The “smart” electricity meters that are being installed by Central Maine Power Co. don’t pose a health threat because they operate within a similar frequency and power range as the wireless routers that people use for home computers, according to initial findings by Maine’s public health director.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills made her assessment Wednesday after studying information from CMP and from opponents of the smart meters.

Opponents want the state to enact a moratorium until potential health risks can be studied more fully, and provide a way for residents to opt out of having the new meters installed on their homes. They worry that the wireless transmitters that connect the meters to the power grid can cause cancer and other health issues.

Any decisions to alter the program rest with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which approved CMP’s meter replacement program. Mills said she plans to complete her review within the next couple of weeks and present formal findings to the PUC.

Meanwhile, CMP says it has installed 8,000 meters in the past two weeks, in Portland and Westbrook, and has no plans to halt the program.

CMP says its smart meters operate as radios that are on the same frequency as cordless phones. They transmit for only minutes a day at very low power, the company says. Most are outside homes, and the wireless network is being mounted on poles above the ground, far from people.

CMP has begun a two-year project to replace 620,000 meters with the digital devices, which will communicate via a two-way, wireless network. The meters will save CMP money and eventually let customers manage their bills by using electricity when it’s less costly to generate.

But at least a few customers are worried about the radio frequency technology that the meters use to send signals.

Late last month, state officials began receiving letters as part of an organized e-mail campaign. They feature a note from Elisa Boxer-Cook, an environmental health activist in Scarborough. The note was circulated on social media networks that are popular among families in the Portland area.

The note from Boxer-Cook said the devices will “blanket entire neighborhoods and homes with strong, cancer-causing wireless radiation.” She wrote that she has heard the meter network compares to having a cell phone tower outside every home, and that people have reported heart palpitations, migraine headaches and other problems where the meters are installed.

On Wednesday, Mills disputed the cell phone tower analogy. The frequency and power of smart meters are in the range of cordless phones and mobile phones, she said, and they operate only 10 percent of the day. She said her review so far shows that smart meters emit non-ionizing radiation, as opposed to the cancer-causing variety that can change cell structure with over-exposure.

Boxer-Cook said that looking at the impact of a single smart meter is inadequate, because the networks of meters and transmitters in neighborhoods will amplify the impact of the wireless signals. And she said studies are under way globally on whether non-ionizing radiation can cause cancer.

Maine officials should wait for more definitive information, she said, before allowing the program to continue.

“I don’t want to be a guinea pig,” she said. “I don’t want my child to be a guinea pig.”

Boxer-Cook said the next step for opponents is to file a formal complaint with the PUC to reconsider CMP’s approval. She would like the PUC to put a hold on the installation program in the interim.

Evelyn deFrees, a PUC spokeswoman, said the commission first is waiting to receive the formal health assessment from Mills. “We’re planning to review that very carefully,” she said.

If the PUC gets a formal complaint, deFrees said, CMP will have 10 days to respond. After that, commissioners must decide whether the utility has resolved the matter, or whether the complaint has merit. If it’s found to have merit, the PUC could schedule a public hearing on the issues raised by opponents.

Smart meters are part of an evolving global grid, in which computers instantly match electricity demand with supply from power sources that can include wind and solar energy. Conservation groups see the trend as a way to reduce the need for fossil fuel plants and fight pollution and climate change.

But the meters have been criticized by some environmental health and safety advocates, who have formed alliances with residents who are suspicious about the accuracy of the meters, or their ability to collect private information.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]