A Look into the Science and Safety Concerns Surrounding These Misunderstood Devices
Our modern world is drenched with radio-frequency radiation (RF) and electromagnetic (EM) radiation. This includes technology like game console controllers, cable TV, cell phones, computers, toaster ovens, electric blankets, electric bug zappers, heating pads, ceiling fan remote controls, and microwave ovens. The list goes on.
Yet, ever since smart meters were first introduced to Texas electricity customers, a lot of misinformation has been spread. Concerns about smart meters include:
- They emit microwave radiation.
- They can cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, sleeplessness, and/or heart palpitations for people who are electrically sensitive
- Their electromagnetic fields are carcinogenic.
However, since 2010 when smart meter fears first emerged, health researchers have found that the effects of electromagnetic fields, radio frequency, and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS)” are either non-existent or show a tenuous correlation at best.
To better understand what all this means, we’re going to cover how smart meters work and just what recent medical research says about their safety.
The Science Behind Radio Waves and Microwaves
Electromagnetic (EM) waves move in a wavelength that oscillates at a specific frequency. The wavelength is the distance covered by one complete cycle of the electromagnetic wave, while frequency is the number of electromagnetic waves passing a given point in one second. EM energy also radiates or is called radiation.
But there’s a big difference between radiating energy and radioactivity. Another term for radiation might be “shine” because electromagnetic waves shine or radiate out from their source. This is not the same kind of radioactive energy from nuclear or ionizing radiation which damages tissue at the atomic level.
As of September, 2014, about 50 million US homes were equipped with smart meters that broadcast in the 902 Mhz and 2.4GHz frequencies. While it’s true that the 2.4 GHz frequency is the same one used in most US microwave ovens (and other tech devices), there’s a big difference in how these microwaves are used.
Microwaves are short electromagnetic waves measuring between 3 feet and one millimeter. An Ultra High Frequency (UHF) TV signal is a microwave with a roughly 3 inch wavelength, and a microwave oven uses a wavelength of about 12 cm (or about 4 3/4”). Microwave ovens are designed to use high frequency, (about 2.45 Ghz) short wavelength energy to create a constantly changing electric field inside the microwave oven. Water molecules are dipoles, meaning they have a positive charged end and a negative charged end. As the electric field moves around inside the oven, it induces the water molecules to flip back an forth as they try to line up their poles with the field. Instead, they vibrate, which causes heat.
But in order for heating to occur, the target must be close to the emitter and within the confines of the changing electric field. While EM wave leakage from a microwave oven does occur, this energy dissipates rapidly — the EM levels two feet away from a microwave oven are about 1/100 of those at two inches.
How Does This Pertain to Smart Meters?
In the US, smart meters use wireless RF communication broadcasting in the 902 Mhz and 2.4 GHz frequencies to transmit consumer usage data to the utility. Since the EM field in this case does not move around, it can’t cause heating. Smart meters must comply with FCC health standards for EM/RF exposure, which is 1 micro-watt per square centimeter (1 μW/cm2) over a 30 minute period.
The duty cycle or active period for a smart meter is about from 12 to 120 milliseconds (ms) per data transmission, once about every 20 minutes. This equals roughly 0.1μW/cm2 — well below the FCC standard. In comparison, a person standing 3 to 10 feet from a smart meter receives 1250 times less EM/R exposure than if they were talking on their cellphone. Being further away from the smart meter reduces the exposure risk even more.
Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS)
Since the 1990’s and early 2000’s, some individuals believe they are sensitive to RF and EM radiation. Dubbed Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS), it has been highly controversial. Websites that oppose smart meters claim thousands are complaining of tinnitus, headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, heart arrhythmia, and other symptoms following smart meter installations. Yet, they seldom provide the convincing scientific or medical evidence.
To date, in both controlled experiments and double-blind tests, self-described sufferers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity have been shown that they are unable to distinguish between exposure and non-exposure to electromagnetic fields. In experiments, EHS individuals claimed to detect low level EM/RF when they were told EM is being used — even is no field was being generated at all.
In double blind conditions where neither the researcher or EHS subject had any knowledge of whether EM/RF fields being present, results showed that the “large majority of individuals who claim to be able to detect low level RF-EMF are not able to do so under double-blind conditions.”
That’s not to say that EHS individuals were not experiencing real symptoms. Instead, it’s been suggested that they are influenced by the nocebo effect (opposite of the placebo). This means some people tend to feel sick because they believe they’ve been exposed to something that will make them sick. They focus their attention and anxiety on their sensations and the added stress produces their symptoms.
The World Health Organization maintains the following: “EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria, and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure.”
Does EM/RF Exposure Cause Cancer?
Back in 2011, the WHO classified EM/RF fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) which set off a firestorm of fear focused on cellphones and later applied it to smart meters. Some smart meter opponents deliberately drop the “possibly” qualifier. But the fact remains that EM/RF shares the same carcinogenic relationship to humans as coffee and talcum powder.
Consider your cellphone, only electronic device in direct, long-term contact with your body. The most current research by the National Toxicology Program subjected rats and mice to frequencies and modulations currently used in cellular communications in the United States for 10-minutes bursts for 9 hours a day over a two-year period. The experiment found low incidences of tumors in the brains and hearts of male rats, but not in female rats. Curiously, the males who were exposed to EM/RF fields lived longer than the control group not exposed to the EM/RF radiation.
To muddy the relationship further, previous observations in humans from earlier, large-scale population-based studies found limited evidence of an increased risk for developing cancer. “Limited” evidence indicates there is conflicting findings and methodologies in studies.
So while EM/RF from cellphone use could arguably present more of a risk for cancer, smart meters by comparison put out so little EM/RF and for shorter periods of time that any risk might be negligible. The American Cancer Society points out that proving any link between cancer and smart meters, one way or the other in fact, would be impossible due the number of EM/RF sources in modern life while the amount from smart meters is so very, very small.
In short, are smart meters safe? Yes.