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News 13 Investigates: The health effects with 'smart' utility meters

“So, this measures only radio frequency radiation,” explained Mary Anne Tierney as she held a device out in-front of the utility meter. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)
“So, this measures only radio frequency radiation,” explained Mary Anne Tierney as she held a device out in-front of the utility meter. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)
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Smart utility meters give customers more control, according to the power company, but, for health reasons, some customers want to opt out, without paying fees.

A million smart utility meters are being installed right now in Buncombe County.

Some customers, however, are worried about the health effects of radiation put off by these meters.

In one case, health concerns had a customer taking drastic measures. They had someone remove the meter themselves.

Duke Energy says, “that's illegal,” and, for those with health concerns, there are other steps to take.

The health concern

“It started in 2001,” said Mary Anne Tierney.

That's when, Tierney started the steps she thought would protect her health from what she sees as a health hazard on her neighbor's property.

“I was able to learn about it fairly quickly. It's that burst of information carrying radio waves that are so disruptive,” said Tierney.

She's talking about the radio-frequency, or RF, signal coming from this barn's utility meter to passing power company trucks, the way meters on most homes operate now. Tierney opted out of having this meter on her own home and has even more concern for the smart meter upgrades that instead send a signal to a hub in your neighborhood.

“So, this measures only radio frequency radiation,” Tierney explained as she held a device in front of the utility meter.

Using a consumer RF meter, she can gauge the radiation coming from many of the wireless items around a typical home -- a cell phone, your Wi-Fi, a baby monitor or the utility meter outside.

“I'm going to be waiting for that pulse every 30 seconds or so,” said Tierney.

Duke Energy admits on its website these meters and the new smart meters put off RF emissions, but at a level below government standards.

“It actually has much lower energy use and emissions than you might find from your cell phone or from your satellite dish,” said Jeff Brooks, Duke Energy communications manager.

Tierney, who's a registered nurse, argues the FCC's guidelines were set in 1996.

“That predates, WI-FI, it predates all these other devices, except cell phones,” said Tierney.

Tierney is so concerned about the RF, she asked News 13 to switch out our wireless microphone for a wired one. Tierney also points to a study by the National Toxicology Program in Research Triangle Rark, which looks at cell phone RF radiation and tumors in rats, among other studies that classify RF radiation as possibly carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, to humans.

“The international agency for research on cancer will reconvene in 2019, and they will look at these two newer animal studies that are very strong,” said Tierney.

The science behind how utility meters work

“We haven't done a lot of research there, but the research we have done is typically with animals and some epidemiological studies with power lines and things like that. And we still, over the course of several decades, haven't seen a definitive health issue related to these non-ionizing sources,” said Burton Ogle, who holds a doctorate and is a professor in the Environmental Health Program at Western Carolina University.

Ogle said both types of utility meters put off what's called non-ionizing radiation when it strikes atoms in your body.

“(Non-ionizing radiation), it doesn't knock off the electrons on the outer orbital. Ionizing radiation like X-rays and gamma rays, if they can knock, if they have enough energy to knock off an electron, that's ionizing radiation, and that's what we're most fearful of,” said Ogle.

That can cause cell mutations. But the low-level RF coming from utility meters, he said, are at the other end of the spectrum, away from X-rays. Still, Tierney said some experience symptoms from the exposure.

“We see most often sleep disturbances, anxiety and agitation, headaches, migraines, ringing in the ears, dizziness, balance problems,” said Tierney.

The North Carolina Utility Commission insisted Duke Energy Carolina make an exception, allowing those with a notarized doctor's excuse an opt-out without fees. Duke Energy Progress has not considered this an option.

Still, some are taking their own steps to reduce exposure. Tierney shows how a Faraday Cage could cut down on the RF coming from the meter, while allowing power companies to receive its signal. Duke Energy calls the cages, "unapproved attachments" and if they find them they'll remove them.

For Ogle, three words are enough protection, “time distance shielding.”

“The outside wall of the house should provide some shielding, and, even if you had a bedroom, or a place where people spent a lot of time on the other side of the wall, we're still talking about a good amount of distance behind the wall and away from the smart meter,” said Ogle.

For Tierney, it's the cumulative effect that worries her, all the different items around you putting off RF signals, from your cell phone to WI-FI to the utility meter. Until more studies can be done, she's taking the precautionary approach.

“When there isn't scientific consensus and yet there is an abundance of literature pointing to serious effects, it's better to be safe,” said Tierney.

Burton Ogle said, radiation safety is a science needing more professionals. Many got in because of nuclear energy but are in their 60s and retiring now.

