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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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.

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