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Smart Meter Paranoia

by Brian Dunning, Jun 23 2011

smart meterFor some reason I ended up on the mailing list of David L. Wilner, an attorney in (where else) Northern California, who promotes the idea that the new smart meters are hazardous to your health. Smart meters have been getting rolled out by utility companies for a few years now. They transmit the meter data to public utilities. Not only does this reduce the need for meter readers to physically travel to your home to read the meter, it also provides the utility with more granular data, for example, hourly usage instead of one total number for the month. Hourly data lets the utility do things like reward individual customers with lower rates for off-peak usage. In my neighborhood (Southern California) our smart meters make it possible to monitor my hourly usage online. Smart meters can be used for electric, natural gas, or water usage.

As tends to happen with any new technology, xenophobia rears its ugly head, and somewhere, someone comes out and warns that it’s deadly. This is Wilner’s tack. It’s possible that he’s the standard ambulance-chasing variety of attorney, along the lines of those who advertise their services for mesothelioma, etc., and hopes to win some settlement from the utility companies. Or, it’s possible that he is sufficiently uninformed about his chosen expertise, and honestly believes common radio frequencies are dangerous. Either way, he’s sure put a lot of work into his pet project, and was, for a while, sending me several emails every month.

And then, he stopped.

I believe he stopped because I replied to one his emails with a question. He appealed to recipients to testify at one of his “public workshops” about their concerns, and I replied:

I would be happy to do this but I need to understand your rationale for how non ionizing radiation can damage tissue.

Bam, no more emails. One of those deniers, he may have observed.

One of his emails contained the following:

When the electric grid was first developed, there was a distribution and return system that worked almost the same way.  Clean energy was brought to your premises through the wires for consumption, and the used electricity was returned by the natural flow of electricity to the utility’s substation where it was connected to a ground system.  However, over time, as new technology appeared like computers, routers, wireless devices, etc., the return wires to the substation became overloaded, and the dirty electricity generated by the modern devices ended up traveling to the ground rod at your home.  Just like the sewage, it floods the area in and around your home, but it doesn’t smell and you can’t see it.

If you thought you had some basic understanding of electricity, as I did, and found yourself marveling at the revelation that modern devices “generate” “dirty electricity” that “floods your home like sewage”, well, I’ll join you.

Some of his emails have gotten even more scientific. Attend:

When people complain about neurological symptoms (sickness) associated with SmartMeters, there is at least one scientific explanation:  The human head has a resonant frequency of approximately 1 GHz.  This is relatively close to the transmit frequency of the SmartMeters (approximately 900 MHz).  Resonance, in this instance, means the head acts like a radio receiving antenna tuned for maximum efficiency (best reception).  This is a phenomenon. Taking this one step further, the human body (ungrounded) is resonant at 70 MHz, and therefore more susceptible to radio frequencies in that portion of the radio wave spectrum.

This is actually within smelling distance of fact. Human heads do, in fact, have resonant frequencies, and a lot of people have studied how, and under what conditions, a human head can absorb RF energy. I’ve read a number of such studies, and the ranges of resonance found go from around 150 MHz up to 3 GHz. That’s a really big range. It’s complicated because there are many types of tissue in the head: brain, skin, muscle, bone. All resonate differently. The bone seems to resonate best around 900 MHz; brains resonate most at the lower frequencies, 100 MHz and less; and skin above 900 MHz. (Feel free to correct me if I err.)

Does all that mean that RF at those frequencies will damage those tissues? Not at all. Here’s an analogy, though it’s imperfect because it’s audio and not radio. Thump your desk with your fist. Hear that sound? That’s the desk’s resonant frequency. When your television plays a show, and a sound of that frequency is produced, notice that your desk is not damaged. We should have a similar expectation of our brains being damaged from normal levels of RF. Radio stations have been transmitting RF for many decades, and nobody’s been hurt by it yet.

But what if you replaced your television with a tone generator akin to the space shuttle solid rocket boosters? There is absolutely a sound level at which that desk would burst into splinters, and lower levels at which the wood fibers might be imperceptibly damaged. Presumably, it’s this type of subtle damage that worries Wilner.

So how does a smart meter’s power output compare to other ordinary devices in the same power range? Well, first of all, a smart meter is almost never transmitting anything at all. Ours transmit for a total of about one minute a day, about .07% of the time. During those brief pulses, standing two feet away from the smart meter while it’s transmitting exposes you to:

  • About half of what you’d get in a Starbuck’s with Wi-Fi
  • About half of using laptop computer
  • Less than 2% of what you’d get using the most powerful walkie-talkie
  • Less than 1/3 of what you’d get holding the most powerful cell phone to your head
  • Or about .002 of what you’d get putting your face 2 inches from a running microwave oven.

