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No!

Oh, you want more? OK. I guess I can give you the long version, for those who want more details.

Smart meters are one of the latest targets for those who like to fearmonger about electromagnetic radiation and “dirty electricity”. I had to say “one of” because 5G, the new mobile network standard, is more recent. Smart meters are still new to many people, however, and as always seems to be the case, the pseudoscience tends to get ahead of the curve.

Smart meters are the obvious next technological step in metering the use of electricity at residential and commercial buildings. They are digital, replacing the older analog meters, and have more functionality. They not only measure total electricity use, they can gather data on the time of day that the electricity was used and peak demand. They can also measure electricity produced and sent back to the grid for those who have solar panels or other power generation. And finally, they can communicate all this data to the power company wirelessly, eliminating the need to send a person to each location to read the meter.

Smart meters essentially use the same technology as cell phones, “The frequency of operation is typically in the 902 MHz and 2.4 GHz bands. Power output is typically 1 watt in the 902 MHz band and much less in the 2.4 GHz band.” So they use similar but less powerful radiation as cell phones.

How often are they transmitting? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer definitely, because each power company has different practices. Each smart meter will transmit its power usage data (called the duty cycle) back to the company anywhere from once per half-hour to monthly (monthly is the least often it can do so by regulation). Some companies allow customers to choose the frequency.

Many companies will therefore answer this question by saying – a fraction of a second (12-120 miliseconds) every few hours. But that is only for data transmission from the meter to the company. Smart meters also send and receive updates and other information to the company. Further, some companies use mesh technology, so that smart meters will route their data through other meters to get to the receiving station.

Even the FCC was frustrated by the complexity of answering this question – so they hired a company to actually measure it. They found, in their sample, a total duty cycle of 6 minutes in a 24 hour period, or 0.4%.

Duration is only one variable in determining EMF exposure. Strength and distance are also a factor. Strength is similar to, and actually less than, a typical cell phone. Distance here is a key – because most smart meters are going to be on the outside of a building. The inverse square law means that the power of the signal will drop off quickly with distance. The wall of the building also will attenuate the signal. Compare this to holding a cell phone directly up to your head.

What all this means is that the total exposure to EMF from having a smart meter on your home is likely hundreds of thousands of times less than even modest cell phone use. Looked at another way – one thirty minute phone call is worth decades of living in a home with a smart meter.

The comparison to cell phones is deliberate, because we have written many times about the scientific evidence for the safety of cell phone use. Even though exposure to EMF through cell phone use is many orders of magnitude greater than living with a smart meter, the evidence still does not clearly show any health risk from cell phone use.

The numbers here are quite clear, but this has not stopped people from campaigning against this technology through misinformation and cherry picked data. In fact, searching online for information will yield more misinformation and fearmongering than reliable data. They use the same playbook at the antivaxxers, anti-fluoridation, and “dirty electricity” movements. They use the complexity inherent in any such topics to give the impression of a conspiracy, while also exploiting it to cherry pick the sources and fact that serve their purpose, for example.

Also, every pseudoscience movement has its celebrity cranks. In this case that honor goes to “Harvard medical doctor” David Carpenter.

Dr. Carpenter adamantly insists that there is no evidence whatsoever that smart meters are in any way safe for human beings. He goes on to say that there is, in fact, ample evidence that demonstrates “convincingly and consistently” that exposure to radiofrequency radiation (RFR) at elevated levels for long periods of time increases the risk of cancer, damages the nervous system, and adversely affects the reproductive organs.

This is a mischaracterization of the evidence, and ignores the frequency, duration, and intensity of EMF from smart meters that I outlined above. Fearmongering campaigns also rely heavily on and abuse of the precautionary principle and by arguing that there is insufficient evidence of safety. What is sufficient evidence of safety? More than we currently have, whatever that is at any given moment. Sometimes the bar is simply set at infinity – meaning a demand for proof of zero risk (something that does not exist).

As we have to point out here frequently, evidence for a lack of an ill effect from any exposure or intervention is always limited by existing data. You can never prove zero risk, only set statistical limits on the magnitude of the risk. But at some point the potential remaining risk shrinks into the background of life. That is basically where we are with cell phones, and again smart meters are orders of magnitude safer.

It is also much easier to scare the public than to reassure them with a wonky analysis of science and data. It is also easy to use inherent complexity and the typical background of marketing spin to convince people that big companies are lying to them. Sure, power companies are probably oversimplifying things when they report how often smart meters are active. But this does not mean there is a conspiracy, and the actual data supports the bottom line that the meters are only active for a small percentage of the time (0.4% in that one study).

Also as is often the case, the alleged health risks are used as a convenient scare tactic when the real objection to a technology is for other reasons. Often health risks are rolled into a long list of objections to a technology that are mostly economic or moral. GMO are opposed because people don’t like the idea of “patenting life” and fear big corporation control of our food. Vaccines are opposed to protect parental choice, and fluoride in the water is part of some deep conspiracy.

With regard to smart meters, people fear that they will be used to invade our privacy and gather all sorts of information about us. Even if there are economic or privacy issues that are legitimate, wrapping them up with health pseudoscience does a disservice to the entire conversation, and is likely to get legitimate concerns dismissed as crankery. With regard to smart meters the only concern I have read that seems to have any legitimacy is their vulnerability to hacking. But that is an issue that can be dealt with, and should not be connected to pseudoscience about fake health concerns.

Often medical scientific data is complex, but in this case the numbers are easy. The total amount of EMF from smart meters is negligible. Period. There is no plausible health risk from them.

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Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.