By André Fauteux

La Maison du 21e siècle magazine

Initially, Montrealer Pierre Lepage was glad to receive the letter Hydro-Québec mailed him in 2011. It announced the upcoming replacement of the six electric meters located in his basement appartment’s kitchen, by wireless “smart” meters that communicate with radiofrequency microwaves (RF/MWs). “I told myself, thanks to remote metering, I won’t have to fill out meter-reading cards anymore. But I was ignorant”, Lepage said in a 2012 interview after writing Quebec’s Energy Board to complain that those meters harmed his family’s health. About two weeks after they were installed, Lepage, his wife, father and teenage son all developed flue-like symptoms : dizziness, headaches, fatigue, nausea and loss of appetite. “We thought we caught a virus, but the symptoms lasted for weeks. Later, I developed heart palpitations and high blood pressure for the first time in my life”, the 36-year-old man said. He later covered the meters’ glass globes with four layers of aluminum foil to reduce their RF/MW emissions, as recommended by Villeray Refuse, the first citizen’s group to oppose mandatory installation of  smart meters. “Three days later we felt much better”, Lepage wrote in his letter to the Energy Board.

Health authorities say smart meters are safe because their average RF/MW emissions are thousands of times weaker than those from cellphones. But experts in electromagnetic fields (EMFs) health effects say research is needed because it seems that smart meters’ 24/7, intermittent and unpredictable pulses may be disrupting the synchronized electrical impulses in body cells. Evidence submitted in 2013 to the British Parliament stated smart meters “have triggered thousands of complaints of ill health and disabling symptoms worldwide”, according to the first study1 on smart meter health complaints published this week in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Its author, Dr Frederica Lamech, found that the main symptoms reported by some people exposed meters are the same as those related to other wireless devices for more than 60 years.

Lamech is a family physician practicing in Melbourne, capital of the Australian State of Victoria. In 2013, she evaluated the symptoms reported by Victorians on a public website after rollout of smart meters in Australian homes which began in 2006. Her case series study analyzes the symptoms experienced by 92 Victorians (87 adults and 5 children). “The most frequently reported symptoms from exposure to smart meters were (1) insomnia, (2) headaches, (3) tinnitus, (4) fatigue, (5) cognitive disturbances, (6) dysesthesias (abnormal sensation), and (7) dizziness”, she wrote in her study published in the November/December 2014 issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.

These symptoms, Dr Lamech wrote, “almost completely overlap” with those a bibliography of more than 2,300 studies on the biological effects of RF/MW exposures written in 1971-72 by US Navy scientist Zorach Glaser. They are also the most common symptoms mentioned in the 2012 Austrian Medical Association’s Guideline for the Diagnosis and Treatment of EMF-related Health Problems and Illnessses (EMF Syndrome). “This syndrome was first described by Russian researchers in the 1950s, who called dit microwave sickness,” Lamech noted before concluding : The “hypothesis that some people can develop symptoms from exposure to the radiofrequency fields of wireless mart meters (…) cannot be disproven without further assesment of the affected individuals and the electromagnetic fields [EMFs] in which they live’’.

Many of Lamech’s participants said their smart meter’s emissions had profound effects on their life : being unable to use part of one’s house, spending a lot of money on shielding products or having to move, experiencing financial and relationship problems, being unable to work, etc. Forty percent reported having four or more symptoms and a man who suffered from a single but serious symptom — chronic, severe nerve pain — had to go on disability leave. The majority “described clear alleviation of symptom(s) when they moved away from the smart meter(s) or when shielded from the smart meter(s).” Only seven people (8% of cases) stated they suffered from such electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) prior to their smart meter exposure and 27 (29%) — most had opted for a non-RF-emitting meter — claimed their symptoms were triggered by their neighbor’s smart meter. Lamech said the symptoms were unikely caused by another form of pollution located in a specific area since : her participants’ place of residence — 67% in Melbourne or its suburbs and 23% in rural areas —almost perfectly correlated to Melbourne’s population.

