Meter maladies

Locals decry health risks they associate with PG&E ‘smart meters’

Marla Crites replaced her smart meter with an analog version after experiencing a host of health issues.

Marla Crites replaced her smart meter with an analog version after experiencing a host of health issues.


In an increasingly wireless world, Marla Crites fears she’ll become ever-more disconnected.

She believes she’s sensitive to electromagnetic energy and has experienced health problems associated with it. Cell towers, WiFi hotspots, routers and other devices that emanate radiofrequency signals are banes of her existence, she says. As they proliferate, she may be relegated to the confines of her Stilson Canyon home.

For 15 months, though, even that wasn’t a refuge.

Crites says the wireless utility meter installed by Pacific Gas & Electric—called a “smart meter”—exacerbated her issues with electromagnetic fields (EMF). She began having heart palpitations and nosebleeds in the middle of the night; at all hours she’d experience nausea, fatigue, headaches and problems balancing.

“As I got sicker and sicker, I started to do research on what EMF would do to people, and I had 18 out of the 25 symptoms,” said Crites, 71, a retired teacher. Meanwhile, a roommate who used the bathroom in close proximity to the meter started experiencing eye pain.

Independent of PG&E, Crites replaced her smart meter in December 2011.

“As soon as we put the analog meter on, guess what? Most of my symptoms disappeared in very short order,” Crites said, and so did her roommate’s. “It was pretty clear what was going on.”

Crites’ isn’t an isolated experience. Nina Widlund also says she has been affected by smart meters, and both women have friends who claim similar problems. The two are suspicious by nature: Crites and Widlund are involved with Chico Sky Watch, a nonprofit concerned with geoengineering (man-made attempts to manipulate the climate, such as “chemtrails”—spraying metallic particles in the lower atmosphere to deflect solar radiation).

Widlund doesn’t have a smart meter on her Chico house—she refused one—but neighbors do. After PG&E changed their meters, she suffered daily nosebleeds that subsided during a vacation in June 2012 to an off-the-grid lodge on the Rogue River, then returned within days of coming home.

She and her husband put up shielding material to block signals from neighboring smart meters. Widlund had only a couple minor nosebleeds in the next six months, none thereafter.

“What can I deduce from that?” she asked.

PG&E says smart meters are safe and emit low levels of radiofrequency energy in very small bursts. Chico-based spokesman Paul Moreno cites federal standards and the California Council on Science and Technology, with reports linked on PG&E’s website, for that stance.

Others—like Crites and Widlund—are not convinced. Californians opposing smart meters have banded together through groups such as the EMF Safety Network. That organization challenges findings in the California Council on Science and Technology’s report and points to research compiled in the Bioinitiative Report—which PG&E, in turn, challenges—in which an international group of doctors and scientists ascertained danger to humans from electromagnetic radiation even in “very low” levels.

The EMF Safety Network stems from a collection of Sonoma County residents concerned about citywide WiFi in Sebastapol. They organized to protest installation of smart meters without what they felt was an adequate study of health implications.

“The more we learned about them, the more we realized how toxic they really were,” said Sandi Maurer, director of the EMF Safety Network. “Not only were they wireless, they were pulsed wireless [emitting energy in bursts]; and not only were they pulsed wireless, they worked in a mesh networked system, which meant the signals were passing from meter to meter to meter to meter in big networks—and they were going to be adding millions of new pulsed signals.”

As Maurer points out, PG&E has disclosed that a meter can generate 190,000 pulses a day. Moreno contends that most meters will pulse around 9,500 times a day, and a meter’s total “duty time”—sending and receiving its own or others’ data—comprises just 45 seconds of the day.

EMF Safety Network also tracks house fires it finds connected to smart meters. Reno-area fire chiefs recently asked the Nevada Public Utilities Commission to look into smart meters that investigators linked to nine fires, which came in the wake of smart meter recalls by utilities in Oregon and Canada.

The smart meters in question all came from one manufacturer, Sensus; Moreno says PG&E’s smart meters in Chico came from another, Silver Spring Networks. That aside, he stated categorically: “Smart meters do not cause fires.”

Homeowners who object to smart meters, for whatever reason, don’t have to have them. Since February 2012, PG&E customers could “opt out” and have their power usage measured the old-fashioned way.

This choice isn’t free: The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) permits PG&E to charge customers an initial fee of $75 plus $10 per month. (Low-income customers pay $10 plus $5 monthly.) Moreno says this defrays the extra expense of sending meter-readers to individual houses.

EMF Safety Network protests the opt-out fees. Maurer’s explanation of the reasoning: “If you want the thing that you’ve always had, you’re going to have to pay more.” Moreover, the lower your income, “the higher risk you have of more exposure,” particularly in high-density neighborhoods where people cannot afford analog metering.

CPUC is considering two proposals regarding smart meters, each of which would continue fees for individuals and not allow communities or businesses to opt out; Moreno said the final decision is expected in February.

Having already opted out, living with ample space between her property and her neighbors, Crites is doing better (albeit irked by the fee).

“Electrosensitivity is a result of cumulative exposure,” Crites said. “The smart meter being attached to my house and radiating … was kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back, the thing that pushed me over into having full-blown symptoms.”