Questions Remain Unanswered Regarding Potential Health Effects Related to Smart Grid Technologies

by K.T. Weaver, SkyVision Solutions 

Health of the Body Image plus Smart MetersIn June and July of 2011, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) hosted two separate workshops related to the possible health effects associated with radiofrequency (RF) emissions from smart grid technologies.  In December 2011, EPRI published a report summarizing the results and findings from those workshops [1].

The first workshop on “technology” identified numerous electromagnetic field (EMF) emission sources from smart grid-related components that might cause health effects.  Supposedly, EPRI would follow-up and study these possible sources and “inform the public about emissions associated with emerging smart grid technologies.”  I conclude that this informing of the public has not yet happened.

A second workshop on “health effects” reviewed the science available in 2011 regarding EMF-related health effects and identified “critical gaps and research needs” for smart grid technologies.  Regarding this workshop, I am not aware of progress being made in completing the identified research other than periodic field testing of wireless smart meters to ensure that emission rates comply with outdated Federal exposure guidelines.

After reviewing the summary information from the EPRI workshops in 2011, I am left with two impressions that are quite disturbing:

  • With the health issues that exist related to smart grid technologies, how could the smart grid industry continue to move forward with deployments even though there are acknowledged “critical gaps and research needs”?
  • In many instances, members of the public are mocked as subscribing to conspiracy theories when expressing health concerns over smart meters.  How can smart grid industry officials and proponents so readily dismiss public concerns and health complaints based upon the science summarized in the EPRI report that would tend to substantiate those concerns and complaints as well-founded and legitimate?

In this article I am going to present a number of quotations from the EPRI document (which is over 70 pages in length).  It is my hope that after reading this information that others will have the same questions as I have posed above.

EPRI Document Introduction

The EPRI document first summarizes the dramatic planned increase in wireless technologies as part of the “smart grid” and that little information is available to properly characterize the projected exposures from those technologies.

“As a result of the development of the smart grid and associated technologies, the prevalence of many sources of RF fields will increase.  These will include wireless communication devices, such as smart meters, and inverters associated with renewable sources, such as photovoltaic cells, and with power electronics, including home appliances, such as washers and refrigerators.”

“It is projected that by 2020 all U.S. homes will have at least one smart meter, while homes with solar panels (metering a net, bi-directional power flow) may have two meters and apartment complexes may have several meters mounted on the same outer wall.”

“Current research regarding the health implications associated with RF emissions of new technologies has focused primarily on the nearly universal use of cell phones.  Little information concerning characterization of exposure from projected smart grid and associated technologies is currently available.”

“The electricity industry will need to carefully characterize the new exposure environment represented by SG [smart grid] devices in general, and by the smart meter in particular.  They will need to be able to place these additional exposures into the broader context of RF exposure in order to respond effectively to public concerns.  The rapidly changing scale and nature of cell phone exposure is likely to complicate the health effects debate over smart meters for many years.”

“Thus, at this point in time, a fuller understanding of the engineering characteristics of electromagnetic emissions associated with emerging technologies and the issues surrounding potential health effects from such emissions is needed.”

“This report provides a backdrop for potential future research to address environmental and health issues concerned with smart grid technologies.”

What is the Exposure Potential?

Smart grid proponents typically downplay the possible implications of smart meter emissions, citing that smart meters have “low duty cycles” as they only communicate for short periods of time each day.  Yet the participants at the EPRI workshops acknowledged that these values will likely rise dramatically over time:

“The upshot is that the greater the information requirements, the greater the duty cycle for devices such as smart meters, and therefore the greater the potential for exposure.  The law of bandwith use, according to Parkinson, is that ‘network traffic expands to fill available bandwidth’.”

What are the Correct Metrics to Measure Adverse Effects? 

The EPRI document defines non-thermal RF exposure effects and that we might not yet know the best way to measure the impact on RF emissions on the body.  Currently, the Federal exposure guidelines only reflect time weighted averages formulated to protect against adverse thermal effects.  The participants at the workshops in 2011 recognized that “peak power” or some other parameter may represent a better metric.  In addition, there was discussion of adverse effects that have been observed in the laboratory that do not relate to exposures based on time weighted averages.

“To date, potentially adverse effects from RF have been associated with behavioral disruption linked to a rise in body temperature (of about 1°C) in laboratory experiments.  A key specific question was whether and how RF exposures below this threshold might initiate or promote a biological effect that would represent a potential human health risk.  These are referred to commonly as ‘non-thermal’ effects.”

“A better grasp of the important parameters of exposure will be essential going forward.  Which is the most relevant metric?  Is it peak power, average power, modulation rates, frequency, or other factors that are the most critical with respect to the assessment of potential health effects?

