Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sensitivity to Smart Meters and Water Bills

By Ian Lowe

The Victorian state election will feature a new party opposed to smart electricity meters on health grounds, while others are campaigning against wifi in schools.

Victorian households are being equipped with “smart meters” that allow electricity suppliers to charge for power according to the time of use. Some consumers are so unhappy about this that a new political party has been formed, People Power Victoria – Stop Smart Meters. It says it has 700 members and will run candidates in the State election scheduled for November. The party’s spokesperson has said that many Victorians “have been adversely affected” by the technology, citing “deteriorating health as a direct result of radiation from smart meters”.

It is not the only example of concern about low levels of electromagnetic radiation. A group called WiFi in Schools Australia is campaigning to stop the use of wifi technology. Its website urges “precautionary measures until long-term exposure can be proven to be harmless”. The group says that some people are especially sensitive to even very low levels of radiation that don’t affect most of us, and worry that children might be especially vulnerable.

It is true that some people do experience symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, dizziness, tremors and heart palpitations, which they attribute to electromagnetic fields. These people clearly experience genuine distress. The problem for governments and regulators is that there is no evidence at all that those symptoms are caused by electromagnetic fields.

The World Health Organisation has reviewed the literature and concluded that those people who self-diagnose as hypersensitive to electromagnetic fields experience those symptoms in test situations whether electromagnetic radiation is present or not. The symptoms are exactly those attributable to stress, suggesting that the problem arises from the anxiety caused by people believing they are hypersensitive.

There is a striking similarity to the “wind turbine syndrome”; in that case, those who believe they suffer from the very low frequency sound produced by wind turbines report symptoms in test conditions whether or not they are exposed to infra-sound.

The World Health Organisation has also noted the similarity to “multiple chemical sensitivity”, and for this reason uses the expression “idiopathic environmental sensitivity” (IES) to describe disorders that share symptoms which have no clear medical explanation “without any implication of chemical etiology, immunological sensitivity or EMF susceptibility”.

IES appears to be the opposite of the placebo effect, by which patients recover without treatment from any pharmaceutically active agent if they believe they have been treated. There is no hard evidence that the IES symptoms reported have any relation to the electromagnetic field characteristics.

We should take these concerns seriously, but the setting of dose limits should continue to be guided by the best available science. The precautionary principle means that we should err on the side of caution where there is genuine uncertainty, but we should not restrict useful technology on the basis of effects that have no scientific explanation.

Sensitivity to Water Bills
My latest water bill features this attractive graphic drawing attention to the cheapness of bulk water. It tells people who pay $3 for a 650 ml bottle of water that they could fill the bottle from the tap every day for 5.7 years for the same amount of money. At one level they are right: the price of bulk water is given on my bill as $2.67 per kilolitre. But when I checked what I am paying, it works out at $53 per kilolitre. It is still a much better buy than bottled water, but I am actually paying 20 times what the water utility claims.

The fine print shows that my water bill is dominated by fixed charges. Our household avoids wasting water, but the charging system gives almost no incentive for parsimony. I worked out the quarterly bill of $212 would have only been reduced to $202 if we had used no water at all.

Basically, we are paying for two questionable government policies. One is establishing corporations that make a profit selling water rather than supplying a community service at cost. The second is the approach of encouraging rapid population growth in the belief it is good for the economy. In fact, it requires massive investment in new infrastructure to supply clean water, collect waste and process it to ensure community health.

That’s what I pay for.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.