Can Your Electricity Meter Harm You?

You know those little grey boxes attached on the outside of buildings? One of those devices is a meter for measuring the consumption of electricity. Fundamentally, the device is just a very, very weak electric motor that turns little dials on the gauge a current passes through on its way to your house. Someone from the electrical company can come by and look at these dials so they can determine how much money each customer owes.

1960’s mechanical electricity meter

Most American energy companies are presently in the midst of a multi-billion dollar campaign to replace these meters with digital “smart meters“, such as the one pictured below.

Smart meters such as this make hourly measurements of electricity consumption, and then send that information via radio uplink to some database. This information will allow energy companies to provide different rates for different parts of the day, and provides incentives for customers to use appliances such as the washing machine during off-peak hours. This is good for everyone–energy companies can optimize their production, and customers are more informed about their consumption and have some opportunities to save money.

In California, Pacific Gas & Electric is spending $2.2 billion to switch their customers to these smart meters. But they have encountered an unexpected problem–some of their customers fear the smart meters are harmful. Thousands of California customers have protested. They believe the radio waves these meters use to communicate could cause headaches, sleep disorders, heart arrhythmia, and other symptoms.

So the broader question is: With what exactly do wireless devices communicate? To what extent is this potentially harmful?

Virtually any existing technology that requires some variety of long-distance wireless communication does so using electromagnetic waves. Electromagnetic waves are a form of energy, borne from excited particles, which propagate through space at the speed of light–nearly 300,000 kilometers per second. In fact, “light” is simply a special range of electromagnetic waves that our eyes happen to detect.

The frequency of the wave, that is to say how quickly the wave oscillates, reflects how much energy it carries.

 Lower energy electromagnetic waves include radio waves. Highest energy electromagnetic waves are called gamma rays. Gamma rays, in fact, are roughly 10 billion times more energetic than radio waves–they are fantastically energetic. If your computer screen were to depict a gamma wavelength as one pixel per wave, at that scale a single radio wavelength would be 165 miles long.

Chemicals can absorb electromagnetic waves, which tends to excite the chemical, resulting in heat and more electromagnetic waves (of another wavelength). Different wavelengths of electromagnetic waves interact with various chemicals differently, depending on the properties of the chemical. For example, microwaves excite water molecules, which makes them quite useful for reheating food. For another example, visible light interacts minimally with glass, but infrared cannot pass through glass.

An infrared image of a man holding a pane of glass shows infrared cannot pass through.

This kind of chemical excitation can also cause chemical reactions. Generally speaking, more energetic electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays cause many more chemical reactions than low energy electromagnetic radiation, such as microwaves.

One important chemical reaction you may have heard something about involves ultraviolet waves and ozone.

2 O3 + UV energy → 3 O2

This simple chemical reaction helps protect us on Earth from highly energetic ultraviolet waves from the sun.

Thus, some people fear that electromagnetic waves can harm us because they could cause chemical reactions inside our bodies.

In a way, they are right. High energy electromagnetic waves that we experience such as x-rays at the doctor’s office and ultraviolet at the beach truly can harm us–they can break chemical bonds inside our cells and potentially cause cancer.

There remains an ongoing question of the safety of lower energy electromagnetic waves used in or emitted from modern technology, including mobile phones, microwave ovens, AM/FM radio transmitters, RADAR, satellite dishes, high-energy power lines, wi-fi internet, Bluetooth, and more.

A typical mobile phone operates with a radio frequency of 900 megahertz, or a wavelength of about one foot. By comparison, a chest X-ray operates at a frequency around 6 trillion megahertz with a wavelength the size of a few atoms.

A typical chest X-ray operates for about half a second to take a picture, so if your mobile phone operates with the same intensity as a medical X-ray (it doesn’t) you would need to be exposed to your phone for 105 years to receive the same total energy as a single chest X-ray.

There are two common airport body scanner designs. One uses a tiny dose of X-rays, which theoretically could harm you if you fly very often. The other uses low-energy microwaves, which are theoretically harmless.

Meanwhile, the engineers who make the smart electrical meters say their devices use about 1/20th the signal intensity of mobile phones.

The physics theory says that a fluorescent light is probably much more harmful than a mobile phone.

In practice however, scientists have a fairly difficult time proving that lower energy electromagnetic waves are safe. The main problem when studying people and their exposure levels is that some people will get cancer–it is, after all, a common affliction. It’s difficult to separate this one tiny aspect of a person’s life from everything else about them (considering smoking, sun exposure, chemical exposure, genetics, diet, exercise habits, and just plain luck).  Generally speaking, though, the body of available research suggests there is no reason to believe radio waves are dangerous.

So what of the smart meters?

Questioning conventional wisdom in scientific theory is a wise scientific outlook, but at this point a significant investigative effort continues to suggest exposure to low-energy electromagnetic waves is safe.

The activists who claim the smart meters cause migraine headaches and sleep disruption may be right–but the cause is human psychology. People who fear something specific may be harmful are likely to experience a sort of placebo effect in its presence. It’s a product of pessimistic belief and expectations.

Changing the mind of these folks is extremely difficult. If power companies would offer these customers some opportunity to opt out of the smart meter program that may be a wise decision. ~TS

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