With a spectrum analyzer pointed skyward, Stephen Scott, a patient, self-described radio-frequency geek, tested for electromagnetic fields in the basement of an apartment building in downtown Oakland. He drew a wand-like instrument and directed it toward a small circular box affixed to a wall. He said he was measuring the strength of the radio frequency signals he caught on the spectrum analyzer. He directed the wand toward the appliance in question and laughed in quiet disbelief.
"I just got a big spike," he said. The wand's meter measures signals ranging in intensity from a weak green to a strong red with yellow and orange levels in between. For a split second, the lights shot into the red.
Scott is a remediation specialist for EMF Services, a company that surveys living and work environments for potentially harmful radiation. He was testing an electric SmartMeter recently installed by PG&E.
SmartMeters — automatic meter reading devices already in 73 percent of buildings in Alameda County — are the first step in creating a national smart grid that will enhance energy efficiency and make widespread adoption of renewable energy easier. The new meters communicate data from houses and businesses to PG&E through a mesh network of radio signals. In replacing antiquated analog meters that require a human to read, SmartMeters allow people to measure their energy consumption in real time in order to reduce it — or at least reduce their bills by using energy during off-peak hours.
But PG&E's SmartMeters have generated considerable controversy. Critics contend they overstate home energy use and cause electricity bills to spike. The cities of Berkeley, San Francisco, Sebastopol, Fairfax, Camp Meeker, Cotati, and Bolinas, along with Santa Cruz County have all come out in favor of a SmartMeter moratorium. And now there are a small but growing number of activists who contend that SmartMeters may be harmful to human health.
For its part, PG&E maintains that SmartMeters are safe, and emit radio frequencies that are well within Federal Communications Commission standards. The utility says electric SmartMeters transmit data for only a fraction of a second every four hours and are far weaker than other everyday radio-frequency emitters like cellphones, cell towers, and wireless Internet.
But as PG&E races to outfit every home and business in the Bay Area with a SmartMeter, there's some reason to doubt the utility's assurances. Independent environmental and electromagnetic-fields consultants, for example, have found that SmartMeters pulse far more often that PG&E claims. In addition, there's evidence to suggest that the peak pulses are far greater in intensity than the "average pulse" PG&E owns up to, thereby raising questions about safety, particularly in children, whose bodies absorb radiation at a far greater rate than adults. In dense urban areas, residents also have raised concerns about banks, or clusters of upwards of thirty meters on some apartment buildings.
However, the precise strength of the powerful "peak pulses" emitted by SmartMeters remains unclear. PG&E refuses to disclose that information, stating only that its calculations are in accordance with FCC specifications.
But how the utility calculates the pulses has become an issue of debate. PG&E's calculations are time-averaged, or stretched out over all the time the meter's not pulsing, making the average significantly lower than the peak. In addition, independent testers can accurately measure how many times a meter pulses, but without military-grade — and cost-prohibitive — equipment, it's difficult to measure the intensity of the strongest bursts. Furthermore, because SmartMeters pulse and most other radio-frequency emitters remain low and constant like a cellphone, it's still unclear how they might affect human health. Although the World Health Organization maintains there are no consistent studies showing adverse health affects from radio-frequency exposure, there is plenty of research that suggest long-term exposure is linked to cancer and other diseases.
In short, PG&E's rapid deployment of SmartMeters appears to be something of a leap of faith, a "trust us" moment — not unlike the promises made over the years by plastics manufacturers who claimed the chemicals they used were safe, too.
Every evening, Kate Bernier of Berkeley deposits a day's worth of ice into a cooler, then fills the cooler with the contents of her fridge. She turns the power off and crawls into bed. Sometimes she listens to French poetry on a battery-powered tape player. She kind of likes it. She says it makes her feel like she's camping.
Around the same time Bernier shuts off the electricity, Annie Mills of Walnut Creek slides into a faraday cage, or a mesh box that shields from electromagnetic fields. Mills and her husband sleep in the cage every night.
What motivates such behavior? Both women are trying to escape the reach of electromagnetic radiation. Both say they're electro-hypersensitive — that anything that's electrically charged literally makes them sick. And they're not alone. At least a dozen people interviewed for this story in recent weeks claim to suffer electro-hypersensitivity or have tumors caused by electromagnetic exposure. Sue, who asked her last name remain anonymous for this article, wrote in an e-mail: "I am living in the near vicinity of 32 SmartMeters and it has made my life a living hell."
Although electro-hypersensitivity is not a disease recognized by most medical practitioners, Bernier, Mills and others insist their suffering is real. One by one, they approached the Berkeley City Council at meetings in June and July to speak publicly for the first time about what many consider to by a purely psychosomatic condition.