Thursday, December 23, 2010

Scientists: Smart Meters Are Safe

Image credit: Fort Frances Times Online

Smart Meters are crucial to fighting climate change because they are the first step in implementing the Smart Grid, which promises to make it easier for households to become more energy efficient and also integrate clean energy sources into their residential electricity system.

That is why it is a relief that, unlike cell phones, there is no cause for concern with the radiofrequency (RF) radiation of Smart Meters. That’s because the wireless devices produce an infrequent and incredibly weak RF field, according to scientists interviewed by Green D.C. Essentially they are computers that automatically send real-time information to the utility allowing homeowners to electronically manage their energy usage.

The meters not only exceed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) safety standards, but the mainstream scientific groups including the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, Health Canada and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention all say that low-intensity RF is safe.

Green D.C. interviewed two experts in the area of radiation about the risks associated with Smart Meters. They were: 

-- Richard Tell, who has 38 years of experience working on issues related to RF hazards, including stints at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency where he served as Chief of the Electromagnetics Branch and helped develop public exposure standards for RF fields;

-- and Dr. Jerold T. Bushberg, Clinical Professor of Radiology and Radiation Oncology at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, and a member of the main scientific council of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP) as well as its Scientific Advisory Committee on Radiation Protection in Medicine.

Tell says that Smart Meters are so low powered that they operate in FCC license free bands, meaning they are deemed very unlikely to cause interference because they use an ultra high frequency of 900 mhz and one watt or less of power.

“They transmit very infrequently in terms of percentage of times of day. As an example, they may only transmit a few seconds in a day,” Tell explained. “If you look at the intensity of the field produced by transmitters, the RF fields are quite low in comparison to applicable safety standards for human exposure.”

Both Tell and Bushberg believe the current FCC standards are adequate. But Bushberg says the agency goes even a step further by requiring every meter to go through a stringent certification test to meet FCC rules.

“The evidence with low exposure to smart meters is very reassuring and the standards are adequate,” said Bushberg. However, he did caution that no legitimate scientist will ever say that any chemical agent is 100% safe, and that there are still things the scientific community would like to know and that further tests are warranted.

He said there is a latency period between exposure to a carcinogen such as radiation, and cancer. This period varies depending on the strength of the carcinogen and the type of cancer. That is why he advocates for epidemiology studies on populations that are occupationally exposed to high levels of radiation, such as plastics workers and cell tower climbers.

 “Of all the exposures of RF energy, Smart Meters would be very low and relatively easy to avoid,” said Bushberg.

Both Tell and Bushberg say that RF intensity inside the home is very low because as you back off only a few feet from the meter the intensity drops off dramatically. Also, meters transmit their signals out away from the homes they are mounted on, not towards the house. And finally, building materials and walls reduce the intensity of the already weak signal.

But what about people who claim they suffer from something called electrohypersensitivity, a condition that causes insomnia, split second head aches, high pitched ringing in the ears and nausea.

“I don’t understand how the RF fields produced by the Smart Meters (could) have caused any effects in these people. What I’m saying is that the strength produced by Smart Meters is so feeble in comparison to any health side effects of it. It’s not plausible,” said Tell.

And what about mesh networks and many meters in close proximity in an apartment complex. Wouldn’t that increase the intensity? No, says Tell, because the RF fields are linear so if you are close up to them you will only be exposed to the meter right in front of you. And if you back up a long distance from the meters, the RF is so weakened by the point it reaches you that it is harmless.

There are also some people who advocate for fiber optics instead of the wireless Smart Meter. According to Tell, this approach is not realistic because it is infinitely more expensive to have a wired connection to each home that wants one. And he says if people are really concerned about being exposed to radiation by a wireless Smart Meter, then the alternative of sending signals over a power line by a carrier current will have the unintended consequences of creating RF concerns near the power line and on the wires that go into your house.

The Obama Administration allocated $3.4 billion in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to jumpstart the installation of Smart Meters in every home as the first step in the National Smart Grid that will enhance energy efficiency and make  widespread adoption of renewable energy easier.

“This investment will place Smart Meters in homes to make our energy bills lower, make outages less likely and make it easier to use clean energy,” President Barack Obama said on February 17, 2009 after signing the bill into law.

Nearly two years later the consumer-level technology is rapidly being installed across the country by utility companies – there are ten million already installed in the United States and two million in California alone. Not to mention the 27 million Smart Meters already installed in Italy and nearly one million in Canada. And the United Kingdom has mandated that all homes have Smart Meters by 2020.

Other benefits of Smart Meters include remote meter reading, which takes carbon-emitting utility vehicles off the roads; the ability to pinpoint power outages, which improves response time; the ability to instantly shut off power if there is a house fire; the ability of families to monitor their energy usage online, potentially reducing consumption and saving money on electric bills; and more accurate readings than older meters.

“Smart Meters can’t help but enhance the reliability of the current system because utilities can know in real time what is going on in terms of loads. There are other people arguing that it’s big brother spying on me now. I would say that it’s really helpful for the utilities to better manage the grid itself to help better manage brownouts and blackouts,” said Tell.

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