“Time weighted averages may not be the most useful, and other measures, such as peak power, should be evaluated.”

“Barnes [from the University of Colorado] has seen some interesting evidence in his lab reporting that 10 MHz fields inhibit cancer cell growth, whereas at higher levels they showed accelerated cancer cell growth.  He is also finding some evidence of the ability of RF fields to change free radical lifetimes and concentrations.  A question that has not been studied but could prove fruitful is whether long-term repetitive exposures could lead to allergic responses.”

“Everything from appliances to the smart meter to substation will be involved in rapid two-way communication facilitated by wireless RF technology in the 900-2,400 MHz range.”

Smart grid proponents nearly always quote comparisons between different RF emitting devices based upon time averaged numbers.  The EPRI document sheds doubt on whether this is a correct strategy.  In addition, there is a little known statement in another EPRI document published in 2014 [2] on this subject which states that use of peak power emissions, i.e., smart meters with a 100% duty cycle, “is considered appropriate for a study that is meant to investigate safety conditions for consumers.”

Need for Further Studies Regarding RF Effects on the Brain

Somewhat surprisingly, participants at the EPRI workshops spent considerable time reviewing the consistently observed effects of RF emissions on brain activity:

“Pulse modulated RF EMF signals can induce measurable EEG effects in the brain during both waking and non-REM sleep states.  Other studies report some support for altered neural activity from RF emissions, including changes in regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) and brain glucose metabolism.  Whether these physiological effects pose a health risk is still an open question.”

“One of the most interesting and consistent findings is that RF fields can induce pronounced changes in the alpha/spindle range of brain activity when the signal is modulated, but not when the carrier signal is continuous (e.g., Huber et al., 2002).  Pulse modulation exposure affects waking EEG [electroencephalogram] in the alpha range and similarly affects non-REM sleep in the spindle range, both around 8-14 Hz.  These findings have been replicated in numerous studies, including recent ones with large data sets.”

“Effects of RF on the alpha portion of the EEG in the brain have been reported to occur both during the exposure period and well after exposure has ceased in sleeping subjects.”

“The specific frequency of the pulsed RF signal seems not to be the overriding factor in induced EEG effects.  There is strong indication that it is modulation per se, rather than the frequency of the modulation that is the critical factor in increasing brain activity.”

EPRI workshop participants effectively acknowledged that non-thermal biological effects occur in the brain due to RF exposure at low levels but stopped short of stating that these effects cause any harm.  In light of this information, however, it appears hypocritical to deny the actual symptoms (e.g., insomnia, headaches, tinnitus, fatigue, cognitive disturbances [3]) reported from members of the public associated wireless emissions when science reviewed at the EPRI workshops would appear to at least substantiate these adverse effects as plausible.

Major Uncertainties and Research Gaps 

Participants at the EPRI meeting in 2011 acknowledged “major uncertainties and research gaps” regarding exposure to smart grid wireless emissions.  They acknowledged consistently observed non-thermal effects on brain activity; they also recognized unknown potential “long-term ramifications,” possible “allergic reactions,” and possible sensitive populations that have not yet been studied.

“While there are consistent physiological effects on brain activity from RF exposure below thermal effect levels…,  the underlying mechanisms remain unknown.  This is perhaps the single greatest research gap in this area.  It is important to understand what is behind these effects now that they have been consistently reported. …  The relevance to health of EEG brain activity is not clear.”

“An important aspect for health research is the potential long-term ramifications.  All studies to date have only addressed effects from short-term exposures (acute effects).  The significance of long-term, low level exposure to brain physiology is unknown, as are the potential for cumulative and/or adaptation effects.”

“Is there a potential for effects to get stronger over time analogous to an allergic reaction, or conversely with adaptation, to grow weaker over time?  This is a critical area for future research.”

“Another open issue is whether there are any particular populations that are more sensitive, or more vulnerable?  Children or adolescents may be some of the most sensitive groups, because the brain is still developing.  Today’s children are going to have higher and longer use of mobile phones across their life span than the current cohorts of adults.”

“A number of RF health studies dealing with different end points have reported slight elevations in risk over time, suggesting that studying today’s adults may not be a reliable indicator of the effects on the next generation.  Children will be subject to far greater exposures during their lifetimes than adults, and will be subject to these exposures during their most vulnerable stages of development.”

