In trawling the web for interesting green home tech news this morning, I came across a troubling story at (the usually very level-headed) theenergycollective titled “Are Smart Meters Hazardous To Your Health?” Troubling, not so much for its conclusion–the story does wrap with a cursory nod to valid science and admits that “the Michigan Public Service Commission released a report that … ultimately concluded that the risk from installing and operating these meters is insignificant.”
The troubling thing is that on the way to that conclusion, the story relies on the sort of “balanced” journalism that gives speculation, scaremongering, and uncritical thinking exactly as much weight as silly little things like facts, figures, math, and observable reality.
Recently, however, there’s been some backlash against smart meters. Some concerned citizens claim that the radio frequencies that smart meters use to transmit information are harmful to human health. Many of these residents say they’ve experienced new or worsening health problems since a utility smart meter system has been installed on their home or in their neighborhood. Complaints range from insomnia, anxiety, and headaches to skin rashes, heart palpitations, and nausea. They claim that these health problems are the result of radio waves emitted by the smart meters as information is transmitted to and from the power company, and they want the right to opt out of installation.
This may sound like a little outlandish and conspiratorial, and might normally be dismissed with a laugh, but there are several substantial websites and grassroots efforts dedicated to furthering this theory. “Wireless technology is a public health hazard, claims a website called StopSmartMeters.org. “Smart meters can violate already high FCC limits on human exposure to microwave radiation, and are being installed even as people are developing ‘electro-sensitivity.’ There are also reports of ‘smart’ meter interference with pacemakers and other implants.”
The more we give respectable ink to this sort of woo, the more people are going to attribute every headache, upset tummy, and bout of insomnia to EMF. Which isn’t to say that these people aren’t legitimately getting sick (even psychosomatic illnesses are legitimate illnesses); it’s merely to say that smart meters and other regulated sources of RF have not be shown to be the problem, and any studies that seem to demonstrate such a link are often based on suspect methodologies.
Instead of countering these claims with good science as soon as possible, the story keeps digging deeper into the woo, pointing out that the accusations and lawsuits surrounding concerns about smart meters represent a “legitimate concern for the public and local governments.” Parse the language there carefully and it’s actually saying that the lawsuits and complaints are causing more work for all concerned. Still, language is a powerful and often subtle thing, so I seriously take issue with tying the clause “legitimate concern” so closely to such unscientifically supported baboonery.
Worse still, as I said, even though its conclusion is correct–no, there’s almost certainly no reason to fear smart meters–the article only supports that conclusion with a hesitant appeal to authority, which isn’t the right way to reinforce a scientific reality.
The one thing the story gets completely right is that these concerns shouldn’t be dismissed with a laugh; they should be dismissed with comprehensive studies and analysis, all of which has been done already and continues to be done. If you’re thinking about opting out of the smart meter roll-out due to fears of EMF exposure–especially as a result of stories of this nature–consider this: the RF energy naturally generated by the earth under your feet is, on average, eight times what you’d be exposed to standing three feet away from a smart meter. Check out this chart comparing common sources of RF energy, and for a more in-depth (skeptical, scientifically sound) look at the health effects of exposure to electromagnetic radiation, check out this entry from the Skeptic’s Dictionary.