Guidance

Smart meters: radio waves and health

Published 31 December 2012

Smart meters use radio waves to allow remote readings to be taken from gas and electricity meters. They are expected to replace the existing meters in people’s homes over the next few years.

The evidence to date suggests exposures to the radio waves produced by smart meters do not pose a risk to health.

Assessments made in other countries that use smart meters have found exposures that are low in relation to internationally agreed guidelines.

Public Health England (PHE) has been carrying out an extensive programme of research to assess exposures from the devices as the technology is rolled out. The first set of results, involving laboratory measurements of the Home Area Network radio signals, are now published in the peer reviewed journal of Bioelectromagnetics.

A selection of smart meter devices available in Great Britain were assessed during normal operation under controlled laboratory conditions.

The results confirm PHE’s existing advice that exposure to radio waves from smart meters is well below the guidelines set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

The study also concluded that exposure to the radio waves produced by smart meters is likely to be much lower than that from other everyday devices such as mobile phones and Wi-Fi equipment.

PHE considers exposure to radio waves does not provide a basis to decline having a smart meter.

Smart meters are expected to replace millions of manually read gas and electricity meters in homes and small businesses over the next few years. The systems are designed to record consumption of electricity and gas automatically, and relay the information to the utility companies. Consumers will also be able to access the information to help them manage their energy use. Further information on smart meters is available from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

PHE is an independent adviser to government regarding the health aspects of radio waves from smart meters and does not make decisions on whether to use this technology.

1. Radio waves and health

The effects of exposure to radio waves have been researched in thousands of published scientific papers over several decades. Based on this body of work, PHE considers there is no convincing evidence of harm from exposure within the internationally agreed guideline levels. PHE acknowledges that there remain some areas of scientific uncertainty and PHE’s advice takes this into account.

The independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) prepared a review of health effects from radio waves that was published in 2012. AGNIR’s main conclusion was that, although a substantial amount of research has been conducted in this area, there is no convincing evidence that radio wave exposures below guideline levels cause health effects in adults or children. Further information about these guideline levels is given below.

Using mobile phones leads to greater exposures than other radio devices in widespread use by the general public, including smart meters. Hence, a substantial portion of the AGNIR report addresses whether mobile phone use could be linked to the development of cancer. AGNIR concluded overall the evidence does not suggest that using mobile phones causes brain tumours or any other type of cancer.

The evidence to date suggests exposures to the radio waves produced by smart meters do not pose a risk to health. PHE is committed to keeping the scientific evidence under close review and to publishing further reviews and update statements as and when necessary.

2. Radio waves and smart meters

Smart meters use radio waves to communicate the information they collect. There are many other everyday devices that use radio waves for communications purposes and these include radio/television transmitters, mobile phones and wireless (wi-fi) computers.

The system that gathers information from the electricity and gas meters is made up of 2 main radio parts:

  • Home Area Network (HAN), which links the smart meters with an in-home display that allows householders to view their energy use in real time
  • a communications module that allows communication between the meter and the utility company and which in existing UK meters of this kind, contains a SIM card like those used in mobile phones

The communications are not continuous and only occur during short intermittent bursts when data is actually being sent.

3. Protection standards

People are exposed to the radio waves from smart meters and other devices, and it is important to assess exposure levels as part of ensuring devices are safe. Higher exposures are produced when devices are used closer to the body, when they emit more power and when they transmit for more of the time.

PHE provides advice on standards for protection from exposure to radio waves, including those associated with smart meters. Central to this advice is that exposures should comply with the guidelines published by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

The ICNIRP guidelines are designed to limit the heating of body tissues that occurs when radio waves are absorbed so any temperature rises are small.

4. Exposures from smart meters

Assessments of smart meter systems in other countries have found exposures that are small in relation to the ICNIRP guidelines and there is no reason to think that the situation would be any different in the UK.

Some gas and electricity companies are already installing smart meters in homes and other locations. As part of its research program, PHE will conduct independent on-site assessments of exposure to smart meters as the technology is rolled out, working closely with BEIS and Smart Energy GB to identify the relevant technologies.

European technical standards have been published that detail the measurement and calculation methods that can be used to assess exposures from smart meters. PHE advises that exposures from smart meters should be assessed and be made available as part of routine product information.

5. Are some people sensitive to radio waves?

Some people report real and unpleasant symptoms that they attribute to exposure to radio waves. Considerable effort has been put into investigating this topic rigorously in recent years with research programmes funded by the government and academic bodies. The results of these studies have been published in the scientific literature.

The 2012 AGNIR review mentioned above included a chapter on the evidence for sensitivity to radio waves. AGNIR concluded there is accumulating evidence that radio wave exposures below guideline levels do not cause symptoms and cannot be detected by people, even those who consider themselves sensitive to radio waves.

This conclusion does not belittle the importance of the symptoms that people experience, but it does suggest causes other than those directly related to radio waves should be considered. The Health Protection Agency, a predecessor of PHE, published a review of the public health aspects of electrical sensitivity in 2005 which included comments on the management of affected individuals and evaluation of treatment options.