Does My Smart Meter Make Me Look Fat?

At a Smart Grid industry conference last week, three attendees protested against smart meters based on concerns about the health impacts of the Radio Frequency (RF) signaling technology in them.  Smart meters use either RF or Power Line Carrier (PLC) communications technology to transmit information to and from the meter.

Smart meters are an important component in the Smart Grid, particularly to enable greater participation for prosumers in electricity markets.  If there’s a concern about health impacts, it deserves attention and resolution.  So let’s review the science of electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) and the subset known as RF.  EMF is a continuum of frequencies (or wavelengths) for electricity, AM and FM radio, broadcast TV, microwave cooking and communications, infrared, the light waves human eyes can detect, all the rays in what we call sunlight, and x-ray and gamma rays.

Every electric-consuming device emits some EMF, as does electrical wiring in buildings. Depending on where you live, your laptops, tablets or smart phones probably detect multiple residential and commercial wireless LANs around you. There’s a steady barrage of RF hitting all of us as our smart phones receive calls, emails, and texts.

EMF, and particularly RF technologies are pervasive in modern society.  RF technologies are essentially inescapable.  Any establishment that offers free WiFi is pushing RF at us.  RF technology is the magic that makes garage doors open remotely.   Department stores make you pass through RF scanners seeking those inventory tags that discourage theft.  We are surrounded by RF signals.  We marinate in EMF when we step into sunshine.

The event protesters expressed concerns about the RF technology used in smart meters, one of a number of devices that uses 900 MHz spectrum.  If this spectrum is found to be harmful to our health, then by all means lets ban every device using it.  Information from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in their Table of Spectrum Use identifies the applications for this spectrum.  Baby monitors often use the 900 MHz spectrum, as do many cordless phones and microwave ovens.  It is also commonly found in industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) equipment, so it is fairly ubiquitous in deployment for a number of applications for a number of years above and beyond smart meters.

There are studies that have examined the effects of 900 MHz – and to my bemusement, one study found that this frequency caused weight gain in female rats.  Should we worry about smart meters making us fat?  Since they are so new in deployment in the USA, that couldn’t possibly explain the slow and inexorable spread of American bottoms over the past 40 years.  Perhaps it’s the baby monitors or the medical devices in hospitals that should be blamed for that instead of sugary soft drinks and overly generous food portions.

So why single out smart meters for excision from modern society?  If we are truly concerned about a particular spectrum’s effects on health, then wouldn’t all the devices that use that spectrum put us at risk?  If the concern is about RF in general, then shouldn’t we do away with all wireless devices, particularly smart phones, which deliver more RF exposure in close proximity to our bodies than what is produced by a smart meter?

We should understand the impacts of EMF on environmental health, and if there’s something bad out there, mitigate those risks.  But we shouldn’t discriminate against one device in the entire universe of gadgets that use RF technologies.  Otherwise, we’re letting beliefs control our receptivity to both scientific knowledge and common sense.