BC Hydro is modifying its smart-meter program in response to concerns about exposure to electromagnetic radiation, although Hydro still insists the devices pose no danger to health.
"We clearly don't believe there is a health concern," Gary Murphy, chief project officer for the $930-million program, said in an interview.
BC Hydro will not allow anyone to opt out of the program. However, customers who are concerned about health issues can relocate the meters on their properties at their own cost.
"We're not the kind of company that is simply going to go out and play hardball," Mr. Murphy said.
"There are people who adamantly believe there are [health concerns.]They are our customers and we want to be respectful and … responsive. We will do what is reasonable and, to the best of our ability, try to find a mutually acceptable solution," Mr. Murphy said.
BC Hydro this week received its first shipment of the so-called smart meters, which transmit information about energy use several times a day. The smart meters will replace electro-mechanical meters in every home and business in the province by the end of 2012.
Most independent, third-party reviews of the impact of the radio frequency that smart meters emit found no convincing evidence of any health issues, provincial health officer Perry Kendall said in an interview.
"A lot of people clearly have symptoms that are real, and they feel [the symptoms are]associated with radio frequency," he said. "But from a medical perspective, it is very hard to demonstrate the symptoms are a response to radio frequency."
About 200 people have expressed concerns to BC Hydro about health issues. Some have asked to keep their old meters. Some have been satisfied with additional information about the lack of evidence of any health issues. A group called Citizens Against Unsafe Emissions is lobbying municipalities to push BC Hydro to impose a moratorium on smart meters. The group is also considering filing a human-rights complaint.
Sharon Noble, spokesperson for the group, said in an interview she is aware of about 20 people in the province who say they have been diagnosed by naturopaths as having symptoms related to electromagnetic sensitivities. "Those people have a right to not be subjected to something that harms them," she said.
Ms. Noble said she has spent more than $40,000 trying to shield her home from radiation from 56-cell, FM and other transmitters in her neighbourhood of Colwood, outside Victoria. "I'll be damned if I let smart meters be put on my home," she said.
BC Hydro's offer to allow the meter to be relocated on the property was not reasonable, she said, because it could cost up to $10,000.
NDP energy critic John Horgan said he was not convinced smart meters cause health problems. "But there is certainly a whole bunch of people, based on my [e-mail]inbox, that feel that way," he said. "If people do not want these things on their house, they should not have them . . . I believe they have legitimate concerns in their minds that should be canvassed by government."
Mr. Horgan said the decision to bring in smart meters should have been reviewed by the B.C. Utilities Commission, which could have held public hearings to debate all issues. The B.C. government last year passed special legislation to exempt the smart-meter program and other projects from review by the commission.
Mr. Murphy said BC Hydro was "totally confident" that the level of emissions was safe. "Exposure to radio frequency from a smart meter over its entire 20-year life span is equal to a single 30-minute cellphone call," he said. Also, the meters transmit in total for about one minute a day and are not transmitting constantly, he added.
The strength of the signal decreases exponentially with distance, Mr. Murphy said. Those who remain concerned can arrange with an electrical contractor to put the meter on their garage or elsewhere on their property, he said, adding that the cost of relocating will vary depending on type of dwelling and location of the meter.