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Hydro-Québec's $1-billion battle
Canada Created: 22 Mar 2012
MONTREAL - Sharon Déoux suffers from the fallout of our technological age. She believes her health degrades with prolonged exposure to electromagnetic fields.

That is why she has taken measures to reduce her exposure to a minimum. She has no cellular or wireless phones, no wireless Internet connection and no microwave oven. She has had aluminum strips added to her attic and an outer wall of her townhouse to deflect emissions from a nearby power transmission line.

“I have been diagnosed by my physician as suffering from electromagnetic sensitivity,” Déoux, 58, said recently from her Gatineau home.

Electromagnetic sensitivity – along with its triggers or causes – is getting a lot more exposure in North America as electric, gas and water utilities move to wireless “smart” meters.

In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, there has been widespread public backlash against these wireless devices that use radio-frequency (RF) signals to communicate with utilities.

Public forums are awash with opinion about the health hazards of smart meters. Some experts contend the public should be alarmed, others dismiss the brouhaha as the toxin-du-jour.

Whatever the status of the science, health concerns often top a sizable list of objections to the devices. Such was the case in 2011 when officials in Marin County near San Francisco outlawed the installation of smart electric meters in some areas.

Although Hydro-Québec says the proposed meters in this province are perfectly safe – citing Health Canada as its authority – widespread worry by consumers promise to nip at the heels of the utility as it goes before the Régie de l’énergie on Monday to seek permission for the first phase of a $1-billion project to deploy about 3.8 million wireless smart meters across the province by 2017.

The utility says it wants to follow about 100 other power utilities around the world by replacing its mostly aging meters with the new meters and a wireless advanced measurement infrastructure (AMI) system.

The benefits for Quebecers, according to Hydro-Québec, include reduced operating costs for the state-owned utility, invoices for exact consumption instead of estimated bills, outage detection and – of considerable interest in a province that unofficially claims July 1 as Moving Day – the ability to disconnect and reconnect service remotely.

The AMI system would also allow customers to monitor their energy consumption quickly and accurately.

While the entire project is pegged at $997 million – $915 for acquiring, installing and operating the new meters and $82 million for the implementation of the AMI system – the purchase, installation and operation of next-generation meters would pay for itself and translate into system savings of $300 million over the next 20 years, the utility says.

The economic viability of the AMI project will be tested before Quebec’s energy board, which has granted intervenor status to various interested parties, including several that challenge the technical and fiscal sense of the venture.

The Groupe de recherche appliquée en macroécologie, a Lachine-based non-profit pushing for sustainable development, has hired a U.S. firm to analyze the Hydro-Québec project. The report’s author is expected to testify during the hearings.

“We are paying for a Cadillac,” GRAME director Jonathan Théorêt said.

“Are we receiving the features one expects in a Cadillac? We don’t see evidence of that in documents filed (thus far) by Hydro-Québec.”

For instance, Quebec is actively encouraging people to use electric vehicles, but the cost of integrating EV chargers into the system is not spelled out, he said.

According to the union that would see about 800 jobs cut from its roster if the project goes ahead, Hydro-Québec will lose money on the venture.

Rather than save $300 million over 20 years, the venture will cost the public utility $104 million, the Syndicat des employés de techniques professionnels et de bureau d’Hydro-Québec says.

Hydro-Québec has said it intends to challenge its critics’ claims.

As for health-related concerns about the meters, the utility’s stance is straightforward. The meters are “completely safe and pose no health risks” as their RF emissions are far below standards set by Health Canada.

Déoux, along with a host of other individuals and associations who have registered their concerns with the Régie, isn’t buying what Hydro-Québec or Health Canada have to say on the subject.

Should Hydro’s plan go through as tabled, there will be four of the devices on an outer wall of her home. She worries that the increase of electromagnetic emissions in her home and garden will negatively affect her health.

“I fear for my already very restricted ability to function,” she wrote to the Régie.

The Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (AQLPA), which also has intervenor status, describes the meters as a “serious threat to public safety” because of their RF emissions.

Among other things, AQLPA points to the Hydro-Québec filings that say the meters will broadcast data about a customer’s energy consumption six times a day.

An expert engaged by the AQLPA assessed meters installed in Quebec during a pilot project and found they emitted every 30 to 60 seconds or between 1,440 and 2,880 times a day.

Subsequently, Hydro-Québec held a news conference in a bid to allay rising public concerns.

Tests done by staff showed emissions from the meters were a fraction of those coming from a microwave oven, reporters were told.

And, as to the number of RF emissions, energy consumption data would be sent six times a day – in bursts of about 1.5 seconds – while the meters would synchronize themselves intermittently.

But the total daily emissions would be less than 90 seconds.

So the meters are generating RF fields throughout the day “but most of that generation is not being used to communicate to the utility,” notes the Havard-educated doctor David Carpenter.

Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany is co-editor and an author of BioInitiative: A Rationale for a Biologically-based Public Exposure Standard for Electromagnetic Fields, a work often cited by critics of smart meters.