According to Australian Associate Professor of neurosurgery Vini G. Khurana, wireless smart meters may cause “adverse neurological effects in people who sustain close proximity to the meters, especially under 10 feet (3 metres)”. These meters communicate with other meters and utility ‘smart grids’ via two antennas using frequencies (900 MHz to 2.4 GHz) similar to cordless phones and cell tower. They emit “millisecond-long RF bursts on average 9,600 times a day with a maximum of 190,000 daily transmissions and a peak level emission two and a half times higher than the stated safety signal, as the California utility Pacific Gas & Electric recognized before that State’s Public Utilities Commission, according to Dr David O. Carpenter, former founding dean of Albany University (New York)’s School of Public Health. Thus people in proximity to a smart meter are at risk of significantly greater aggregate of RF/microwave exposure than with a cell phone, not to mention the cumulative exposure received by people living near multiple meters mounted together, pole-mounted routers or utility collector meters using a third antenna to relay RF signals from 500 to 5,000 homes.’’ Quoting the BioInitiative Working Group Report coedited by Dr Carpenter, Dr Lamech wrote that such unpredictable pulses disrupt the synchronized biological oscillations within cells.

RF radiation was classified as “possibly carcinogenic’’ in 2011 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based on higher risk of brain cancer in people using a cell or regular cordless phone 30 minutes a day for at least 10 years. But according to Dr Carpenter, a world-reknowned expert on EMF health effects since the 1980s, cumulative exposure to smart meter emissions can be greater and more noxious than those from a cellphone used prudently (limiting the number and length of calls, using the speaker mode or a headset, etc.). “The report by Lamech is valuable for several reasons, Carpenter said.  It provides support for the possibility that a sudden increase in RF exposure — in this case from smart meters — results in the development of EHS.  This observation is consistent with [other] reports … and suggests that the syndrome can be triggered in susceptible individuals by an unusual or intense exposure to EMFs and perhaps to electric current.  The Lamech report also raises the important question of what characteristics of smart meters, compared with other sources of RF, may be responsible for provoking EHS.”

But the former head of epidemiologial studies at Canada’s National Cancer Institute in Toronto, Dr Anthony B. Miller  says Dr Lamech’s study needs to be reproduced more rigorously. “A case series produces very weak evidence. In spite of what the author feels, the subjects may have been influenced in their reporting by extraneous information – their answers may have been influenced by recall bias. I certainly agree that more studies into this issue should be funded, but they need to be carefully designed, and preferably based upon defined questionnaires administered by trained interviewers, with the case subjects carefully matched to controls.’’ The emeritius professor of public health at the University of Toronto believes children’s exposure to RF/MWs needs to be reduced because the most recent studies justify their rather being classified as “probably carcinogenic’’.

At Quebec’s National Institute of Public Health  scientific advisor Mathieu Gauthier said the study’s design is flawed. “The method of selection of participants, the type of questions asked, the lack of a control group and lack of exposure measurements greatly limit the contribution of this study. In addition, we expected that the discussion would have mentioned the many other published research on this topic in recent years.’’

In her paper, Dr Lamech said while a case series cannot prove a causal relationship, “it is nevertheless a vital and often essential first step in formulating a new hypothesis”. Suspecting clinicians are only seeing the tip of the iceberg, she echoed other calls by scientists recommending a moratorium on smart meter and smart grid deployment until they are proven safe. “An evidence-based approach, such as the one used in all other areas of medicine, must be applied, which would mean the establishment of a postrollout surveillance study and funding for further research into the particular effects of wireless smart meters… Living in a wireless smart meter grid makes the Austrian Medical Asociation’s recommendation to “take all reasonable measures to reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields” impossible to implement.” She told us by email her report is aimed at informing health clinicians because they and their patients generally lack knowledge about the effects of wireless technologies.

Montrealer Jocelyne Morency, who lives in a condominium and is suing Hydro-Quebec and her neighbors who refuse to opt out of the smart meter program, hopes Dr Lamech’s study will inspire others. “Hopefully various specialists (physicians, biologists and engineers) will join forces to develop multidisciplinary studies on the effets of smart meters.’’

Dr Anthony B. Miller is an advisor to Canadians for Safe Technology (C4ST), a pressure group founded by the former president of Microsoft Canada, Frank Clegg. C4ST just launched a petition demanding that Health Canada put “a process in place to receive and respond to reports of adverse reactions to electromagnetic radiation emitting devices’’.