The wireless age has introduced countless devices that many of us can’t live without, like cell phones, laptop computers and wifi routers. Like all electronics they communicate using electromagnetic frequencies – or EMFs. Some people worry that EMFs are making them sick – and say that technology should slow down.

KQED has done a lot of reporting on SmartMeters over the past year, including this story from the Central Valley by KQED’s Sasha Khokha.

My interest in the subject stems from a note I read on a neighborhood listserve, about a company’s plans to install a wireless cell phone tower on Bernal Hill. A number of San Francisco neighborhoods have fought these towers in recent years – often successfully –over concerns about EMFs – electromagnetic frequencies.

As I learned pretty quickly, there’s no mere toe-dipping on the subject of EMFs. People have arguing about the health effects of EMFs ever since (and probably before) the Cold War, when employees at the US Embassy in Moscow blamed a variety of health problems on the fact that the KGB had been directing high-power microwaves at the walls of the building.

I asked Paul Saffo what advice he’d give PG&E, which seems to have been taken off guard by the amount of protest ink this issue has generated. He said it’s simple: Give people a choice. Put an off switch on those SmartMeters, or let people choose not to have one at all.

The best way to raise alarm, he said, is to make a new technology mandatory. That’s why you don’t see people out protesting wifi routers (which do more or less the same thing SmartMeters do, and are usually in closer proximity to us) or baby monitors. Or even (except in the case of San Francisco) cell phones, which we hold up right next to our heads. Or, for that matter, cars.

Listen to All Charged Up Over EMFs radio report online.

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Reporter’s Notes: All Charged Up Over EMFs 2 October,2015Amy Standen
  • Hi Amy, Just heard your peice. While a good start, you missed one of the most often ignored aspects of EMF exposure. While you focused on power, using the microwave over vs cell phone example, you only touched on photon energy.

    One can slice the electromagnetic spectrum into two parts: ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. The difference being that one can break chemical bonds and one cannot. So as you get into the UV and shorter wavelengths (higher energy photons), an individual photon can break a chemical bond. This is why UV radiation is a skin cancer risk and the like. Even low power densities of UV radiation are a risk, and why it’s good to use sun screen even on cloudy days etc.

    For non-ionizing radiation, it doesn’t matter the power level, very high powers will never break any bonds! This is why every power line cancer cluster to date has been found to be “in the noise” or bad statistics. This is why the health exposure warnings on cell phones are close to pointless and a total waste of time. No matter how many hours someone uses a cell phone with it held up to thier ear, no chemical bonds will be broken in the persons body, and no mutigen effects (the ulitmate cause of cancer) can happen.

    FWIW, this effect also goes by the name “the photo-electron effect” and is what Albert Einstein won his Nobel Prize for.

    What is sad is that so few understand this concept that fearmongering about the issue of EMF exposure can run rampant, diverting much needed resources from other worthy causes.

    While your piece did a good job of trying to allay fears based on power considerations, you missed an opportunity to inform many about the key concept underlying what is a safe source of EMF exposure vs an unsafe. If you do revisit the subject, please take the time to explore this issue and try to inform our populous about this.

    Thank you,

    Matt Richter

  • Amy

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks so much for listening, and for writing.

    I actually do make this distinction — between non-ionizing and non-ionizing radiation – in the piece. That’s what those piano notes are for: to show that the higher frequencies, above light, are the frequencies that are “known to do damage to human body.” Then there’s a line about how none of these gadgets –SmartMeters, cell phones or anything else — utilize these frequencies. Period.

    Still, the words “ionizing” and “non-ionizing” aren’t in there, and perhaps they should be. In radio, it’s a real trade-off. Too many unfamiliar terms and people stop listening to you. Too little, and people don’t connect what you’re telling them with the underlying science.

    You also point to an issue of emphasis. The second half of the piece focuses on the power issue, rather than the ionizing/non-ionizing distinction (which I, of course, thought I’d tidily wrapped up in the beginning!).

    Here’s why the piece took that turn: The people who are out protesting in front of the CPUC (who are the subjects of this story) know the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing frequencies. None of them are saying that cell phones emit UV radiation. Instead, the concerns tend to center around 1) the thermal effects of radio and microwaves, and 2) a belief that certain modulations placed on radio waves can have biological effects.

    In five minutes of airtime, that’s more detail than I can get into (although I do cite a WHO study that links no substantive health issues to radio frequencies.)

    What I can do with the two remaining minutes is say, hey, regardless of what you think about EMFs, the fact is, the SmartMeter is less than a blip. It’s less than an eighth of what comes out of your cell phone. And since it’s SmartMeters that have people protesting PG&E’s Peter Darbee – and calling for state-funded studies — that seems a relevant point to make.

    Anyway, your points are well taken, and I’ll certainly come back to them should I ever take on the topic again. Thanks again for weighing in.



Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios' science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

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