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'Smart meter' radiation raises pulse in Ashland

City officials will investigate the cost and feasibility of allowing residents who are concerned about health impacts to opt out of having new electric meters that emit radio frequency signals.

About 43 percent of electric meters in Ashland are already "smart meters" that send usage information wirelessly via radio frequency signals, said Ashland Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg.

Earlier this month, the Ashland City Council approved spending $75,000 annually for three years to continue the roll-out of smart electric meters in town.

But resident Rod Newton, who has previously raised concerns about radiation from cell towers, said new smart meters send out a burst of high-frequency radiation every 30 seconds. Earlier wireless meters only emitted a signal once per month when they were being read, he said.

"We're concerned about the continual round-the-clock radiation," he said.

To address the concerns of some residents, council members asked city staff members to investigate creating an opt-out policy for the smart meters.

People who opt out could potentially have to pay more if their electric meters have to be read manually, Mayor John Stromberg said.

Some councilors said they don't believe the smart meters pose a health hazard.

Councilor Russ Silbiger said people are exposed to more radiation through wireless Internet routers and their wireless laptop computers.

"There are no plausible health problems related to this," he said.

But Councilor Carol Voisin said radiation from multiple wireless devices could have a cumulative impact on people's bodies and brains.

On Dec. 20, Councilors Silbiger, Mike Morris and David Chapman voted to approve a contract to buy new smart meters, while Councilors Voisin and Greg Lemhouse wanted to delay the purchase in order to get more information. Councilor Dennis Slattery was absent and Mayor John Stromberg votes only to break ties.

Ashland is not alone in dealing with concerns about radiation from smart meters.

California lawmakers faced with worried residents commissioned a state report on possible health impacts from smart meters.

After hearing from experts and reviewing more than 100 studies and reports, the California Council on Science and Technology said this year that smart meters do not pose a health impact when it comes to heating up human bodies.

People can experience health impacts when their temperatures are raised by one degree, the CCST said.

To date, studies have not confirmed non-heat health impacts from the meters. The CCST said not enough is known about those impacts to identify or recommend new safety standards, and more research is needed.

Smart meters fall in the low to middle ground when it comes to radio frequency radiation emitted by common devices.

A cell phone at the ear exposes a person to a maximum of 5,000 microwatts per square centimeter, while a wireless Internet computer router that is three feet away exposes a person to a maximum of one microwatt.

A smart meter that is constantly emitting signals exposes a person to 40 microwatts per square centimeter from three feet away, while exposure drops to 4 microwatts from 10 feet away.

Most smart meters are located outside, which lowers people's radiation exposure, especially as they are moving about their homes at a distance from the meters. But people could be exposed to higher levels if, for example, they slept in beds that were against a wall with a smart meter.

In its own report this year, California-based Sage Reports environmental consultants warned that smart meters may emit more radiation than expected, especially when multiple meters are installed in a single location, such as at apartment buildings.

Sage Reports warned about increasing consumers' involuntary exposure to radio frequency radiation through smart meters — especially since many people already are voluntarily exposing themselves to radiation via cell and cordless phones, wireless Internet routers, wireless home security systems, baby monitors and other devices.

Many electric utilities are installing smart meters not only to reduce meter reading costs, but to help create a more efficient and reliable electric grid system, according to the CCST's smart meter report.

"Smart grids" could help balance electricity supply and demand, which will become more important as intermittent wind- and solar-generated power is added to the grid, the council said.

Consumers could lower their power bills by performing electricity-intensive tasks — such as running a clothes dryer — during off-peak hours once the smart grid is fully enabled, the CCST said.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which wholesales electricity to Ashland's electric department, is raising rates on communities that increase their electricity usage. The increases are largely to pay for new power-generating facilities that will be built to meet rising peak demand.

Ashland anticipates facing those higher charges in 2016 or 2018, according to information presented during an April council study session.

Councilors hope to blunt the increases through conservation and renewable energy projects.

To read the CCST's report on health impacts and smart meters, visit www.ccst.us/publications/2011/2011smartA.pdf.

To read Sage Reports' report, visit sagereports.com/smart-meter-rf/.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.