None of those far more powerful devices has ever caused a problem, nor should we expect them to. Radio, usually considered to be that part of the electromagnetic spectrum ranging from about 3 KHz to about 300 GHz, is way below the energy levels (no matter the intensity) of ionizing radiation, which is the point at which radiation is energetic enough to strip electrons and cause molecular damage. This range begins at around 1 PHz (petahertz).

There are all kinds of interesting research projects involving electromagnetic stimulation of parts of the brain. In such experiments, the radiation is extremely focused and powerful, many orders of magnitude above what you might be exposed to from the ordinary world; and even it has no potential to cause any effect that remains once the field is turned off. Physics simply provides no way for this to happen.

Smart meters do not, cannot, produce detrimental (or even detectable) effects on people. The science is not ambiguous, and the jury is not “out”.

If Wilner thinks he has overturned the world of physics and feels that any effect can be measured or demonstrated, then we invite him to apply for James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge.

40 Responses to “Smart Meter Paranoia”

  1. Max says:

    “As tends to happen with any new technology, xenophobia rears its ugly head”

    Odd use of xenophobia. Technophobia would be more clear.

    “I would be happy to do this but I need to understand your rationale for how non ionizing radiation can damage tissue.”

    Obviously, high intensity microwaves, as in a microwave oven, can damage tissue, and a bright light can cause eye damage.
    As far as low intensity, what do you make of this?
    “Alexandrov and co have created a model to investigate how THz fields interact with double-stranded DNA and what they’ve found is remarkable. They say that although the forces generated are tiny, resonant effects allow THz waves to unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.”

    Several weeks ago, the WHO announced that radiation from cell phones can possibly increase the risk of brain cancer.

    • MadScientist says:

      Yeah, that WHO statement was a shipload of crap. Basically the incompetent boobs who wrote the report looked at other reports (including a fairly recent and excellent report) and made ridiculous claims which contradict all evidence given in the competent reports.

      As for the THz claims on that link, I’ll wait for the publication on which such claims are made. For example the article doesn’t give any details of what this ‘DNA model’ is or demonstrate that the model is indeed representative of DNA (and under what conditions). Another thing that puts me off the article is the mention of a ‘bubble’ in the DNA – that is absolute nonsense – you will find no biological literature using that term.

      • MadScientist says:

        OK, I read those claims on DNA – and they’re *all wrong*! The article is worse than useless. Hell, if the authors can prove their claims they’d get the Nobel Prize for discovering new physics.

      • Max says:

        Here’s the paper by scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Harvard Medical School.

        “Bubbles” are “large localized openings in the DNA double strand.”

      • Mario says:

        yes but in order to produce that, you have to find a way of delivering that radiation to the nuclei of the cell and knock out all the DNA repairing mechanisms at the same time.

        Every time you pull apart the DNA it will spring back to the original position unless the proper proteins stabilize it so replication of that area may occur, or like in this case the splitting force should be kept continuous, furthermore it has to act on a very narrow window of time in which the cell DNA is being replicated or be able to penetrate bone marrow or gut epithelium which are the only places with continuous DNA replication.

        but for me plain simple common sense works, those or any devices we daily use don’t and can’t produce the level of energy required to cause some damage to our tissues.

      • MadScientist says:

        I read the paper – they did nothing more than diddle with a computer model. They offer no mechanism by which this ‘resonance’ they claim takes place. They do not make predictions which are confirmed by observations. They do not demonstrate any ‘bubbles’ in DNA (whatever the hell that means). The work does not explain any observations which until then were not explained well or understood. The paper is pure speculation and should not have been published.

        Electromagnetic radiation can interact with matter in many ways (for example causing electron transitions, changes in quantum vibration state of a molecule, change in quantum rotation state of a molecule, change in quantum state of a nucleus with net nuclear spin) – but the claims of that paper make no sense. There are not even any limits set to test – for example, we’re constantly bombarded with THz radiation simply because everything around us has a temperature well above 0K. THz scanners are passive devices much like thermal IR imagers, but if you wanted an active device it’s trivial to generate THz radiation well above ambient and without any harm to humans. At what levels does this alleged DNA damage occur and how can it be demonstrated? Unless those questions can be answered, the paper is unscientific.

      • Mario says:

        BTW the more appropriate term would be a replication fork and not a bubble.

  2. CountryGirl says:

    One thing I think people understand intuitively is that smart meters will cost the consumer more. The utilities don’t want to put in smart meters to cut the consumers costs.

