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Opting Out

Providing reasonable options for customers who object to smart meters.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 2012

requirements evolve and the developers augment the systems.

RF and Public Health

Advocates on each side of the health effects debate claim to have compelling evidence about whether non-ionizing, non-thermal radio emissions are either safe or harmful. But verifiable evidence has been insufficient to meet prevailing scientific standards for a convincing position. The California Council on Science and Technology said it well in a January 2011 report when it wrote, “Not enough is currently known about potential non-thermal impacts of radio frequency emissions to identify or recommend additional standards for such impacts.”

Automation advocates point out that the available metering systems meet Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standards limiting radio emissions that might be absorbed by humans. The FCC thresholds keep radio exposure below the level that will heat body tissue. In reply, opt-out proponents respond that FCC standards don’t contemplate or address other potential effects that might be of concern. Therefore compliance with FCC standards is good, but is insufficient to satisfy consumers concerned about yet-undiscovered, unproven effects.

The available evidence is good starting material to guide further inquiry. But it isn’t an unambiguous basis for current policy. Smart meter radio emissions are weak compared to other prevalent sources. From this we might infer that the risk of harm from smart meters is small compared to the risk from other things around us. Both risks are very small compared to other risks people commonly accept, like driving a car, riding a bicycle, or drinking alcohol, all of which risk incurring known, proven, and substantial harms.

In May 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a unit of the World Health Organization, reported conclusions of its most recent assessment of the potential of cell phones to cause cancer. The relevance of this to the smart meter safety debate is that radio emissions from cell phones, though much stronger, are otherwise broadly similar to emissions from smart meters. Opt-out proponents note that the IARC report places cell phones in the same risk category as other things that are widely believed to be hazardous, including chloroform, chlordane, and car exhaust. These are all things most of us would advise our children to avoid. In contrast, smart grid proponents note that this category also includes things that are widely regarded to have no significant hazard, including coffee, Asian pickled vegetables, talcum body powder, and extremely low frequency magnetic fields, such as one might receive when sleeping under an electric blanket or walking down a street where electric service wires are overhead.

Wireless engineering firm Pericle Communications of Colorado Springs, Colo., has served the utility and telecom industries since 1992 and has analyzed radio frequency exposure from smart meters for several clients. Referring to market research figures from CTIA-The Wireless Association showing that U.S. cell phone use has increased by nearly an order of magnitude in 15 years (from 34 million in 1995 to more than 322 million today), Jay M. Jacobsmeyer, president of Pericle Communications, says, “If low-level radio emissions cause harm to humans, one would expect to see reproducible evidence long before now.”