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.

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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.

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