NB Power mounted an aggressive defence of the safety of smart meters Tuesday during an all-day examination of the issue in front of the Energy and Utilities Board.
The utility argued the meters emit a fraction of the radiofrequency (RF) emissions of regular household items and pose no risk to public health.
"A cellphone you hold close to your head gives you 12,000 times more emissions than a smart meter would when you stand two metres away," said Jacqueline Duda Lemmerhirt, an NB Power consultant from Maine, during questioning by Daniel LeBlanc.
LeBlanc, a well-known New Brunswick environmentalist and former Petitcodiac River Keeper has been assisting St. Louis de Kent dentist Roger Richard challenge NB Power's plan to introduce smart meters based on health concerns around radiofrequencies emitted by the devices.
Lemmerhirt and other NB Power witnesses explained that smart meters installed on homes in a neighbourhood communicate to each other by radio transmission and will hop, skip and jump power consumption data from one to another back to central "collectors" mounted periodically on power poles. The collectors then send the data back to NB Power.
LeBlanc questioned whether sending RF "signals in all directions" in a neighbourhood might cause harm to those with "electromagnetic sensitivity."
"Many researchers internationally have come to the conclusion that low-intensity radiofrequencies are a health concern and a risk to developing cancer over the short or long term," said LeBlanc. "Was this research considered?"
NB Power is in front of the New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board in Saint John for a 12-day hearing in part seeking permission to spend $122.7 million to install 350,000 smart meters provincewide.
The meters are capable of transmitting consumption data of customers back to NB Power almost in real time, which the utility said will allow for a number of innovations in pricing and service.
Health Canada's opinion
James Douglas, an Ontario-based consultant working for NB Power, said he is familiar with health arguments against smart meters but said they are not given significant weight by Health Canada and have been rejected by other regulatory bodies in provinces like British Columbia, which have approved installation of the meters.
"Health Canada (tests) radiofrequencies to their highest level of extremes and then provides a 50-fold factor on top of that," said Douglas. "So from the standpoint of the level that risk is, we are complying to the Health Canada approach and the technology we're procuring is well below those factors."
Douglas led the hearing through evidence accepted in a similar hearing in British Columbia that showed using a cordless phone or a microwave oven would deliver between 600 and 1,200 times more exposure to RF emissions than standing in front of a bank of 45 smart meters.
Having a single meter on the outside of a home or a neighbour's home is a danger to no one, Douglas maintained.
"The meters are low powered with short bursts and measurements show they are on for less than three minutes in every 24-hour period," he said.
Exposure limits allegedly influenced by industry
LeBlanc and Richard brought McGill University physicist Paul Heroux to the hearing to counter NB Power's arguments that the meters are safe.
Heroux said limits of RF exposure allowed by Health Canada are far too high and largely copy American standards, which have been influenced by years of pressure by the telecommunications industry.
"I was part for many years of committees that (developed) these standards so I know the people who did this. I know how it was done so I can tell you where these diverging opinions come from," said Heroux.
"I can also tell you where the Russian standard comes from — why they have a standard 100 times lower than it is here. I can also tell you why in some parts of Austria they have a standard that's 10,000 times lower."
LeBlanc tried but failed to have Heroux declared an expert witness for the hearing but EUB vice-chairman Francois Beaulieu said he could testify as a non-expert beginning Wednesday morning.