According to Duke Energy, customers with questions and needing more information can call 1.800.777.9898

Here's a link to Duke Energy's resource page for Smart Meter data.

Notarized doctor’s excuse: this is only for Duke Energy Carolinas customers right now.

It does not take effect until Monday, Oct. 1, 2018.

While DEC’s smart meter technology meets FCC standards, the commission believes it is inappropriate to require customers who maintain that they need to avoid exposure to RF emissions to the extent possible to protect their health to pay DEC’s proposed smart meter opt-out charges. Therefore, the commission will require DEC to amend its Rider MRM to remove the customer charges for those customers who provide the company with a notarized statement from a medical physician licensed by the North Carolina Medical Board that the customer must avoid exposure to RF emissions to the extent possible to protect their health. Upon receipt of such statement, the company shall waive the one-time and the monthly fees under Rider MRM. The commission further requires that such medical statements must be handled and processed by the company in a secure and confidential manner to protect customer privacy.

The full document can be found here.

New Standard from the NC Utilities Commission.

How can you make your concerns known to the NC Utilities Commission:

Duke Energy is accepting public comment on the opt-out for Duke Energy Progress.. Here's some of the most recent letters, among them one mentioning a previous story/investigation by WLOS.

Duke Energy Progress customers can't yet opt out, but you can bypass your smart meter installation:

Duke Energy says you can "bypass" your "Smart" meter installation until there’s an opt out for Duke Energy Progress, you just need to call them. They also say, "We are working to develop options for Duke Energy Progress customers in the Asheville area who do not want a communicating smart meter (we already have opt out options for Duke Energy Carolinas customers that become effective October 1st) and will share more information on opt out options in coming months. For now, if a customer has concerns about their smart meter installation, they should contact Duke Energy and we will be happy to work with them to answer any questions or address concerns," said Jeff Brooks Communication Manager Duke Energy Carolinas.

FCC- Radio Frequency Safety

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Public Health - Health Impacts of Advance Metering Systems.

CDC says, "We are exposed to low levels of non-ionizing radiation every day. Exposure to intense, direct amounts of non-ionizing radiation may result in damage to tissue due to heat. This is not common and mainly of concern in the workplace for those who work on large sources of non-ionizing radiation devices and instruments."

American Cancer Society addresses the issue of Smart Meters on their website. Here’s a portion of what it says, “RF radiation is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This is based on the finding of a possible link in at least one study between cell phone use and a specific type of brain tumor. Because RF radiation is a possible carcinogen, and smart meters give off RF radiation, it is possible that smart meters could increase cancer risk. Still, it isn’t clear what risk, if any there might be from living in a home with a smart meter. It would be nearly impossible to conduct a study to prove or disprove a link between living in a house with smart meters and cancer because people have so many sources of exposure to RF and the level of exposure from this source is so small. Because, the amount of RF radiation you could be exposed to from a smart meter is much less than what you could be exposed to from a cell phone, it is very unlikely that living in a house with a smart meter increases risk of cancer. The World Health Organization has promised to conduct a formal assessment of the risks from RF exposure but this report is not yet available.”

The World Health Organization also has a statement on their website claiming, “In response to public and governmental concern, WHO established the International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Project in 1996 to assess the scientific evidence of possible adverse health effects from electromagnetic fields. WHO will conduct a formal risk assessment of all studied health outcomes from radio frequency fields exposure by 2016. In addition, and as noted above, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a WHO specialized agency, has reviewed the carcinogenic potential of radio-frequency fields, as from mobile phones in May 2011. WHO also identifies and promotes research priorities for radio-frequency fields and health to fill gaps in knowledge through its research agendas. WHO develops public information materials and promotes dialogue among scientists, governments, industry and the public to raise the level of understanding about potential adverse health risks of mobile phones.”

The EMF Safety Network says the following about health issues related to smart utility meters, “Military studies here and here show pulsed radiation can cause serious health problems, including tinnitus, memory loss and seizures. Thousands of studies link biological effects to RF radiation exposure, including increased cancer risk, damage to the nervous system, adverse reproductive effects, DNA damage, and more. The top public health official in Santa Cruz County California prepared this report, confirming Smart Meters pose a health risk. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) sent this letter to the CPUC calling for a halt to wireless smart meters. See also this letter from Dr. Carpenter, endorsed by 50+experts.”

How can you see energy usage with your new smart meter?

To view your daily energy usage data from your new smart meter, just log in to your Duke Energy account. If you already have an account, simply sign in with your username and password. If you do not yet have an online services account, please register for one. The registration process is simple and only takes a few moments. Please have your account number available. You will be able to view your daily energy usage data once your smart meter has been certified. A letter will be sent to you to let you know when your meter has been certified.

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