Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 9.22.11

A New Health Hazard?
The coming fight over smart meters
By Michael E. Lee

What we have here — is a failure to communicate.

At least that is what EWEB, our self-defined “customer owned and transparent” public utility, seems to be saying. They (vs. us?) have been laying the groundwork over the past several years to spend $30 million on a new kind of electric meter for us. We get to pay (perhaps $500 each) for what is looking like an expensive, intrusive and maybe dangerous gadget to replace the formerly sturdy and harmless electric meter. EWEB research indicates that people do not know much about “smart” meters. Well, perhaps we have not been informed of very much.

A recent R-G op-ed by Roger Gray, EWEB general manager, assured us that the coming smart meters (and they are coming, if not stopped) are a good thing. They would provide an efficient two-way radio signal using microwaves to transmit detailed data from residences to EWEB. The utility would then send the information back to customers so they might adjust their bad usage habits accordingly. Another “advantage” is that time of use data allows charging more for peak use — to reward turning off air conditioning when it is hot, I guess. If not compliant, you pay.

“Smart” meters thus provide very detailed information for three purposes: 1) to show customers in detail how and when they use electricity, 2) to document time of use information so higher rates can be charged, and 3) to allow control signals from utility to homes. (i.e., shutting off power — and in the future controlling home appliances with a signal from EWEB.).

Coming soon are imbedded appliance chips which will allow transmissions from EWEB to turn off or adjust thermostats on the air conditioners and furnaces in private homes. Some California homes with smart meters have been raided by police for overuse of electricity (probable cause for marijuana grow lights). Also, it is feared the signals could be hacked, informing criminals when residents are not at home.

Once the often quirky meters are installed people can only protest, or sue, probably all in vain. Once installed, or even contracted for, it is too late to go back.

Here in Eugene, it is not too late — yet.

Perhaps the most telling reason to wait and not install these meters is the uncertainty surrounding health effects. Gray stated that the meters will transmit “less than 10 seconds a day,” seeming to negate all health concerns.

But this is true only in the most technical sense that the download for the day to EWEB will be a burst. However, to collect data, houses must be interconnected in a “mesh” of meters, signaling each other nearly constantly with directed microwaves collecting data 24/7. Obviously, many health professionals are not worried about the download, but the data collection microwave signals coursing through homes and the unknown health effects from living in the microwave fog of a “mesh.”

It is PR, not science, to claim the risk is “one-onehundreth (sic) of what is emitted from a cell phone,” as EWEB has been doing. Worldwide, many scientists are proposing the Precautionary Principle (i.e., not enough data on safety — wait, do not expose people). It is known that exposures are cumulative, and one final small exposure could cause a cancer. To make up your own mind just Google smart meters and check YouTube to listen to scientists’ warnings.

Historically, the vast majority of public health success stories have been bans. Lead in gasoline is one. And the famous John Snow in the 1854 cholera epidemic in London just removed pump handles so infected water was unavailable. Time to remove the handle, folks! We are set to pay for fragile and dangerous meters, and EWEB is not a private concern. In no sense are smart meters needed by customers. Power companies, like all companies, seem to love control and high technology solutions, even when inappropriate, and to gather ever more information. But the costs are too high here, and the unknowns far too potentially dangerous to risk groups — like children, the elderly and sensitive people. 

Bottom line for smart meters: Just don’t do it!

Michael E. Lee, Ph.D. worked for six years as research director at the University of Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, and for 10 years was an adjunct research scientist at Oregon Research Institute For more information on smart meters, contact Kathy Ging at 342-8461 or





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