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Friday, 3 February 2012

Smart meters –The role of public health in scientific controversy

Sorry, we are not going to enter into the debate if smart meters are safe or not.  There have been innumerable reviews on the topic already.   This blog is about the debate itself.
Several Canadian jurisdictions are grappling with hydro utilities that are implementing radio frequency (RF)transmitted metering.   Similar debates are occurring in the US.   Not that it can be proven, but the coordinated implementation and the concerted efforts to ensure scientific debate is somewhat limited might suggest that the industry is aligned in its efforts.   Irrespective, the response also led to multiple independent assessments of risk. 
In the midst of this IARC classified radio frequency as a possible carcinogen (category 2B) which actually means there is some suggestive evidence but insufficient to exclude that the relationship could be due to chance  IARC press release on radio frequency classification
The debate heated up recently again based on a communication from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) dated January 19, 2012. AAEM submission 
 Within the week,  letters to the editor and politicians are showing up across the continent claiming sufficient evidence to recall the meters. 
Some public health workers might be hightailing it and ducking the dualing war of words that is developing.  There is a critical review analysis that public health is best posed to contribute.  Certainly there is a role for resolving community conflict,  however  this issue is not going to engender friends.
There is a learning to be found in reviewing the AAEM communication.   The name of the organization AAEM seems to invoke some sense of credibility.   It is worth undertaking a review about whether their comments hold credence.   Four questions worth asking that likely apply to other situations 
  1. Is the communication actually reflective of what the organization actually stated?

  1. What is the reliability of the organization?

  1. Is there new evidence being presented that is not considered by previous assessments?

  1. Are there concerns with the assessment which the organization undertook?

So what can be found, although every reader is encouraged to do their own primary assessment. 
  1. The actual statement of the AAEM is a submission to the California Public Utilities Commission requesting a stop to further installation of meters until specific research was undertaken.  They also recommended that those submitting a request be permitted to restore to analog meters.   The statement quoted in the email is a valid quote from the letter it is however taken out of context in quoting the organization.  

  1. The organization appears to be properly constituted and has history preceding this issue. Reviewing the content, the membership and actions would raise questions that some of the other positions previously taken are not consistent with larger objective organizations reviewing similar positions and are not supportive of some well established and rigorously proven public health interventions and other issues where definitive evidence of health concerns have not been forthcoming. Eg.  opposition to water fluoridation, mercury fillings, GMO foods.   

The total number of positions taken by the organization over numerous decades is less than a dozen.

The investigation and interventions promoted by the organization may be seen as some as alternative or complimentary medicine. 

The bulk of the membership does not appear to include public health practitioners, epidemiologists or other content experts such as immunologists.

Based on several criteria, one should be very leery to accept the quality of the academic rigour of the positions.

  1. While the submission raises questions, it does not provide evidence of harmful effects – merely identifying knowledge gaps.   This contrasts with the more robust evidence utilized in reviewing evidence to date on the impacts of radio frequency fields.  It is noted that many scientific reviews of RF have also concluded that further studies are warranted to answer specific knowledge gaps.

  1. The AAEM statement is not an assessment of risk and the methodology is not subject to critical review.  As noted in question 3 it is a document that identifies concerns in the existing knowledge base for assessment and uses this as a basis to argue for further expansion of RF metering.

We in public health will often be presented controversial issues.  As one icon in public health once stated – the mistake is when we don’t get involved early enough.  


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