Smart meters for dummies

Most fairly well educated people recognize pseudoscience as bunkum when they see it — astrology, young-earth creationism, alien abduction, pyramid power, etc. Yet some of these same people are now being sucked into a movement that is, according to all rigorous scientific analysis, equally without foundation as the ones listed above: the anti-smart meter movement.

“Smart meters” are devices now being installed by electric and gas utilities in millions of homes and apartments, both in the U.S. and internationally, which a few times per day briefly send a report on usage by a wireless system entirely similar to that used by mobile telephones.

Obviously such devices have advantages, both for the user and for the utility. One of the present authors discovered, using his smart meter, that his swimming pool filter pump was using roughly 450 KWhr per month, costing over USD$100 per month. He then replaced this with a new highly efficient, multispeed pump, and has now reduced this cost to roughly $40.

Yet there is a rapidly growing movement opposing the installation of these meters. In the U.S., an organization known as Stop Smart Meters claims to be “fighting for our health, privacy, and safety.” Similar organizations have sprung up in Canada and Australia, and interest is spreading worldwide. Form letter legal complaints to the Federal US government are easily downloadable.

Unlike other pseudoscience, the anti-smart meter movements are not, for main part, being organized in right wing, fundamentalist or not-well-educated circles. In Marin County, California, a trendy suburb north of San Francisco (and hardly a hotbed of pseudoscience!), county officials have criminalized the installation of smart meters, citing “health effects” of their usage.

In Canada, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal has accepted a complaint from “Citizens for Safe Technology,” a group dedicated to “protect[ing] children and nature from unsafe wireless technologies.” Canadian tribunals often investigate dubious complaints, so this does not necessarily mean that BC is about to ban smart meters.

So what are the facts here?

Smart meters are being installed on BC Hydro Executives to monitor peak periods of Hydro accounting practices

What are the health risks? As mentioned above, smart meters worldwide use conventional cell phone networks to transmit their data. In the largest study conducted so far, researchers in Denmark found no increased risk of brain tumors from long-term usage of cell phones.

But even if some minute health risk is ultimately found for heavy cell phone usage, microwave exposure from smart meters is only a microscopic fraction. Smart meters only transmit data for roughly 1.4 seconds per day, at very low wattage. According to B.C. Hydro in Canada, “exposure to radio frequency during a 20-year life span of a smart meter is equivalent to the exposure during a single 30-minute cell phone call.”

Even this reckoning is exceedingly generous, since the typical cell phone is held to the ear, whereas smart meters are typically many feet away from humans, and thus microwave exposure is tens of thousands of times lower.

Who are these “experts”?

All these rational and reassuring facts do not stop the anti smart meter “experts” from revealing all the terrible things that are being covered up. They always sound impressively scientific to the uninitiated.  We should also note that privacy concerns — real and imagined — quickly join the list of scary things about smart meters.

There are, however, a lot of nasty conspiracy-milking types like Alex JonesStewart Swerdlow, Bill Deagle, Jeff Rense and True Ott ready to take advantage of every human frailty. They have never met a conspiracy theory they could not exploit.  Many are explicitly or implicitly antisemitic. Such names are increasingly showing up in “legitimate” right-wing contexts, partly thanks to Ron Paul’s brand of “libertarianism.”  Swerdlow even blogs for the Huffington Post and tells us that

Stewart A. Swerdlow has the ability to see energy fields and personal archetypes as well as read DNA sequences and mind-patterns. A powerful intuitive, he uses and teaches Universal Law to help others resolve life issues, even reaching into simultaneous existences and beyond. His great uncle, Yakov Sverdlov, was the first president of the Soviet Union, leading to Stewart’s involvement in the infamous “Montauk Project.”

Similarly, William Deagle—who uses the honorific Doctor despite no longer being allowed to practice his “medicine” anywhere on this planet—can spout superficially compelling nonsense on weaponised viruses, chem trails, micro-nuclear weapons, the Oklahoma city bombing, shape changing reptiles, the Illuminati,  the new world order, and smart meters, all while claiming to be one of the witnesses from Revelations and leading tours to the Holy Land. Meanwhile Deagle’s realtor wife Michelle, when not running dubious cruises with Bill, runs an Internet-based “nutrition” site (such are now illegal in Canada). They both appear on so-called Intelligent Talk radio station KCBQ in San Diego.

An inadvertently amusing peek at a season in the life of  the Deagle family can be seen from the following smart meter letters to and from San Diego Gas and Power, a peace offering from the Deagles, and this fine final letter from the power company.

But there is nothing remotely amusing about this crowd. Next time some disturbed, usually young, man blows a group away, go and look at whom they read and quote. Almost certainly most opponents of smart meters have no idea of the company they are keeping.

Ignorance or disingenuity?

In any event, it strikes the present authors that the proponents of the anti-smart meter movement are, at the least, being highly inconsistent. If they truly believe that their health is at risk from microwave exposure to smart meter broadcasts, then to be consistent they should immediately cease using cell phones (including smart phones and iPads), and further should not permit anyone to carry or use such a device on their property.

For that matter, such persons should avoid any public place, including grocery stores or restaurants, where someone might use a cell phone, or where a WiFi hotspot might be in operation. What’s more, they should stop using microwave ovens, which, even if in compliance with governmental regulations, emit thousands of times as much microwave radiation as a smart meter.

But somehow the present authors do not think that the trendy anti-smart meter fans in the upper middle-class suburbs of San Francisco, Vancouver or elsewhere are going to give up their cell phones any times soon, nor are they going to give up microwave ovens or leisurely lunches with friends at the local WiFi-enabled bistro or cafe.

And therein lies the problem — either such persons are massively misinformed as to the relative risks, or else they are being highly disingenuous in their public declarations on the subject. The reader can decide which is the more likely explanation.

Either way, it does not speak well for the level of scientific education worldwide that such movements can gain traction. We can only hope that a skeptical press will finally take this movement on. But in a world where such extremists are considered mainstream, don’t hold your breath.

[Added 4 Nov 2012] An excellent analysis of the paranoid, conspiracy-theory mindset, and the incursion of this mentality into the political arena, has just been written by Todd Leopold of CNN.

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