Smart meters spark controversy

The true costs of wireless devices such as cell towers, cell phones and smart meters were brought into context at “Unplugged: Are Wireless Technologies Worth the Convenience?” event on Thursday, Feb. 25.Photo : August Frank

The true costs of wireless devices such as cell towers, cell phones and smart meters were brought into context at “Unplugged: Are Wireless Technologies Worth the Convenience?” event on Thursday, Feb. 25.
Photo : August Frank

Daemion Lee

Wireless technologies — which make logging in, posting and tweeting easier than ever — might have hidden costs, including health risks and the erosion of civil liberties. A forum on Feb. 25 brought together about 60 community members at the LCC main campus in order to explore this issue.

The event, called “Unplugged: Are Wireless Technologies Worth the Convenience?” included several presentations, starting with a video conference call with director Josh Del Sol about his movie “Take Back Your Power,” a 2014 documentary about smart meters. Dr. Paul Dart also made a presentation about the health effects of radio frequency (RF) and Lane County Commissioner Peter Sorensen discussed the politics of building cell phone towers.

Are smart meters dangerous?

Del Sol’s movie, screened to kick off the event, documents how utility companies are installing smart meters across the country. These radio-controlled devices, installed on residential buildings, automatically transmit usage data back to the utility.

All wireless devices — including cell phones, laptops, Wi-Fi routers and smart meters — use radio signals to transmit information, Del Sol explained during the movie, but he singled out smart meters as particularly dangerous.

“Take Back Your Power” includes testimony from numerous people who suffered adverse reactions to smart meters, such as headaches, bloody noses and sleeplessness. Radio signals from a smart meter are 1,000 to 10,000 times stronger than cell phone signals, Del Sol said during the conference call.

In some cases, the documentary shows, these meters are installed without homeowners’ consent. “It is by definition taking away people’s rights,” Del Sol said about mandatory smart meters. “It does teeter on the brink of something akin to fascism.”

News footage included in the documentary shows authorities arresting two women for protesting the installation of smart meters on their homes in Napierville, Ill. The incident made headlines in the Chicago Tribune and other media sources in Jan. 2013.

Dart focused his presentation on a review of research on the effects of RF from wireless devices. “There’s clear evidence in the research literature that RF can damage DNA,” he said. He argued that regulations are out of date and wireless signals are not as harmless as they are made out to be.

“Government codes and regulations are 20 years behind the science,” he said, explaining that that Federal Communications Commission guidelines do not take into consideration non-thermal effects — which include cancer and infertility. The effects of wireless signals, he added, are particularly pronounced in children. “This is why I didn’t buy my kids cell phones until they were out of high school,” he said.

Measures people can take to protect themselves, according to Dart, include using ethernet cables, turning Wi-Fi off at night and putting cell phones on airplane mode when not in use.

Finding a solution

Commissioner Sorensen, who spoke about cell phone towers — particularly the one proposed at Crossfire Church in South Eugene — said that telecommunications companies have powerful political influence. “It really comes down to big money and big money in politics,” he said.

But local citizens have more political leverage than they might think, Sorensen pointed out. He explained that even though the FCC regulates telecommunications, there is still room for local interpretation. “They didn’t explicitly prohibit local governments from regulating where cell phone towers are located,” he said.

“I would hate to see this as a fight over this particular site and not a reform movement,” he added, regarding to the Crossfire Church cell tower.

AT&T is seeking to purchase the rights to build the Crossfire cell tower, despite neighborhood resistance. The church offered to abandon the plans in exchange for $750,000, the Register Guard reported on Jan. 14. This issue remains unresolved.

A community member who attended the event, Dale O’Brien, said he had heard different people’s opinions about Dart’s presentation and wanted to find out for himself. “I’ve been interested in hearing Paul Dart’s scientific presentation on the subject,” he said. Dart, known locally for his activism, works as an osteopathic physician in Eugene.

Another forum attendee, Kathy Ging, said she has worked for years to raise awareness about smart meters and helped advocate against Eugene Water and Electric Board’s planned implementation of smart meters. “There was no medical consultant,” she said when EWEB was initially studying smart meters. “Nobody investigated what happened in California.” The first rollout of smart meters in the U.S. happened in California, Del Sol’s documentary showed.

At the Feb.17 board meeting, EWEB approved an “opt-in” approach to smart meters, allowing homeowners to choose whether to participate in the smart meter installation program. “We are the first in the country to do an opt-in,” Ging said. Most utilities use an “opt-out” model, meaning that every customer receives a smart meter unless they specify otherwise, which usually carries an additional fee.

The Lane Peace Center and the Lane Student Chapter of OSPIRG sponsored the event.