Could smart meters pose health risks? Some say yes

Could smart meters pose health risks? Some say yes »Play Video
Smart meters used by Portland General Electric use radio frequency waves, or RF. Some worry RF exposure is negatively affecting their health.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Could the power meter outside your home be adversely affecting your health?

Retired veteran Dale Vincent thinks it is. Vincent and his wife live in Salem. Like other Portland General Electric (PGE) customers, they have a smart meter.

“It doesn't look much different that the old ones did,” said Vincent.

But the technology is different.

A few years ago, PGE installed the meters to send usage information between customers’ homes and the power company using radio frequency waves, or RF. The smart meters increase efficiency and are a vital part of the industry’s move to smart grids. RF is the same technology used in cell phones, baby monitors, microwaves and Wi-Fi networks.

But there's plenty of buzz on the internet claiming these meters may cause health problems for people who are sensitive to RF.

“(The symptoms) are more than normal,” said Vincent.

Opponents on RF technology claim it causes side effects like agitation, dizziness, fatigue, forgetfulness, headaches, interrupted sleep, leg cramps, ringing in the ears, and skin rashes.
The Vincents have been experiencing many of those same problems since the meters were installed.

Some customers in other parts of the country won't even let the meters be installed. In Illinois, two women were arrested for interfering with smart meter installation. In Texas, a woman pulled a gun on a utility worker.

“We’re confident that the smart meters are safe for our customers,” says Brianne Hyder, spokeswoman for PGE.

In a letter to the Vincents, PGE wrote: “The intensity and duration of the radio frequency (RF) field from PGE’s smart meters is designed to be both low and infrequent... and fully meets U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines.”

Hyder says that the smart meters emit RF – on average –  for 2.5 seconds per day.

“The emissions for these devices don't pose a health concern,” said Jae Douglas, environmental epidemiologist with Oregon Public Health, who's reviewed research on the subject.

Douglas says that smart meters only emit about 15-percent of the maximum amount of RF allowed under the FCC’s guidelines for safe use. When a person is inside a house, that exposure rate drops to less than 1-percent, as the home’s walls offer some protection.

“A cell phone is thousands of times the exposure of a smart meter outside your home would be producing,” said Douglas.

Even so, Douglas said there's anecdotal evidence that some people may have an RF sensitivity that does cause symptoms.

“I'm confident it has some effect,” said Vincent.  “How much I really don't know. That's really why I'd like to have the meter removed so that I can see if it’s a significant effect.”

PGE says sure, it can do that. But there's a catch.

To switch to a non-RF meter that still works with the new smart grid, the Vincents would have to pay $253 for the installation and then fork over $51 per month to get the meter read by a PGE employee.

“I think a $50 a month fee is punitive,” complained Vincent.

“The cost associated is reflective of the cost of manually reading the meter. That's the trucks going out to visit those customers,” explained Hyder.

Hyder also points out that PGE consulted with the Oregon Public Utilities Commission before setting the fee.

“We didn't believe it was fair to pass those costs on to everybody (all PGE customers),” said Hyder.

Of the 825,000 PGE customers with smart meters, only 4 have opted out and paid the added expense.

The Vincents are not among them. It's a cost, they say, they simply cannot afford.

The KATU Problem Solvers checked with other power providers in our area, namely Pacific Power, Clark Public Utilities and Cowlitz County PUD. None of those utilities use RF technology.