“From a public health point of view, it is very short-sighted to bring on new sources of human exposure to radio-frequency radiation without any attention to the adverse effects on human health,” Carpenter said.

Smart meters are not essential and benefit only utilities, he says while there is no doubt that they add to our exposure to RF emissions.

“And it’s going to be an exposure that most people are not aware of, to children as well as adults. It is unnecessary,” he said.

Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s office for science and society and a regular contributor to The Gazette, said he does not have health concerns about smart meters.

“I’m not going to contend that there is no possible (long-term) risk because no proper scientist would do that. All you can say is that it certainly looks now – taking everything into account – that this is a tempest in a teapot,” Schwarcz said.

Scientific literature on electromagnetic radiation is vast, he said, and his opinion is based on weighing both the quality of research and the weight of the evidence.

“Right now, I don’t have a concern about these meters because I know the frequency that they put out and I know the time they are active and I know the power they put out is extremely, extremely low,” he said.

Any discussion of RF electromagnetic fields should include reference to a recent landmark report by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), said Magda Havas, associate professor with Trent University’s environmental and resource studies.

A group of 31 scientists classified RF electromagnetic fields as a possible carcinogen to humans based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, which has been linked by some with wireless phone use.

That Group 2B classification includes such things as lead, carbon tetrachloride and DDT, according to the IARC website. And, as Schwarcz points out, coffee and pickled vegetables.

While the headlines generated by that report, made public May 31, 2011, focused on wireless phone use, the report’s findings are relevant to the ongoing smart-meter debate, Havas said.

“It’s not the technology, it’s the radiation that is critical and any technology that generates this radiation is generating a Class 2B carcinogen,” Havas, an adviser with the International commission on Electromagnetic Safety, said. “And that means smart meters as well.”

In an email to The Gazette, IARC official Robert Baan said that the 2B classification, “possibly carcinogenic,” applies to all types of radiation within the RF part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including the radiation emitted by base-station antennas, radio/TV towers, radar, Wi-Fi, smart meters, and so on.

“Of course, an important point to keep in mind is the intensity of the radiation. Because the exposure levels for many of these other devices and exposure situations are so much lower than the exposure to someone who has a functioning cellphone against her/his ear, the risk will be considerably less,” Baan wrote.

Canadians have legitimate health concerns about smart meters, Havas said.

Firstly, smart-meter emissions can differ depending on how many other meters are communicating with them and “the radiation is pulsed,” she said.

Authorities tend to average the radiation over the duration of the pulse but “biologically, it is not the averages that affect living organisms ... it’s the peaks, the high exposures,” she said.

“Health Canada is really failing Canadians on this particular issue,” she said.

“We have among the worse guidelines in the world to protect the public. We have no long-term guidelines for exposure”

Havas said she is concerned about our increased exposure to electromagnetic fields and noted that residences could soon find themselves with wireless meters for electricity, gas and water along with a host of other wireless devices.

For his part, Schwarcz said that he is confident that scientific studies are keeping up with the times.

In any event, Health Canada is not measuring the cumulative effect of RF emissions in homes, apartments, businesses or urban centres, according to its spokeswoman.

“That is not what we do,” said Pascale Bellier, research scientist with Health Canada’s radiation protection bureau.

Health Canada has developed guidelines for safe human exposure to RF energy using a WHO framework established in 2006, Bellier said.

“Our limits are not device-specific. It is an emissions standard,” she said.

But, after getting “numerous calls” about smart meters from the public, the agency had some scientists look “a few” smart meters in the Ottawa area, noting in particular how they transmit, Bellier said.

That survey, according to an information sheet on smart-meters issued by the agency last December, helped Health Canada conclude that RF emissions from the devices are “far below the human exposure limits specified in Health Canada’s code.”

Exposure to RF energy from smart meters, the agency concluded, does not pose a public health risk.

One measure of public resistance to smart electric meters – be it for health, privacy, technical or economic reasons – is the growing number of opt-out programs.

When Hydro-Québec first filed its petition with the Régie to go ahead with the smart-meter rollout in this province, there was no mention of an opt-out plan.

On Wednesday, Hydro announced that consumers choosing to opt out for health or other reasons would pay an initial fee of $98 and then $17 a month to cover the cost of manually reading the meters. The cost would be $302 the first year and $204 each year thereafter.

That item will be among the hot topics when hearings begin Monday in Montreal.


What is electromagnetic sensitivity?

Electromagnetic sensitivity, also known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms, which afflicted individuals attribute to exposure to electromagnetic fields, according to the World Health Organization.

“The symptoms most commonly experienced include dermatological symptoms (redness, tingling, and burning sensations) as well as neurasthenic and vegetative symptoms (fatigue, tiredness, concentration difficulties, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitation and digestive disturbances). The collection of symptoms is not part of any recognized syndrome,” according to the 2005 fact sheet.

“While some individuals report mild symptoms and react by avoiding the fields as best they can, others are so severely affected that they cease work and change their entire lifestyle.”

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
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Source: Montreal Gazette, Lynn Moore, 20 Mar 2012

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