It’s an enormous, short pulse,” she said. “It goes right through walls and it only stops when it hits something juicy. You become a walking antenna.”

Though the utility company in Santa Barbara where Sage lives is Southern California Edison — not PG&E — she says SmartMeters are pretty much the same across the country. And Edison’s SmartMeters carry a peak power density of 229,000 microwatts per centimeters squared at 8 inches away, according to data provided to Sage by the utility that she shared with the Express. By comparison, a cellphone usually emits a power density of around 250 to 300 microwatts per cm squared when pressed to your head.

So in the fraction of a second that the SmartMeter is transmitting data, it’s almost 1,000 times more powerful than a cellphone, though a cellphone emits a lower radio frequency over an extended period. Sage said that because of the intensity of the pulses, it’s crucial to accurately count how often the meters are firing.

But tracking pulses is difficult because complicated time-averaging calculations inaccurately suggest peak pulses are far less frequent than they really are. Morgan says he calculated the peak power density to be 288,184 times larger than the average power density calculated by PG&E.

When asked for a comment on these numbers, PG&E declined. But spokesman Moreno did say concerned customers are welcome to call PG&E, and that comparing Southern California Edison’s meters to PG&E’s was like comparing “apples to oranges.”

It’s nearly impossible for consumers to accurately measure for themselves the magnitude of SmartMeter pulses, because high-end testing equipment is prohibitively expensive. Even Scott, a professional with a $5,000 instrument, couldn’t get an accurate reading of the meter in the basement of the downtown apartment building. He did find the transmissions were weak — closer to PG&E’s estimates than Sage’s. But he worries that the people with the skills and the expensive equipment needed to measure the full extent of a meter’s activity are already working for the telecom and power industries.

“More research is needed, more people with instruments are invited to measure this phenomenon,” he said. “And hopefully, people will generously share their information so we can get a big picture of what’s going on.” Scott says he will continue to investigate SmartMeters in single and multiple configurations around neighborhoods and apartment complexes. “I have the feeling this is just the beginning of this issue,” he said.

In the meantime, people like Annie Mills say they will take matters into their own hands. Mills plans to test the method of wrapping her SmartMeter in aluminum foil to obstruct its transmissions, until PG&E “comes out to see why it’s not working.”


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