Safety of B.C. Hydro's smart meters stirs continued debate
Renowned anthropologist Inge Bolin has spent enough time in the Andes to know how her body feels at high altitude. However, when the Nanaimo resident came home one day in October to find that B.C. Hydro’s private contractor Corix had installed a digital smart meter against her wishes, it set off a 17-day hell ride that turned her strong constitution upside down. The German-Canadian, also an honorary research associate at Vancouver Island University, said she felt so weak she couldn’t even pack her bags to get away from the house she shares with her husband, Ron, and son, Greg.
“I never had problems [in the Andes],” Bolin told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her home. “I don’t have problems with the altitude. I am never dizzy. I never get headaches. I never had heart palpitations or any of these things. And sure enough, I just about had everything that can go wrong [at home]. And this was the moment that thing was being installed, and so no one can tell me it is not much [radiation] or whatever.”
To add insult to injury, Bolin said she and Ron had both printed out a sign they never got a chance to laminate, stating they did not want a smart meter. Even so, when they stepped out for a few hours that fall day, Corix installed one in place of their analogue meter. Thanks to the B.C. Liberals’ Clean Energy Act, B.C. Hydro is mandated to install 1.8 million meters by the end of 2012 throughout B.C.
Naturally annoyed at seeing hers, Bolin said she went out to check out the smart meter, which the utility claims will enable greater energy efficiency and be a more accurate means of determining how each household uses its power.
After standing close to it for 10 minutes or so, Bolin said, she began to get a headache unlike anything she’d dealt with before in her life.
“I said to my husband, ‘It’s as though you get electrocuted and your brain gets electrocuted,’ ” Bolin said. “He said, ‘Well, that can’t be.’ But it is very strange, because when I read the comments of the people in California who had theirs [meters] taken out, these comments had exactly the same kind of stuff I had. And there were quite a few who said it feels as though your brain gets electrocuted. It’s the shake. It’s as though something really shakes. It is very, very strange, and it’s very strong.”
After 17 days of dizziness, nausea, and virtually no sleep, B.C. Hydro removed the smart meter and replaced it with an analogue meter. Amazingly, B.C. Hydro, not Corix this time, sent a staffer to install a second smart meter, this time while the Bolins were home. They refused, and the utility’s electrician relented and left.
The manager of communication and public affairs for B.C. Hydro’s Smart Metering Program, Cindy Verschoor, did not respond to messages by Straight deadline. However, in a recent interview, Verschoor insisted, “The meters are safe. We’ve just completed independent testing of the meters. They use the same technology…. It’s radio frequency similar to your TV or radio. The total transmission time of the meters—that has been independently recorded in our independent testing results—is 2.734 seconds per day [per one-watt meter].”
In another interview in October, Verschoor told the Straight that B.C. Hydro safety standards for radio frequencies surpass those in Europe. Online information provided by the Crown corporation cites the “precautionary limit” of 4.5 microwatts per square centimetre in sensitive areas like schools and hospitals in Switzerland. B.C. Hydro smart meters emit less than two microwatts per square centimetre at the same distance of eight inches.
Greg Alexis, media spokesperson at B.C. Hydro, also pointed the Straight to the utility’s website, which has separate reports, by Planetworks Consulting, on the levels of electromagnetic radiation with both single meters and meter banks in multi-unit dwellings.
The first of these two contains Verschoor’s claim that the active transmission time for one meter under test was 0.94 seconds on day one and 1.83 seconds on day two, for a cumulative total of 2.734 seconds over the two-day testing period.
Critics of Hydro’s plan, including Citizens for Safe Technology, claim the reports do not take into account cumulative impacts of all smart meters as well as other devices that also add to what Bolin refers to as “electrosmog”.
Bolin, whose own health has improved, said she wants B.C. Hydro to stop installing smart meters and reinstall the analogue meters. She also worries Corix or B.C. Hydro will send somebody a third time to put in a smart meter.
“If they do do it again against our will, I’ll move.”
Dr. David Carpenter, professor in the school of public health at the University at Albany, SUNY, told the Straight the radiation from smart meters is “nothing special” when set against that from other wireless devices such as cellphones. However, he said “the industry has not been up-front” about a lot of the operations.
“They often say that the information is issued only a few times a day, but all the evidence indicates that these things are generating radio-frequency fields most of the time,” Carpenter said by phone. “The issue is really that the adverse health effects, which we understand best from the people that use cellphones a lot, are almost certainly related to aggregate exposure—how intense the exposure is over what period of time. Smart meters are going to be operating 24/7.”
Carpenter accepted the claim from proponents that radiation falls off with distance from a smart meter.
“But if the meter is outside of the house and your easy chair for watching television is just inside the wall, you are going to be exposed constantly,” he said.
“The most analogous situation with the smart meters are the demonstrations of elevated [rates of] leukemia in people that live near to powerful AM-radio transmission towers. There hasn’t been that much study of people living around cellphone towers, but there is beginning to be evidence that those people also have elevated leukemia. There are a number of other allegations that I think are less well established yet, but it is clear that these radio-frequency fields are not benign.”
Carpenter said utilities in North America have a vested interest in making sure smart meters are installed. This leads him to his uncomfortable conclusion on smart-meter technology in general.
“I think this is part of the problem, that by the time we really have clear evidence that these things are hazardous to health, they will already be installed.”
Carpenter said the debate then becomes whether citizens should be allowed to opt out of smart meters. In B.C., that is still not an option.