for your health?


The Culprit or Innocent pawn?

When we bought our new house in Livermore and the technician came out to set up our power he remarked he was changing our meter to a “smart” meter.   I was just glad to have power at that time so didn’t really think anything of it.

We’ve been here a year now and my husband recently decided to ask me what I thought about the health concerns surrounding these meters.  If he was asking, I figured it was just a matter of time before my patients asked me about it.

With a quick web search, there are many claims about these types of meters.  Claims about inaccurate utility bills, increasing energy consumption, violations of civil liberties, including spying or monitoring an individuals activities, and their contribution to the unemployment rate.

However, most important to me, and what seems most debated, is the harm to one’s health by violating safe levels of electromagnetic field exposure.

What type of energy do smart meters exert? 

Smart meters exert radiofrequency signals that with direct exposure elicit changes at the cellular level.  SAGE Associates, an independent environmental consulting company that provides land use services and planning, aimed to determine levels of radiofrequency radiation associated with wireless smart meters depending on frequency of the radiofrequency signal, amount of time the meter is submitting information, and reflective properties of where the meter is placed.

How do smart meters work? 

Briefly, the smart meter in your home measures your utility use and sends it back via a wireless radiofrequency signal.  Power transmitters can then send messages about your general energy use or potentially be installed inside the home on appliances that send information via radiofrequency back to the smart meter.  New appliances have these installed in them.

Homes relay messages to collector meters that transmit between 500-5000 homes/buildings signals and relay the radiofrequency message to the utility company.  With these types of transmitters there are higher levels of radiofrequency microwave emissions and they send wireless signals more frequently.  These collector meters can be placed anywhere.

What is the actual exposure amount from these “smart meters”?

SAGE Associates used computer modeling to determine power density levels in multiple scenarios and tried to define under what conditions violations of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) safe levels may occur.  The FCC established a maximum time weighted average limit of 655 micro-Watts/cm squared. Peak power exposure limits (4milliwatts/cm2) have been designated for all parts of the body, except this limit is lower for the eyes and testes.

For most homes, the single meter radiofrequency evaluation will matter most, but they also reviewed collector meters.  Radiofrequency energy absorption is most influenced by frequency, with lower frequency standards being more restrictive. These meters aren’t running at all times, they instead send information intermittently, making exact exposure evaluation more complicated.  Finally, there is also the unknown amount of radiation from reflection on surfaces in or around the home.

This report studied distances starting at 3 inches out to 96 feet from the antenna center to estimate radiofrequency exposure levels.  The main examples they used are if a meter is placed on an exterior wall outside a bedroom or outside a kitchen.  Outside the bedroom, it’s estimated that an individual’s body could be as close at 11 inches from the meter antenna and for the kitchen as close as 28 inches.

There aren’t any baseline radiofrequency violations for a single meter at any distance, between 60-100% reflection factor, at any duty cycle, but would be expected to occur if the actual reflection factor were as high as 1000-2000 times greater than computer modeling, as suggested by an article by Hondou (2006).   This suggests that reflection could be a significant component with a single smart meter.

Another issue has to do with how often the meters emit radiofrequency signals from each of the antennas.  This is uncertain and subject to variation.  The SAGE report calculates estimates from infrequent (1%) to continuous radiofrequency emissions (100%).  Where the public has unlimited access to these meters, the FCC requires exposure to be calculated at 100% exposure.  This report suggests that if multiple meters or collector meters exist near a home, the risk for violations does occur.

The issue with the SAGE report is that it is based on computer models and not actual practice.  I could find only one actual study that reviewed a smart meter in practice.  One specific smart meter type, the Itron, evaluated in a study by Tell et al (2012) suggests that the exposure in practice may actually be well below dangerous levels.

Where multiple meters are installed near living spaces or near collector meters and if, for instance, viewed at a range 6 inches and/or near highly reflective surfaces may be situations where peak power limits could be violated.

What does the literature say about radiofrequency fields and health?

Since no studies exist evaluating direct health outcomes of smart meters, one has to extrapolate from prior studies on radiofrequency exposure.  Evaluations of communication methods already present (radio, television, wireless, cell towers) have been primarily reviewed in epidemiologic studies.

