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Smart meters: Are they safe?

Richmond’s Kelly Masterson, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, is worried about how the installation of 15 smart meters next to her condo could impact her health. - Martin van den Hemel photo
Richmond’s Kelly Masterson, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, is worried about how the installation of 15 smart meters next to her condo could impact her health.
— image credit: Martin van den Hemel photo

Kelly Masterson doesn’t know who to trust, but does know she’s worried about the impending installation of smart meters at her West Richmond apartment complex.

Her headache isn’t just about a single meter: it’s the prospect of more than a dozen BC Hydro devices being placed in the utility room that’s one slender wall away from her living room.

“I am shaking in my boots,” Masterson wrote in an e-mail she sent to The Richmond Review earlier this month. “Where I am sitting right now, in my dining room at my computer, is one foot away from where 15 of these meters are due to be installed.”

Billed as a green initiative aimed at helping customers monitor and cut power consumption, some 1.8 million smart meters are currently being installed at homes and businesses across the province.

But the devices have come under intense scrutiny in Richmond and the Lower Mainland in recent weeks, with complaints ranging from erroneous reports of marijuana grow-ops during installations, to poor communication that resulted in lengthy power disruptions, to the type of safety concerns that Masterson and others have raised about the wireless technology these smart meters employ.

What complicates matters for Masterson is that she suffers from multiple sclerosis, a neurological disorder, and she’s fearful these meters will make her already challenging health issues worse.

Unlike their analog counterpart, smart meters are able to wirelessly transmit information to BC Hydro, and it’s the form of these transmissions that has raised concerns.

Smart meters use radio frequency technology similar to that found in wireless WiFi transmitters—such as found at Internet cafes that enable devices such as laptop computers, iPods, iPhones and iPads to have wireless access to the Internet—and cellular phones.

“I don’t wish to be a guinea pig (or canary) for these smart meters,” Masterson wrote. “I feel that this whole smart meter imposition on the people of B.C. must somehow contravene our human rights.”

Joe Kirschvik, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who has studied the potential adverse human health effects of radiofrequency radiation, said there’s no widely-accepted evidence to date that clearly demonstrates that smart meters may be a problem.

He said that there are plenty of more powerful and continuous sources of radio frequency waves that people willingly expose themselves to everyday in their homes, such as a microwave oven, or the seemingly ubiquitous WiFi routers.

“If you’re still using a cell phone, you’re being a hypocrite,” said Kirschvik.

But the World Health Organization has classified radio frequency radiation as “possibly carcinogenic.”

Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s monograph program, said exposure to radio frequency radiation has been shown to increase the risk of a type of brain cancer, but there’s limited evidence of cancer in humans.

He noted that the classification does not distinguish between levels of exposure, and what amount’s safe and what isn’t.

Itron, manufacturer of the smart meters that started being installed in Richmond over the summer, believes the meters are safe.

Tim Wolf, director of marketing communications, said the exposure to radio frequency radiation is “trivial”.

He said that following installation, and once reaching a “steady state”, the smart meter will only send out a wireless transmission between 50 times per day to in the low hundreds.

“The exception to that number is when the meter and/or network is first installed, beaconing rates will be more frequent until the meter finds its way on to the network,” Wolf said. “For a single meter within range of a collector unit, this process usually takes a matter of minutes. For the overall cell, or group of meters, this process can typically take a day or a day and a half. Then the network operates normally consistent with the figures above.”

That should be compared, Wolf pointed out, to a WiFi router, which operates much closer to people and sends out 864,000 transmissions per day.

“Again, if (radio frequency) is the worry, there’s many bigger sources to worry about before you get to smart meters.”

In that respect, Una St. Clair, executive director of Citizens for Safe Technology Society (www.citizensforsafetechnology.org), agrees.

If people are worried about radio frequency emissions, they should stop using their cell phones, cordless phones, remove their microwave ovens and shut down their WiFi routers.

But St. Clair said that she knows of many people who have already taken steps to eliminate their exposure to radio frequency emissions, and are concerned that their personal safety is being violated by BC Hydro.

As well, she’s not convinced that BC Hydro is being entirely transparent about its smart meters, how they’ll be used, and how frequently they’ll be active, and sending out radio frequency waves.

Masterson, who as a result of her multiple sclerosis requires the assistance of a walker, wants to delay the installation of her condo building’s smart meter. But in order to do so, she must convince her many neighbours to voice similar wishes to BC Hydro.

However, Masterson admits she still uses her cellular phone, and has her home set up with a wireless Internet connection.

Meanwhile, a public outcry led politicians to vote at a recent Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting to request a moratorium on the installation of smart meters by BC Hydro.

But B.C. Premier Christy Clark has already said she believes the technology is safe, and that Victoria won’t be asking BC Hydro to suspend the installations.

B.C. isn’t the only place where smart meters are a hot-button topic.

In California, residents are fighting for their right to opt-out of the state-wide smart meter program.

Professor Richard Wilson, of Harvard University’s department of physics, said it wasn’t that long ago that he had a smart meter installed at his home.

He doesn’t believe that smart meters are a hazard to human health, but said there’s technically no reason why BC Hydro can’t limit data transmission to the smallest number possible to assuage public concerns, and thereby eliminating these concerns.

If they’re just trying to take a meter reading, that should only need to be done once per day, he noted.

David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment for the University of Albany, said there’s strong evidence that cell phone use over a prolonged period of time increases the chance of gliomas, a type of brain cancer.

As far as whether smart meters pose a similar hazard, Carpenter told The Richmond Review he was doubtful, considering the power at which they transmit, their distance from people—compared to cell phones which are held up directly to the ear—and how often they are active.

“We don’t have strong scientific studies on health outcomes from WiFi or smart meters, but they increase exposure to the same type of radiation as that from cell phones,” Carpenter said.

Meanwhile, BC Hydro maintains the meters are safe, and that the total exposure to radio frequency radiation over a smart meter’s 20-year lifetime is the equivalent of a single 30-minute cellular phone call.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has also studied the meters, and determined that they pose no health risk.

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