Safety of B.C. Hydro's smart meters stirs continued debate

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      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.


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      Dec 29, 2011 at 6:12am

      Yet another ridiculously unscientific article in the Straight concerning smart meters. One person's experience (especially when they were already paranoid about them) does not mean anything. People, individually, are far too susceptible to the placebo effect which is why double blind experiments and real data are needed before making declarations- otherwise, they're just opinions.

      Arthur Vandelay

      Dec 29, 2011 at 7:44am

      Why include the anecdote of the obviously disturbed woman at the beginning of this article? It's garbage like that which ruins an otherwise decent piece but I assume gives the GS the radical reputation that it desires. This also demonstrates that the green story of smart meters doesn't stand a chance against the opportunity to stick it to a non-socialist sitting government.

      Milgram Smart

      Dec 29, 2011 at 8:21am

      It's a pulsed microwave, not a radio wave that can be blocked by concrete. The power company doesn't realize that they are installing microwave weapons on peoples homes or do they? Look up Barrie Trower, he is a microwave weapons expert.


      Dec 29, 2011 at 8:36am

      It is really annoying to see this sort of bull coming from BC Hydro. BCHydro's own safety standards forbid its microwave radio technicians from standing in front of the a working 1 watt microwave transmitter.

      The only difference here is the transmitter is at full power only a short time so it won't do as much damage. Sort of like saying 10 minutes in front of the open Fukushimi reactor core is the same as living in Denver for a year on the average.

      Modern peer reviewed science has shown that radiation damage occurs when spot radiation levels exceed a certain amount. Below that level damage is minimal.

      The signal levels for cell phones and wifi are less than tenth of the output of these meters. As well an apartment dwellers may be sleeping within a few inches of banks of dozens of this units.
      It is impossible to tell how metal objects in the vicinity are concentrating the signal.

      All this could have been avoided if BCHydro spent a few extra bucks wiring the signal right to the meter.

      Unfortunately, that was politically impossible as a new NDP government could open up the smart meter communication channel for broadband, drastically cutting Telus and Shaw's revenue and the Campbelloni's campaign donations.


      Dec 29, 2011 at 8:46am

      For smart meters to have health effects, there has to be a mechanism behind them. There is none, just as there is no debate about the safety of smart meters among actual health professionals. It's only among the uninformed and the hysterical that there is any question. It's the same flawed "logic" that leads people to oppose wi-fi in schools, or fuels the antivax crowd, and it has no basis in actual science.

      Save Vancouver

      Dec 29, 2011 at 8:54am

      Ah, what would the last week of the year be without the weekly dose of the Straight's tinfoil-hat paranoid rantings about smart meters. Keep up the good "journalism". Maybe something about aliens and Atlantis next issue?


      Dec 29, 2011 at 9:49am

      Would any of you buy a used car from BC Hydro?

      Coach Dobbs

      Dec 29, 2011 at 10:27am

      What about the fact that these meters are not perfect and can result in dramatically inaccurate readings of consumption,
      Such inaccuracies can be attributed to a number of factors including the type of wiring (usually older), age, climate, types of appliances and so on.
      Without the analog gauges there is now no way to determine wether or not the meter is properly reading the usage. Like cell phone data usage the user is at the mercy of the service provider with respect to interpeting the data properly and not in their favor. But no worries, we can trust Hydro.


      Dec 29, 2011 at 10:28am

      I enjoy the Straight but these kinds of unsupported stories really bring the publication down IMO. RF levels from smart meters are no higher than what you're exposed to walking down the street. If you think a smart meter on the outside of your house is something worth worrying about, I sincerely hope you're being consistent and avoiding cellphones and radios.

      Michael Casternaveras

      Dec 29, 2011 at 12:08pm

      I work in internal IT support. We had an employee report something wrong with her PC, every two days, for several months. At first we tried to help her, but it became apparent that she was the source of the problem. So we secretly switched her PC with the employee that sat next to her. She continued to report the same problems and her colleague reported none. After two weeks of this we had a meeting with the her and her manager and let her know the game was up. Her PC did not need fixing...she needed training to understand how not to break her own computer. She got the training and we've never had a call from her since.

      I'm sure if BC Hydro installed a fake smart meter at this woman's home she would report the same health problems. Consumers just need better "training" regarding the health effects. More importantly, Hydro needs to communicate the DIRECT BENEFITS of these new meters to the consumer, not just the benefits to Hydro.