What does this bowl of carrots have in common with a smart meter? Keep reading.

Today’s story on smart meter opposition takes a closer look at health claims made by critics of the technology.

Smart meter opponents say radio waves emitting from the devices can be harmful to human health. But existing research has found no evidence to support these claims, and many common household devices, like baby monitors and wireless routers, put out similar doses of microwave energy.

There is equally thin evidence to support claims that power lines are a health hazard, as reporter Dan Haugen found out earlier this month. Opponents cite concerns about magnetic fields from high-voltage lines, which are in reality only a fraction of the strength of the natural magnetic field one is exposed to merely by standing on the earth.

Similarly, numerous reviews of research have failed to find evidence supporting claims that wind turbines are a health hazard. The latest, conducted on behalf of the state of Massachusetts, found only that the noise from turbines could potentially cause sleep disruptions, echoing earlier studies.

So why do these claims persist? Two reasons.

One is that they can’t be fully dismissed – while there’s no solid evidence to date to support these health claims, there’s always the possibility that science simply hasn’t uncovered a connection yet. So while it’s incredibly unlikely that a power line will give you cancer, science can never 100 percent eliminate the possibility. And a few minutes on the internet will turn up dozens of “experts” raising the alarm about just about anything (for instance, baby carrots). For some, that’s all the proof that is needed.

But a more important reason is that these arguments appear to be effective. While we’ve learned to internalize the risk from our cell phones or the microwave oven in the kitchen, new technology (or development that is new to our neighborhood) is more of a mystery. So these claims often get repeated without question in media coverage.

“Linda,” an opponent of a power line project in Montana, put it rather candidly in her comment on Haugen’s post:

Health problems or not, I think many people just have no interest in living under these things. They are loud, ugly, invasive and ultimately reduce quality of life/property for those forced to reside nearby. Not to mention that the benefit of these things is rarely seen by those who have to carry the burden of housing them, yet they see others further down the line having no negative impact but receiving all the “good.” Unfortunately, none of those things seem to hold up very well in court, so people hold on to the health threat potential, as small as it may (or may not) be.

So the fundamental debate here isn’t whether these things are harmful to your health. The opposition is driven more by a sense of fairness – not wanting to bear a disproportionate share of the burden for our shared electricity infrastructure, as well as a desire to control changes to the physical landscape around one’s home.

All of which is completely understandable. But until we all start generating our own electricity, these things have to go in someone’s backyard.

Is there a way to continue developing our electricity infrastructure without disenfranchising affected neighbors? Your thoughts are welcome below-

Photo by Edgar Barrera via Creative Commons

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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