    • Søren Furbo says:

      They might, if they save more money than the consumers save. If the smart meters will make consumers shift their electric usage the night (e.g. put on the was at 10 pm in stead of at 2 pm), it will make the electric load more even, and thus cheaper to produces (the peaks are lower, so the capacity doesn’t need to be as high, or they don’t have to use the expensive ways of generating electricity as much).

      • CountryGirl says:

        You are correct. Meeting peak electricity demand is the largest problem a utility faces and potentially the most costly. I actual like the concept of smart meters and think they can be a useful tool. However, energy costs are going up and there is no doubt that in spite of smart meters the customer’s costs will increase. Also the smart meters (and the system they require) are more expensive then the dumb meters and the customer will pay for that as well.

      • karaktur says:

        The smart meters transmit to a vehical patrolling the neighborhood. The cost savings to the utility is the decrease in meter-reading employees and the costs of protecting them from dogs that bite. I doubt the consumer would ever see a rate decrease but it might delay a rate increase.

      • CountryGirl says:

        LOL Yeah! Watch for that delay in rate increases!!!

  3. Max says:

    I expected smart meter paranoia to be about big brother, not health hazards.

    • Some of it already is, Max. Brian just cited the health scares. I’ve read stuff elsewhere that (as CG claims) where people believe it’s an excuse to jack costs. Others believe it’s spying on people because it’s monitoring moment-to-moment electric use.

  4. MadScientist says:

    The biggest issue with RF has been absorption leading to heating and subsequent damage due to heat. Over the years there have been numerous serious RF burns, most victims being people who work with high power RF circuitry. As far as mobile phones go, the frequencies used are not strongly absorbed by the human body so there is no significant heating anywhere – there is simply no mechanism to cause cellular damage (unless you hit someone with the phone, but that’s not damage due to the RF energy).

    Obviously Wilner knows nothing of electricity distribution either – ‘clean’ vs. ‘dirty’ electricity – hahaha. With a lawyer like him trying to prosecute a case against the evil smart meter, I’d bet on a short trial at best and with the ruling against the plaintiff.

    • itzac says:

      Electrical engineers will sometimes talk about power quality in terms of “clean” or “dirty”, but only colloquially and they have very different definitions from Wilner.

      Consider how lights can dim when you turn on a vacuum cleaner or the fridge pump starts. A device needs to present a significant electrical load before it can have an impact on power quality. Modern electronics are just too small to create such a problem. If anything in your house is going to affect power quality it’s going to be something big like a microwave, or an appliance with a big motor. And for it to affect anything outside your house, the utility installation would have to be seriously defective.

      His description of dirty power is bass-ackwards; this is a gross misappropriation of the term.

      • tmac57 says:

        Oh Yeah,well then tell me where all that dirt goes from my ELECTRIC vacuum cleaner!!! Hello…it’s plugged in to the electrical outlet!!! Duh!!!

      • PaulRugg says:

        ooooooooo…. ‘dirty’ electricity – I GET it now! Like the electrons that come thru my computer to show me porn…

      • tmac57 says:

        All of that internet porn comes from the vacuums that clean the floors at XXX movie theaters.It’s actually very environmentally responsible I think.

  5. DeLong says:

    I live in Northern California and the people complaining about the smart meters are almost exclusively customers of one particular privately owned conglomerate. In some of the earlier news reports about this “issue” was the buried fact that many of these people saw there electical useage and corresponding bills increase, in some cases dramatically. There was some speculation that the old meters were inaccurate and under recording the actual electrical consumption. The people protesting the use of the new meters may have been hiding their concerns about higher electric bills behind the fake health fears of the meters. Finally, the same company that has installed the smart electric meters also has installed similar technology for natural gas meters. There has been no reports in the news about similar health complaints with the smart gas meters.

  6. They’re smart, therefore, they’re secretly plotting your death. Don’t be surprised if one day you come home and all your appliances lay in wait with premeditated intentions.

    I don’t trust my microwave. It blinks the wrong time and doesn’t warm an entire meal. It has begun.

  7. peter says:

    Switch mode power supplies can actually induce harmonic current flow into the grid. Leading to excess current flow, damaging power panels and can induce fires.
    Your understanding of electricity is rather rudimentary not acknowledging that fact.

    Due to new regulations it is nowadays not a major problem anymore, but some older equipment might be still around causing problem.
    This problem was quite severe and it was addressed when I took my low voltage systems electrical code studies sometimes in the early 2000s.

    • Mchl says:

      This is a well known fact. I think the point here is that even if you call these harmonics ‘dirty’ they do not do this: ‘Just like the sewage, it floods the area in and around your home, but it doesn’t smell and you can’t see it’

  8. peter says:

    here a non biased study – in commercial terms.

