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Backlash Against Smart Meters: Are the Green Gizmos Really a Threat to Public Health and Privacy?

Smart meters were designed to help reduce energy consumption, but some California residents claim the technology does more harm than good.

California prides itself on being an early adopter of energy-saving technologies. And so, in 2003, as smart meters -- utility meters that give consumers real-time information on how much energy they are using and impose on- and off-peak rates -- first emerged as a way to help consumers prune energy use, the state's Public Utilities Commission urged utilities to catch the wave of the future.

But now, as the meters are going in to homes across the state, the PUC and Pacific Gas and Electric -- Northern California's dominant utility -- are facing an insurgency of local groups who call the green gizmos a threat to health, civil liberties and even democracy. In the last month, four women in Marin and Sonoma counties were arrested for barricading roads to keep installation trucks out of their neighborhoods. Five Northern California local governments have hurriedly declared a moratorium on installations.   

Did the state veer off course with smart meters, or is the dramatic backlash simply par for the course, as national media coverage has suggested, in a state with more than its fair share of hippie eccentrics easily riled to political activism by amorphous threats to their health?  

One certainly gets a whiff of the latter when Joshua Hart -- the shaggy 35-year-old who heads Scotts Valley Neighbors Against Smart Meters -- alleges that the wireless meters installed by PG&E "are forcing people from their homes" by triggering health problems ranging from everyday maladies, such as headaches, sleeplessness and ringing in the ears, to obscure ailments like electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which isn't recognized by the U.S. medical community.  

Hart insists that he, too, initially thought those who objected to smart meters were "tinfoil hat crazies." But, when he received notice from PG&E that his home would be outfitted with one of the new meters, he got curious.

"I started looking at original research and what I found is really scary," Hart told me. Since then, he's gotten rid of his cell phone and wireless internet service.  

A few studies have raised concerns about human exposure to the radio-frequency radiation that transmits our data bytes wirelessly. Intense exposure can heat human tissue; such "thermal" effects are universally recognized as dangerous, and the FCC has set exposure limits based on these risks.  

The evidence for non-thermal effects is much thinner. A 2009 Swiss study found that intermittent exposure of human cells to radiation more intense than what the FCC allows interfered with DNA replication. Smart meter opponents have latched on to these findings because the meters send usage data in intermittent bursts. They point to an analysis conducted by Sage Environmental Consultants which suggests that in certain configurations the meters may exceed FCC limits -- findings state and utility data contradicts.  

While it's almost certainly an overstatement to say that California's smart meter rollout is "creating a population of people who are having to struggle to find safe places to live and work," as Hart does, even a PUC-commissioned report concluded that more research is needed on "non-thermal human health impacts."

Other Concerns

Katharina Sandizell, a 41-year-old Point Reyes Station resident and the co-director of West Marin Citizens Against Wireless Smart Meters, had never engaged in civil disobedience before she stood on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard with a couple dozen of her neighbors December 28, facing down eight trucks sent by a PG&E subcontractor to install smart meters in area homes. She and June DiMorente, 32, were subsequently arrested.

Shortly after their arrests, the county Board of Supervisors called for a moratorium on smart meter installation, and Marin assemblyman Jared Huffman introduced a state bill that would allow consumers to opt for non-wireless smart meters.

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