A group of about 25 people picketed outside of the Computer History Museum last week to call attention to what the protest's organizer called the "completely reckless" policies of the Federal Communications Commission.
Joshua Hart, founder of the Scotts Valley-based Stop SmartMeters, staged the protest on the same night that the Commonwealth Club was hosting a discussion with FCC Chair Julius Genachowski at the museum. According to Hart and others at the protest, the FCC is ignoring evidence that suggests that the radio frequencies emitted by electronic devices, such as cellular phones and the recently introduced PG&E SmartMeters, are causing serious health issues in a significant portion of the population.
Hart is calling for the FCC to tighten regulations on the cell phone industry and impose an immediate moratorium on devices such as PG&E's SmartMeter -- a new kind of power meter that uses the same kind of electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones to broadcast information about a household's energy consumption back to the power utility.
The SmartMeter is of particular concern for Hart, because, as he and others protesting outside of the Computer History Museum pointed out, individuals have little control over where the devices are installed.
"I can stay away from a cell phone," said Winifred Thomas, one of the protestors, "but SmartMeters are attacking me."
According to a spokesman for PG&E, the SmartMeter represents an integral component in building out the country's "smart grid." Jeff Smith, a representative for the California utility, said that the meters will help save money and energy, and will also help customers be wiser consumers of power.
PG&E will save money and burn less fuel by cutting back on meter readers in the field, Smith said. Plus, the SmartMeters will eventually interface with smart appliances and a cloud-based system that will allow customers to log on to the PG&E website and see how much natural gas or electricity they used during the previous day. "Ultimately this is the kind of technology that utilities across the nation are moving toward," he said.
Hart, however, believes that the benefits of the meters are greatly outweighed by the potential risk. Hart no longer owns a cell phone. When he has to use a friend's he makes sure to put it on speakerphone mode, or use a headset. "A year ago I thought this stuff was tinfoil hat paranoia," he said. "And then I started reading the science."
He pointed to a study published in February by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that cell phone use was directly linked to an increase in brain glucose metabolism. "We've got a serious problem here," he said, referring to the study.
Although the authors of the paper drew no conclusions about what a rise in brain glucose metabolism might portend for the health of an individual's brain, Hart said that the study should, at the very least, raise some eyebrows.
"We are at a place in history where we are ramping up our wireless capabilities dramatically," Hart said. "The truth is we don't know what the short- or long-term health implications of that (are)."
Robert Laughlin, a physics professor at Stanford University, is a specialist in the physics of electromagnetic energy.
"I don't carry a cell phone," Laughlin said. Besides "not wanting to be found," Laughlin has always had a suspicion that the microwave radiation emitted by cell phones might have a negative impact on a person's health. However, he added, "whether that's a rational concern or not, I don't know."
Laughlin said there currently isn't enough evidence one way or the other for him to say that cell phones, along with the radiation they emit, are dangerous or not. Furthermore, he said that conclusive evidence on the matter is probably many years off.
That's because measuring the impact of microwave radiation on the human body is an emerging field of study. Complicated matters even more, he said, it is a human health issue.
"Health experiments, it turns out, are really tough to do," Laughlin said. They take years and very stringent controls to ensure that the results are not flawed.
Relying on the data currently available, Laughlin said he would not vote for stricter regulation on SmartMeters or cell phone towers, noting that alarms have been raised before about technologies that turned out to be benign.
All the same, while Laughlin will use a colleague's cell phone occasionally, he won't be running out to get one anytime soon. "It's just wise to be a little careful about everything that's powerful."