Grid lines

Smart meters and human health

Josie Stein is one of several people in the community fighting installation of smart meters.

Josie Stein is one of several people in the community fighting installation of smart meters.


According to energy experts, like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a smart grid is a step toward implementing more renewable energy sources into America’s existing infrastructure, and this step includes smart meters—digital versions of traditional power meters meant to better track peak energy usage. This data is transmitted back to the power companies, which helps determine consumer rates for power usage. Smart meters are intended to help people better manage their own power use.

But some members of the public are concerned about the health risks of smart meters. It’s been an ongoing issue in California—a group of residents is suing the California Public Utilities Commission for refusing to reopen an investigation of smart meters. Josie Stein is one of several people fighting against smart meters in Washoe County. While Stein lives in Truckee, Calif., her 91-year-old mother lives in Reno. It started in February, Stein says, when her mother began feeling sick and disoriented.

“It progressively got worse, so we ran a bunch of tests,” Stein says. “Then my son emailed me asking if my mom had gotten a smart meter installed, so we looked, and she’d had one since February when her symptoms started.”

Stein called NV Energy to have it removed, but the company refused.

“Everyone is on a wait list to get these smart meters removed,” says Stein. “We have to wait for the PUC [Public Utilities Commission] to change the rules about it.”

The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada has had several public workshops, and its website has a page dedicated to smart meter information.

What Stein is concerned about is the idea of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, an ailment in which a person claims to be sick from radiation emitted by wireless devices. There’s not enough solid research about smart meters health implications, says Indira Chatterjee, associate dean of the University of Nevada, Reno’s college of engineering, whose research is on the bioeffects of electromagnetic fields.

“The field of bioeffects of electromagnetic radiation has been very controversial,” says Chatterjee. “Innumerable studies have been done in various laboratories all over the world on the safety aspects of electromagnetic fields and very often these results have been inconclusive. Many studies that showed positive effects have not been reproduced. More research needs to be done.”

The radio frequency emitted from a smart meter averages at 900MHz. Mobile phones range from 450 to 2700MHz. Some claim that it’s not the average megahertz that makes people sick, but the pulsing “spikes” in megahertz. However, Chatterjee says that these numbers are just the radio frequency, whereas the concern is with electromagnetic fields, for which there are mixed findings from scientists.

There are different ways smart meters communicate with power companies: mesh networking, in which data is transmitted from node to node; power lines, in which data is transmitted along a wire; or modems, which functions like a standard cell phone modem, using analog signals to transmit digital data. Many studies conducted by research organizations around the globe, including the World Health Organization, California Council on Science and Technology, and the Nordic Radiation Safety Authorities, debunk any health risk claims of smart meters—as well as cell phones and wireless hot spots—because smart meters do not emit ionizing radiation, and are designed using heavily standardized equipment.