02/28/2013 12:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

Smart Meters, Dumb Science

On February 21, 2013, the city council of Sebastopol, California (a small suburb north of San Francisco) adopted a resolution attempting to ban the installation of smart meters by Pacific Gas and Electric, claiming that the devices pose "potential risks to the health, safety and welfare of Sebastopol residents." In taking this measure, Sebastpol officials followed the lead of Marin County (hardly a traditional bastion of conservative pseudoscience), which in 2011 passed a similar resolution. To date, PG&E has ignored both, claiming that only California's Public Utilities Commission has jurisdiction in the matter, but debate continues at several levels.

Those promoting these bans cite health risks. Some claim "electromagnetic hypersensitivity," or in other words that radiation from devices such as smart meters cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, seizures, memory loss or other maladies. Others claim that smart meters cause cancer.  Similar episodes have occurred in the UK, Canada and elsewhere, but on this as with many similar issues, pseudoscience is making the greatest inroads in the United States.

Scientific facts

So what are the scientific facts here?

To begin with, smart meters use basically the same wireless technology as cell phones. The FCC, after reviewing many scientific studies, has set wireless radiation standards, with which all manufacturers of smart meters easily comply. The frequency of cellular technology microwave radiation corresponds to a wavelength of approximately 30 centimeters, or roughly one foot. This wavelength is thousands of times larger than structures in the brain responsible for mental processes, and so claims that wireless radiation can cause maladies such as "dizziness" or "memory loss" are absurd.

But what about other claims of smart meter health effects? What about claims of cancer? Here again, the scientific evidence is quite clear.

In 2010, a 13-nation study commissioned by the World Health Organization found at most a very minimal and partially contradictory link between cancer risk and heavy cell-phone usage. Along this line, concerns that cell phone usage by pregnant mothers endangers their fetuses are wildly exaggerated.

It is also instructive to compare the radiation levels of smart meters with those of other wireless devices. Smart meters only transmit data for roughly 1.4 seconds per day, at very low wattage. And even if one stands less than one meter (3 feet) from a smart meter when it broadcasts its data, the resulting microwave exposure is 550 times less than standing in front of an active microwave oven, and 1100 times less than holding an active cell phone to one's ear.

But even these reckonings are extremely conservative, because no one spends his or her life camped within three feet of a smart meter. Instead, such devices are typically on the outside of a residence, many feet from humans. Thus, given the incontestable law that microwave intensity decreases as the square of distance from the source, this means that exposure from smart meters is hundreds or thousands of times less than the figures in the previous paragraph. Indeed, 20-year exposure to radiation from smart meters is no greater than a single 30-minute cell phone call.

Several high-level governmental bodies have sponsored blue-ribbon panels to study the issue, but have found no cause for concern. As a 2011 report by the California Council on Science and Technology concludes, "Exposure levels from smart meters are well below the [FCC's established standards] for such [health] effects," and "There is no evidence that additional standards are needed to protect the public from smart meters."

With regards to cell phones, in a 2008 Congressional hearing, Robert Hoover (Director of the National Cancer institute's Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program), declared that the effect of cell phone radiation "appears to be insufficient to produce genetic damage typically associated with developing cancer." Numerous other studies are summarized at the National Cancer Institute website, which finds "no appreciable link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head and neck." The NCI did recommend additional research, because cellular technology is changing, but found no reason for major concern.


In short, the health risk to radiation by smart meters is hundreds or thousands of times less than that of cell phone usage, which in turn is so small as to be barely measurable even in large multi-nation studies (if it exists at all).

So why do people still oppose smart meters? Are they ignorant of the scientific facts? At the very least, both leaders and followers of the anti-smart meter movement are being inconsistent. After all, if they truly are convinced that microwave radiation constitutes a material threat to good health, even at extremely low levels, then they should:
  1. Not even carry, much less use, a cell phone, smart phone or tablet.
  2. Not permit anyone else coming to their residence to carry or use a cell phone, smart phone or tablet.
  3. Avoid Bluetooth technology for earphones, printers and computer mice.
  4. Not visit any business establishment (almost all) that has public or private WiFi in use.
  5. Not visit any business establishment (almost all) that permits customers to carry or operate cell phones.
Needless to say, we hardly expect that the opponents of smart meters in upper-middle-class Marin County will stop shopping, toss their cell phones, quit connecting their laptop to WiFi, or discontinue regular lunches with friends at local WiFi-enabled cafes. Nor do we expect them to discontinue driving, which is many thousands of times more dangerous, or to give up bad habits, such as smoking or heavy drinking, that are far more dangerous still. And therein lies the problem -- opponents of smart meters are either massively uninformed as to the scientific risks relative to other forms of risk in daily life, or else they are being highly disingenuous.

Either way, it does not speak well for the level of scientific education worldwide that such movements can gain traction with the public. We can only hope that the broader press will challenge these movements and portray them in their true light.