Even if you move to a deserted island or up to the mountains to live off the grid, there is a certain level of electromagnetic exposure from the earth.  However, if you live like most people, think about all the possible radiofrequency components in your home – mobile phones, wireless computer systems, and as my family’s personal case now, a home monitoring system.  How much is too much?’’

All studies of human health effects from radiofrequency are epidemiologic studies, which inherently have issues with bias and influenced by multiple variables, some which may not be appropriately considered.  A weakness of all the studies is that exact biologic mechanisms of relevance remain unclear.  This makes determining the sources of exposure, levels of exposure, and location of individuals to those sources in question.

There is concern that the eyes and testes are more vulnerable to damage but no scientific data exist to establish a safe limit for these organs. There is also concern that children’s’ tissues may absorb more radiofrequency than adults and respond differently (Christ et al, 2010; Wiart et al, 2008).  It has also been suggested in some reports that individuals like those on some medications, the elderly, or ill also may have different reactions to pulsed radiofrequency, but I could find no real evidence.

In fact, in a review of the literature where a report can be identified that suggests radiofrequency can cause neurological, cardiovascular disease, or increased levels of cancer, there are corresponding reports that refute those findings.  Nothing that I could find convinced me that radiofrequency in doses we are exposed to, particularly if not a direct exposure, cause illnesses alone.

What does the literature say about radiofrequency and reproduction?

Because of my particular interest in obstetrics-gynecology, I can’t help but focus a bit on articles reviewing the reproductive consequences of radiofrequency exposure.

It seems that spontaneous abortion and time to conception have the strongest association with radiofrequency effects in women, as studied in physiotherapists exposed to microwave diathermy (Taskinen et al 1990; Larsen et al, 1991; Ouellet-Hellstrom & Stewart, 1993).  This would require regular exposure in close contact to have an impact.

For men, those who have been in the military and exposed to microwaves and radar, studies appear to support a reduction in sperm density (Hjollund et al 1997; Lancranjan et al 1975; Weyandt et al, 1996), with variable findings in the other semen analysis parameters – movement, amount, and form.

So, does it matter?

Maybe if you were a physiotherapist and a military officer trying to have a baby, or have direct, extensive contact with radiofrequency sources would radiofrequency matter.  It may become the case, as we become a more wireless society, where the radiofrequency amounts do exceed safe amounts, but at this point I am not convinced it would be from smart meters alone.

That being said, I don’t plan to place my bed against a wall where a number of smart meters are positioned.



Christ A Gosselin MC Christopoulou M Kühn S Kuster N. Age dependent tissue-specific exposure of cell phone users. Physics in Medicine and Biology, Volume 55, Issue 7, pp. 1767–1783, 7 April 2010, online March 5

Hjollund NH, Bonde JP, Skotte J. (1997).  Semen analysis of personnel operating military radar equipment [letter].  Reproduc Toxicol 11:897.

Lancranjan I, Maicanescu M, Rafaila E, Klepsch I, Popescu HI, 1975.  Gonadic function in workmen with long-term exposure to microwaes.  Health Phys 29: 381-383.

Larsen, Al, Olsen J., Svane O 1991.  Gender-specific reproductive outcome and exposure to high-frequency electromagnetic radiation among physiotherapists.  Scand J Work Environ Health 17: 324-329.

Ouellet-Hellstrom R, Stewart WF.  1993.  Miscarriages among female physical therapists who report using radio- and microwave-frequency electromagnetic radiation.  Am J Epidemiol 138: 775-786.

SAGE Associates Report, January 2011.  Assessment of Radiofrequency Microwave Radiation Emissions from Smart Meters. March 10, 2012.

Taskinen H, Kyyronen P, Hemminki K. (1990).  Effects of ultrasound, shortwaves, and physical exertion on pregnancy outcome in physiotherapists.  J Epidemiol Community Health 44; 196-201.

Tell RA, Sias GG, Vazquez A, Sahl J, Turman JP, Kavet RI, & Mezei G (2012).  Radiofrequency fields associated with the Irton smart meter.  Radiat Prot Dosimetry 10; Abstract.

Weyandt TB, Schrader SM, Turner TW, Simon SD.  1996.  Semen analysis of military personnel associated with military duty assignments.  Reprod Toxicol 10: 521-528.