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Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Fearmongering overshadows PUC public hearing

Phony science makes reasonable debate difficult

by Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

A “microwave-induced plague” is what one South Kingstown resident told utility regulators would happen if Rhode Island replaces its electric meters with those that use “smart” technology.

Others warned of electrical fires, birds flying aimlessly after losing directional sense, brain fog and even cancer.

It’s not the typical debate that unfolds before the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, where public opposition usually focuses on ratepayers’ bills and services. But comments made during public hearing Tuesday focused on the alleged adverse health and safety consequences — rather than the cost — of smart meters.   

Even if there’s no scientific backing.

“For electromagnetic radiation, there can be some concern but it really depends on the strength of the radiation, the proximity to the source and the frequency of the radiation,” said Leonard Kahn, chair of the physics department at the University of Rhode Island. 

“Smart meters fail every single one of these tests. They do not have any impact on people’s health.”

Rhode Island Energy wants to spend $188 million over 11 years to replace 525,000 electric meters with devices that use two-way communication to monitor and transmit information about electricity usage in near-real time. The company in its application focused largely on the benefits in terms of costs and service: allowing customers to monitor and reduce their electricity during peak times, and helping the company track and fix outages faster. 

And with 60% of the existing meters reaching their “end of design life,” they’re going to need to be replaced soon anyway, said Jennifer Brooks Hutchinson, an attorney for Rhode Island Energy. 

The cost is less than one third of the $729 million in value to customers over the next 20 years, according to analysis by Rhode Island Energy projects to be the value to customers over the same time frame.

“The project will save customers more than $3 for every dollar invested,” Brooks Hutchinson said.

If approved, customers would see their monthly electric bills rise about 7 cents per month for the next five years, according to calculations by Rhode Island Energy.

Opponents submit dozens of letters and drawings

Yet neither cost nor services got much attention from opponents. Instead, their anguish centers on the health consequences of radio frequencies that smart meters use to transmit information.

“These meters are anything but smart,” said Sheila Resseger, a Cranston resident. “They are neither safe nor secure.”

Dr. Mark Brody, who described himself as an “integrated medicine” doctor (though the Boston Globe reported in 2021 that his license was suspended for improper care for patients), said he has treated “a number” of patients for health problems from electromagnetic waves. Brody called these patients the “canaries in the coal mine” – a signal that the radiation is toxic and that adding more through smart meters would be “irresponsible without further study.”

Dozens of written letters and drawings submitted to the commission state similar concerns, citing YouTube videos and papers published on hosting platform Squarespace. 

What opponents don’t cite, unless to dispute, is research by the World Health Organization and the Federal Communications Commission showing there are no health or safety effects from radio frequency, including from smart meters. 

The American Cancer Society has also stated it would be “nearly impossible” to prove or disprove a link between smart meters and cancer because of the multiple sources of exposure in people’s homes, and the small amount of radiation from smart meters.

Electromagnetic fields in the non-ionizing part of the electromagnetic spectrum cannot damage DNA or cells directly. Frequencies range from extremely long wavelengths such as those associated with power lines to extremely short wavelengths, including X-rays and gamma rays. (National Cancer Institute)

Renee Hobbs, a communications professor and founder of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island, wasn’t surprised by the public reaction.

“For people who are getting their news from social media and who are attracted to stories that feature harm that has been the result of big government or big corporate industry, this kind of misinformation is emotionally resonant,” Hobbs said. “It feels true.”

Succumbing to fear

Sifting through the piles of misinformation to find the truth, especially on scientific topics, has also become increasingly difficult.

“When there’s so much information out there and some is real and some is fake, and you’re not an expert, it’s easy to succumb to fear,” said Daniel Mittleman, an engineering professor at Brown University. “It’s a huge problem in every area, on every topic. Just look at climate change.”

While misinformation and mistrust of science has intensified in recent years, fears over the link between power and cancer date back decades, to a study published in 1979 that suggested high-voltage lines caused leukemia. 

But much like those predictions never came true, Khan said there was no merit to claims that smart meters would have any kind of negative health impacts. 

Adria Updike, an assistant physics professor at Roger Williams University, likened smart meter radiation to the waves emitted from cell phones, wireless networks, TVs and radios.

“If these meters caused cancer, then all of those other things would too,” Updike said.

The April 4 public hearing was one of a series of public comment opportunities over Rhode Island Energy’s proposal, with meetings set through July. How public feedback shapes the length of review and ultimate decision on the project is still unclear.

“When you get a lot of public comment, it often leads to additional considerations,” said Todd Bianco, the commission’s chief economic and policy analyst. 

“Whether that affects the decision, I would not even speculate on that.” 



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.