Smart Meters: A convenience at what cost?

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12/3/2011 9:56:00 PM

Smart meters are the latest electronic devices generating debate about possible health risks

Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier.

Smart meters, like those recently installed outside tri-city homes by Arizona Public Service, are the latest device raising questions about potential health risks from the electromagnetic radiation they emit. While there is no evidence at this time that smart meters pose any danger, “(APS needs) to be forced to provide research showing that it is safe, and it should be from an independent source before they put them on every building and every home,” asserts Williamson Valley resident Cori Gunnells.

Jason Soifer
The Daily Courier

From baby monitors to cell phones and wireless internet access, a continuing wave of gadgets and gizmos attempt to make life easier.

But do these conveniences come with a risk?

A growing number of people, like local residents Elizabeth Kelley and Allan and Eileen Davis, are worried that these devices pose a serious threat to people’s health.

In the wake of Arizona Public Service installing thousands of smart meters on homes and businesses statewide, Kelley, director of the recently formed Electromagnetic Safety Alliance, spoke about those concerns at a Williamson Valley community association gathering this past month.

Addressing about 25 residents at the fire station at the intersection of Williamson Valley and Outer Loop roads, Kelley spent more than an hour talking about the global movement toward creating a “plugged-in planet” that she said is simply about greed.

“This is a nonpartisan issue – it’s all about money,” she said. “This industry is not being very transparent.”

The crux of Kelley’s argument is that there is very little information about the health effects of the electromagnetic fields or electromagnetic radiation that these devices emit.

Kelley has studied the issue for more than a decade, and she argues that the long-term exposure effects are unknown.

The limited evidence that does exist seems to support at least some of her concerns.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans based on an increased risk for glioma, which is a malignant type of brain cancer associated with wireless phone use.

In late May, a group of 31 scientists from 14 countries met in France to assess the potential cancer risk from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields via cellphone use.

Dr. Jonathan Samet, chairman of the group, said it’s something to monitor.

“The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cellphones and cancer risk,” he said in the report.

Christopher Wild, director of the agency, echoed Samet’s opinion in the report.

“Given the potential consequences for public health of this classification and findings, it is important that the additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones,” he said. “Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure, such as hands-free devices or texting.”

Reuters reported this week about a study in the medical journal Fertility and Sterility in which Argentinean scientists showed that long-term exposure to laptops with Wi-Fi connections killed sperm.

The scientists took semen samples from 29 healthy men and placed a few drops under a laptop with a Wi-Fi connection and then downloaded data.

Four hours later, 25 percent of the sperm were no longer swimming, compared to 14 percent of the samples sitting at the same temperature away from the computer. Nine percent of the sperm had DNA damage, which was three times more than the comparison samples.

The data suggests that using a laptop computer with a wireless connection to the internet near the male reproductive organs might decrease sperm quality because of the electromagnetic radiation.

Another test with a laptop that was on but didn’t have a wireless connection showed negligible radiation from the computer, according to the story.

Williamson Valley residents Allan and Eileen Davis share Kelley’s concerns.

“This is a very serious issue. People have no idea what’s happening and they need to be informed,” Eileen said.

Allan and Eileen are convinced that the new APS smart meters at their home made them and their German shepherd, Nikki, physically ill.

Eileen said she began dealing with daily migraine headaches after an auto accident in the early 1980s. She got them under control for the past two years, until they came back with vengeance this past summer.

The headaches came out of nowhere and hit her a couple of nights after returning from a trip to California.

“You get them every day in a row, and that gets really debilitating,” she said.

While Eileen was battling her pain, her husband, Allan, couldn’t sleep, and Nikki began having seizures.

They went to the doctor for some relief nearly three weeks later and took the dog to the veterinarian, but they couldn’t pinpoint the reason for their health problems.

Then their APS bill came, and the statement showed the electrical use from their old meter, and a separate line of use with the new smart meter a utility employee installed at their home on the outside wall of their bedroom while they were out of town.

Allan and Eileen believe the smart meter’s radiation triggered their reactions – although they admit that they don’t have any medical documentation to verify their claim.

Allan wrote a letter to APS demanding that the utility remove the meter from the home over privacy and health concerns.

A utility employee took the meter out and Eileen said their health got better.

“Amazingly, (the headaches) all stopped,” she said. “There has got to be a connection.”

Cori Gunnells, another Williamson Valley resident, said she did a little research on the meters and didn’t want one at her home.

“I just decided it wasn’t necessary. What we have works,” she said.

Gunnells said the lack of research on the long-term health effects of the meters worries her.

“It just seems to me they didn’t do the background research, and they didn’t inform the public,” she said. “They do need to be forced to provide research showing that it is safe, and it should be from an independent source before they put them on every building and every home.”

An Arizona Corporation Commission meeting in September touched on the smart meters and people’s health concerns.

Dr. Leeka Kheifets, professor of epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles, explained that exposure depends on the power of the device, distance from people and the length of the transmission.

Kheifets said meter exposure is far below what cellphones, wireless connections, microwave ovens or baby monitors emit.

But Robert Zieve, M.D., has a different view.

Zieve, with the Pine Tree Clinic for Comprehensive Medicine in Prescott, isn’t an expert on the issue, but he has studied it.

He is a graduate of Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health, with areas of interest in family medicine, preventive medicine and public health, according the Arizona Medical Board’s website.

“I think there are people who are sensitive,” Zieve said. “We have to be careful not to make assumptions that one thing is making us sick. There is something to it – there is a potential effect of wireless technology.”

Meanwhile, Kelley continues to go on speaking engagements and watch for new scientific reports on the health impact, all with a leery eye on technological advances meant to make life easier.

“We should be very careful at this point before we embrace this technology,” she said. “Time will tell.”

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