Research Priorities

Participants at the EPRI workshops in 2011 identified a list of nine (9) priority areas for future research by the electric utility industry.  I am listing five (5) of those areas consistent with the limited amount of material already summarized in this article:

  1. “Exposure Characterization — Ascertain and characterize the broad and rapidly changing exposure environment from emerging RF-based technologies, ranging from mobile phones to smart grid metering, controls, and communication technology.”
  1. “Mechanism of EEG Effects – Explore underlying mechanisms of increases in brain wave activity due to RF exposures, including modulation frequency, potential demodulation mechanisms, etc.  What is the biophysical link?  Why do the effects linger after exposure ceases, especially during sleep?  What are the downstream effects of increased brain activity on behavior and cognition, and do such changes reveal or suggest underlying mechanisms?”
  1. “Exposure Metrics — Evaluate the usefulness, value, and propriety of various exposure metrics used in health effects research.  Examples include time weighted average fields, peak power, pulsed/modulated fields, and frequency.”
  1. “Brain Cancer Trends — Monitor and study long term incidence trends in brain cancer, as an ecological gross indicator of possible risks across the population.  Study the predictive value of such trends as RF sources continue to proliferate.”
  1. “Susceptible sub-populations — Identify subpopulations most susceptible to EEG effects engendered by RF fields.  Characterize and contrast the EEG effects with normal variation found in adults.”

Summary and Conclusion 

EPRI held two workshops in 2011 to (1) identify the electromagnetic environments resulting from emerging technologies, and (2) obtain an understanding of the potential health effects associated with radiofrequency (RF) emissions that these technologies produce.  Participants at the workshops wanted to put measures in place to determine if smart grid technology EMF emissions might result in increased brain cancer risks in the population.  In addition, they were concerned about the implications of consistent observations of slightly altered brain wave activity in human subjects exposed to RF fields under laboratory conditions.

Workshop participants identified areas for future research by the electric industry to better quantity the risks related to smart grid RF emissions with the implication that the public would later be better informed about emissions associated with emerging smart grid technologies.  Although I closely follow the awareness information that is disseminated by the smart grid industry related to RF exposure, I find no evidence that the public is being informed regarding any of the information presented in this article (which is based upon the EPRI document).

Here we are nearly five (5) years after the EPRI workshops in 2011, and smart grid proponents merely inform the public that smart meter emissions comply with Federal guidelines.  Clearly from the content of this article, there is much more that needs to be discussed, and members of the public should not be forced into accepting questionable technology for which they deem harmful.  Furthermore, it is distressing that large-scale deployments of smart grid technology continue in spite of the numerous health and safety questions that remain unanswered.

Finally, interested readers are encouraged to review other articles featured at this website dealing with health risks and reported health effects related to wireless devices and smart grid technology, including:

Source Material for this Article

[1] “Program on Technology Innovation: Environmental and Health Issues Related to Radiofrequency Emissions from Smart Grid Technologies: Summary of Two Workshops,” Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Document Number 1024737, December 2011; available for review at https://skyvisionsolutions.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/epri-workshops-on-smart-grid-rf-and-health-effects-2011.pdf

[2] “Characterization of Radio Emissions from Advanced Metering Infrastructure Revenue Meters (Smart Meters) in CPS Energy Residential Installations,” Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), 2014 Technical Report; available for review at https://skyvisionsolutions.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/epri-report-on-cps-smart-meters-march-2014.pdf

[3] “Published Article: Symptom Development from Exposure to Wireless Smart Meters,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, December 2014, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2014/12/07/symptom-development-from-smart-meter-rf-exposure/

[4] “Radiofrequency (RF) Radiation Power Density Levels for Smart Meters, Various Biological Effects, and Exposure Guidelines,” SkyVision Solutions Webpage, last updated, April 2015, at https://smartgridawareness.org/rf-health-effects/comparison-values/

[5] “Urgent Need for Smart Meter Health and Safety Legislation, SkyVision Solutions Blog Article,” May 2014, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2014/05/14/urgent-need-for-smart-meter-safety-legislation/

[6] “Symptoms Resulting from Exposure to Smart Meters,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, January 2014, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2014/01/18/symptoms-from-exposure-to-smart-meters/

[7] “Dr. Karl Maret Discusses Smart Meter Potential Health Effects,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, March 2014, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2014/03/09/maret-discusses-smart-meter-health-effects/

[8] “Radiofrequency (RF) Fields: Possibly, Probably, or Definitely Carcinogenic — The Evidence Mounts Toward the Latter,” SkyVision Solutions Blog Article, December 2013, at https://smartgridawareness.org/2013/12/04/rf-fields-possibly-probably-or-definitely-carcinogenic/ 

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About SkyVision Solutions

Raising public awareness and finding solutions for smart grid issues related to invasions of privacy, data security, cyber threats, health and societal impacts, as well as hazards related to radiofrequency (RF) radiation emissions from all wireless devices, including smart meters.
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