Smart meters on the way

Privacy, health concerns raised for wireless readers

Sharon Noble holds a high-frequency analyzer next to one of B.C. Hydro’s electromechanical meters. This meter

Sharon Noble holds a high-frequency analyzer next to one of B.C. Hydro’s electromechanical meters. This meter

Health and privacy concerns have prompted an organized outcry to smart meters being installed by B.C. Hydro in Greater Victoria this summer.

The utility company is switching to wireless meters that use low-level radio waves to transmit information on a home’s power usage back to B.C. Hydro collectors.

Sharon Noble, chairperson of Citizens Against Unsafe Emissions and co-ordinator of the national Wireless Radiation Safety Council, is leading the charge locally to warn the public about the meters. Her primary concerns are centred around the potential health effects of the radio waves, especially given the wide scope of the $930-million program.

“You’re going to have a meter on your house,” Noble said. “Your neighbours are going to have a meter on their house and they’re going to be communicating through each other to what I call the mother ship – a transmitter somewhere that’s gathering (the information).”

Noble accuses B.C. Hydro of misleading the public with false information around the level of electromagnetic radiation from the meters, which the corporation says has been measured at less than two microwatts per square centimetre when standing adjacent to the meter. The meters transmit data four to six times per day adding up to about one minute of activity, said Hydro spokesperson Fiona Taylor. Over the projected 20-year lifespan of the meter, the device’s emissions will equate to a single 30-minute cellphone call.

The program follows four years of research by the Crown corporation, which reports to the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines.

“Our mandate is to supply safe, reliable, cost-effective energy to our customers,” Taylor said. “At its heart, it’s about adding almost two million eyes and ears to the grid, so that we, on the utility side, are able to understand what’s happening with our electricity: where is it being used and where are we losing it?”

Tampering with the current meters poses safety risks to both B.C. Hydro staff and those who steal the energy. Without changes to rates, Hydro estimates the program will save $1.6 billion in operating costs, and eliminate an estimated 8,500-11,000 gigawatt hours of energy stolen annually, as well as improve safety for front-line employees.

Those concerned with electromagnetic sensitivity and radio waves aren’t the only groups questioning smart meters. Both the Information and Privacy Commissioner of B.C. and B.C. Civil Liberties Association have identified personal security issues with the power usage information the meters transmit.

Freedom of information and protection of privacy legislation in the province requires private information to be kept confidential. Rob Holmes, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the difficulty with the law is how to define if power usage information is private or simply data held by a utility company. The other “gaping loophole,” Holmes said, is that law enforcement agencies have the right to request any personal information, so you end up not having the protection when you really need it.

“The more information that (the government) can glean in relation to your use patterns, the more they can get a fix on all sorts of aspects of your private  life – when you get up at night, how much you flush the toilet – those things most of us would like to keep away from other people,” Holmes said.

“As soon as you start collecting this amount of data, you’re collecting a honey pot and people are going to want in,” said Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

The provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner is currently reviewing the program.

“I think people don’t understand how smart meters work, but I have had letters and emails and calls from British Columbians who want to ensure that we’re watching and that we’re working with B.C. Hydro to ensure that privacy is protected,” said Elizabeth Denham, privacy commissioner.

B.C. Hydro has installed the meters in Richmond and Prince George and expects to begin installing them on  Greater Victoria homes by September.


Radio waves explained

The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently classified radio frequency waves – those emitted by smart meters, cellphones and wireless routers – as a type 2B carcinogen, or possibly cancer-causing.

Mary McBride, a scientist at the B.C. Cancer Agency who co-authored the study on which the decision was based, explains the impacts radio waves have on the body.

Two things must happen in sequence to cause cancer, McBride said. First, damage must be done to DNA; and second, cellular changes affecting growth and division which cause uncontrolled proliferation that will spread throughout the body.

However, not all cellular changes cause this proliferation, she said. There is a wealth of research into whether or not radio frequency rays cause these kinds of changes, she added.

“With all that research ­– millions of dollars – we have not been able to confirm that radio waves damage DNA or that they cause any of these cellular changes that lead to cell proliferation after the DNA of a cell has been damaged.”

Additionally, radio frequency exposure diminishes significantly with increased distance from the source. The formula is if a person is twice as far away from the source of the radio frequency waves, their exposure drops to one quarter, as compared to someone at the source.

The study showed no increased risk of cancer with increased hours of cellphone usage except for within the 10 per cent of users with the most cumulative hours of use.

Researchers have not been able to explain the possible threshold effect, and therefore the classification of radio waves as a 2B carcinogen reflects the limited evidence.

“The fact that we haven’t seen any excess cancer risk to RF-exposed animals in the animal studies suggests that there may be ways that the body has to deal with any negative cellular changes.”


The following is written by Peter F. Driessen, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Victoria.

Can Hydro’s smart meters affect your health?

Radio waves are all around us. There are natural radio waves from the sun and from lightning. There are man-made radio waves used for television, radios for music, two-way radios for aircraft, boats, taxis and police, microwave ovens, cordless phones, wireless internet (Wi-Fi), cellphones and now smart meters. With all these radio waves around us, should we worry about their effect on human health?

Radio waves from microwaves are clearly not safe – they can cook you. The reason being that they are high power and close in proximity, and run for a prolonged period of time.

Alternately, AM radio waves are generally considered safe. Though they are high power and run almost all the time, they come from far away.

To check out the safety of radio waves, we have to crunch the numbers on power, distance and time.

The effect of power and distance is determined by the so-called “field strength” of the radio wave, measured as power per unit area (e.g. watts per square centimetre). For the same power, if the distance is doubled, the field strength drops four-fold. If the distance is increased 100-fold, then the field strength drops 10,000-fold.

The dosage is the combination of field strength and time. If you double the time of exposure, the dosage is doubled.

For example, a typical cellphone emits less than one watt of power, but can be very close (less than one cm away from your head) and may be used up to several hours per day.

As another example, a typical wireless internet router or laptop emits less than one-tenth of a watt. It can be as close as half a metre away and may be used much of the day. The distance is 100 times further from your head than a cellphone, so the field strength from wireless internet is 10,000 times less. The effect of Wi-Fi is generally much less controversial than that of cellphones.

A typical smart meter emits about one watt of power, but is usually several meters away, and typically emits for only about a minute per day. So the field strength from a typical smart meter is about the same or less than that of Wi-Fi, but it is significantly less active than Wi-Fi.

The effect of smart meters on human health should be similar or less than the effect that Wi-Fi has on human health. The effect on individuals may vary. Just as some people sunburn quickly and others are more tolerant, it may be that your individual tolerance to radio waves may be lower or higher than others.

If you are comfortable with Wi-Fi in your home, then you need not worry about smart meters. But, if you choose to avoid using Wi-Fi in your home because you have health concerns, then you may want to avoid smart meters.

For further information, visit:

For further information:

World Health Organization


The Lancet Oncology, July 2011

Health Canada