“Our level of ambient exposure to radio-frequency radiation is increasing,” Foster says, often beyond federal limits.
The Federal Communications Commission guidelines are based on standards developed by nongovernment organizations, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, as well as input from other federal agencies, according to commission’s website.
Those guidelines specify exposure limits for handheld wireless devices in terms of the rate that radio-frequency energy is absorbed by the body. That is, the ability of radio frequency to heat tissue. But they don’t cover all potential health effects, which Foster says is also the case with cell phones.
“What we’re concerned about at the smart-meter level is the effect of the wave short of cooking us.”
A study released in February by researchers from the National Institutes of Health is among the first and largest to document such effects, showing that the weak radiation emitted by cell phones can alter brain activity. The researchers found that less than an hour of cell-phone use can speed up brain activity in the area closest to the antenna.
While the study doesn’t prove that the increase causes health effects, critics of wireless meters are citing it to support their claims that federal guidelines are insufficient.
The commission’s “Consumer Facts” webpage, “Wireless Devices and Health Concerns,” confirms that while many federal agencies have addressed the issue, “… there is no federally developed national standard for safe levels of exposure to radiofrequency energy….”
San Diego Gas and Electric claims that smart meters transmit data less than one minute per day and emit no more radio frequency than other common household items like portable phones.
Opponents say that until science can prove them safe under actual living conditions, people should have a choice, as they do with other household appliances that emit radio frequency.
The arguments haven’t gone unheard.
Months ahead of the California Public Utilities Commission asking Pacific Gas and Electric to draft an opt-out proposal, California assemblyman Jared Huffman introduced a bill that would require the state commission to determine smart-meter alternatives by January 2012.
Assembly Bill 37 also requires utilities to disclose information about smart meters, including the magnitude, frequency, and duration of radio-frequency emissions.
Unlike the current proposal, which would extend the option to Pacific Gas and Electric customers only, the bill applies to every major California investor-owned utility that is regulated by the state commission, according to Lawrence Cooper, Huffman’s legislative aide in Sacramento. The “big three” include Southern California Edison Company, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and San Diego Gas and Electric Company.
The bill is now working its way through committees. In the meantime, it’s all about the details, like who will pay for a wired option that Huffman’s bill requires to provide the same smart-grid benefits? Or to deactivate a device already installed?
Or what happens when customers still feel as though they have no choice because their neighbors, maybe on the other side of the wall, choose to have a smart meter?