  9. Citizen Wolf says:

    God God, is there no end that this man won’t go to to make a quick buck?! Pro-deathvaccines, reverse speech denier, UFO denier, cryptozoology basher and now he’s sunk to the low low depths of becoming a dirty electricity shill.

    Shame on you Mr Dunning.

    • Beelzebud says:

      As Shermer might say, Regulation Schmegulation, just let the market sort it out! ;)

  10. PaulRugg says:

    *sigh* Why aren’t people afraid of window fans or blenders? Those give of waves of EM activity. But there are no conspiracy theories about them.

  11. jsav says:

    ground rods in an electrical system are installed to protect people/equipment in the event that the grounded conductor is not suitable to provide an effective ground path back to the utility transformer. Ideally, the ground rod should not have any current flowing through it, dirty or clean.

    • Nop says:

      @jsav: You’re correct about the original purpose of the grounding rod + wiring, but where there is a nanoparticle of truth buried in those whacky claims is that ground is indeed used to dump ‘dirty’ power, in that the PSU in a PC has a line filter to suppress RF hash from the switcher, & of course the case is grounded as well to collect the RF hash from the high speed digital circuits that make up the rest of the PC. (The above is a legal requirement for FCC certification, BTW.) That said; the notion that such power can collect in the soil around your home in any way, shape or form, is utterly stupid. It’s almost a shame that it isn’t true, because if it were possible to actually store electricity as simply & cheaply as by dumping it into a ground stake, it’d utterly revolutionise the green energy industry, as the difficulty of storing large amounts of energy is the single biggest problem with both wind & solar power systems.

  12. arjun says:

    The sewage around my home DOESN”T stink! I live on the 10th floor of a high-rise apartment and i would just like to know how my dirty electricity is handled. Where do people get these bizarre ideas?

  13. David says:

    Just a quick note of thanks — I’m new to the issue and this post helped to educate me.

    But, two criticisms: (1) why the attack on Northern CA? (2) your line about mesothelioma seems to draw an equivalence between the bogusness of smart meter paranoia and the very real effects of asbestos exposure.

    • DB says:

      Unfortunate article. I’m grateful that a number of people on this comment board have been able to highlight the fact that this author has positioned himself (with an intent to benefit financially) on the opposite end of the spectrum from what he is claiming Mr. Wilner’s concerns represent. It’s not a fear of something strange to have concerns based on decades of independent, peer-reviewed research that shows positive biological (not thermal) effects. People who are educated about this topic are not trying to convince the public that tissue damage, such as that from ionizing radiation, will result from RF exposure as the author would have you believe. The truly repugnant thing is that the author knows this and is purposely misinforming you. I suppose that should be expected from a man who sells a t-shirt based on his podcast about the abominable snowman;

  14. Charyl Zehfus says:

    Does all that mean that RF at those frequencies will damage those tissues? you ask, then answer with no.

    However, this outright ignores thousands of scientific studies, from Zory R. Glaser’s 1970s compilation for the U.S. military to the BioInitiative Reports to ongoing studies listed at PowerWatch UK, etc., showing biological and harmful effects of RF at levels far below what is allowed by the FCC, which holds the dogma that only heating has any bad effect. Honest inquiry demands these studies not be ignored.

    Reputable researchers, such as Dr. Salford and Dr. Lai have shown troubling effects at low levels. And an FDA internal memo even admitted harmful effects, and this memo was buried. Here are these links:

    Damages blood-brain barrier, says Dr. Leif Salford

    Accelerates tumor growth, said FDA in 1993 internal memo

    Damages DNA, says Dr. Henry Lai

  15. Charyl Zehfus says:

    One more thing, please: You write, When your television plays a show, and a sound of that frequency is produced, notice that your desk is not damaged. We should have a similar expectation of our brains being damaged from normal levels of RF.

    So the brain’s biological and electricl workings can now be compared to a desk? This is just like early cell phone developers who used a fake head filled with water to determine how deep the signals would penetrate. Wow. Why even experiment on living things when we can just use desks and water drums to get the answers we want?

    And “normal” levels of RF obviously do not mean nature’s levels, but now the new cacaphony of manmade vibrations, pulses, bursts of energy. Not normal if you mean natural. Normal if you mean FCC allows.

  16. Caesar Valenti says:

    The town of Sebastopol (about 50mi North of San Francisco and known for aging hippies) today banned SmartMeters from being installed…although they probably do not have the legal authority to do this.

    I am embarrassed to live so close to them. To paraphrase Bugs…”What a bunch of maroons!”