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Smart meters (and the joys of local politics)

In the May 21, 2015, board meeting we debated a motion submitted by Director Siddon:

And be it further resolved that in the interest of public safety, the Government of BC, through the BC Utilities Commission, be requested to order an immediate halt to mandatory installation of advanced (wireless) utility meters on all private residences within the jurisdiction of RDOS; and further, that all such meters recently installed within Electoral Area ‘D’ of the Regional District be removed immediately, at full cost to FortisBC.

The full motion, which was walked in during the meeting, can be found here:  Smart Meter Resolution May 2015.pdf

I voted against the motion based on the following:  The Government of Canada says this on its website:

The Government of Canada is committed to protecting the health and safety of Canadians from environmental risks, including those posed by exposure to radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic energy - the kind of energy given off by various electronic devices such as cell phones and Wi-Fi, as well as broadcasting and cell phone towers.


This same document (Fact Sheet - What is Safety Code 6?) explicitly refutes many of the assertions made in the recitals of the RDOS motion.

Now I don't believe everything (or even most things) I read on the Internet, but this fact sheet provides a concise overview of the position of the Government of Canada on the risks of radio frequency radiation (including smart meters).  Endorsing an RDOS motion that says that the Government of Canada is dead wrong on this topic implies that I know something that Health Canada does not. This is not a claim I am in a position to make.  We have been told X by one group and Y by the Government of Canada.  Since I personally am not equipped to assess the quality of the scientific arguments on their own merits, I can only make a best-guess based on the credibility of the sources.

Perhaps I am naive or gullible or brainwashed, but I would need a pretty good reason to say I categorically reject the official view of the Government of Canada/Health Canada on this issue.  This is not to say I always agree with the Government of Canada (or the Government of British Columbia).  But this is not a political issue.  It is an empirical question of significant scientific complexity, I cannot pretend to have the expertise or the resources to differentiate between opposing views.  In such cases, I adopt my own precautionary principle and prefer to keep my mouth shut.

In this case, keeping my mouth shut is not a problem since no one really cares whether I open it or not (update: see response of Fortis to the RDOS motion here).  That is, I am not a decision maker concerning this issue.  All matters regarding the safety of smart meters reside at either the federal or provincial level in this country.  And, as far as I can tell, the federal and provincial levels of government take this responsibility seriously.  Health Canada says exactly this in "Fact Sheet - What is Safety Code 6?" .

It seemed to me when voting on Director Siddon's motion that it would be presumptuous for a local government (which has no responsibility for the safety of smart meters) to grant itself such a role.  Such usurpation might make sense if, for example, we believed strongly that the federal government was failing in its responsibility to protect Canadians.  But this is not obviously true, at least not to me.  And the implications for those who do believe it is obviously true must be very troubling.  After all, Health Canada regulates much more than just smart meters.

Some argue (see message from a constituent below) that the RDOS should weigh in on this matter (despite no formal decision making role) on the basis of the precautionary principle.  While that might sound reasonable, I do not believe it is costless.  Specifically, I do not believe it serves the public good for one level of government to publicly question the competence and integrity of another level of government just in case. Put simply, when I voted against Director Siddon's motion, I did not believe it was wise for the RDOS to publicly contradict the clearly stated position of the Government of Canada on such a complex matter.  And since the Government of Canada already regards much of the content of the RDOS motion as "myths" (their word, not mine), the RDOS is guilty in the eyes of Health Canada of spreading misinformation.  The word I used at the RDOS to describe this situation is corrosive--corrosive of public trust in government.

I have been trained as a scientist and my belief is that serious science progresses through a dialectic process of hypothesis and refutation.  In a case such as this--an empirical question regarding the health impacts of a complex technology--the appropriate venue for the dialectic process is within peer reviewed journals.  I am not saying the peer-reviewed journal process is infallible--this is clearly not the case.  But I am saying I can think of no better way of resolving such questions.  And as any professional scientist will tell you, the peer review process is punishing.  The standard of 'proof' (in the statistical sense) is very high and the act of convincing one's scientific peers of anything is a major accomplishment.  For this reason, the following statement from Health Canada seems reasonable to me:

Health Canada scientists monitor the scientific literature on this issue on an ongoing basis. Safety Code 6 is reviewed on a regular basis to verify that the guideline provides protection against all known potentially harmful health effects.

If this is not good enough, what is?  And if we believe Health Canada's entire approach is wrong, should we not be directing our efforts at the root cause rather than the relatively minor issue of smart meters?  I touch on this in my response to a constituent below.

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