Years ago, when Michael Brasunas got his first cell phone, he remembers feeling an almost “itchy headache” sensation in his ear canal when he held the device against his head.
Brasunas says he has long felt physical symptoms associated with exposure to radio frequencies such as those released by cell phones and Wi-Fi. “I would always get these strange sensations in my head and ear,” he says.
Brasunas and his family don’t have Wi-Fi in their home. Instead, their internet connection comes through wired Ethernet, and they keep their cell phones on airplane mode — or turned off — as much as possible. He and his wife, Nadine, only allow their kids to use the family’s landline phone. “We keep a very clean, radiation-free house,” Michael says.
The only device they couldn’t control was their electric meter. Michael Brasunas says the meter emitted an unnerving amount of RF radiation, which he tested using a piece of equipment called an “electrosmog detector.”
Brasunas called Duke to see if they could have the meter removed. Instead, Brasunas says a Duke representative offered to put him on the opt-out list for a new kind of meter the company would be releasing in the near future — a smart meter, which uses RF communications to provide Duke with more granular information about customers’ energy use.
“We didn’t want the current meter,” Brasunas says. “And they were offering an opt-out for a future meter.”
After two years of phone calls with various representatives from Duke Energy, Brasunas felt like his attempts to resolve the situation were going nowhere. So he decided to replace the meter on his house with an analog meter he found online that wouldn’t release RF energy.
Hoping they would be able to make a legal argument that they were acting in self-defense, Brasunas and three families in his neighborhood unplugged their Duke Energy meters, documenting the date and time of the disconnection and taking photos of the devices. They also photographed the new meters and documented the date and time of their installation “so that there would be no questions about us possibly trying to steal electricity,” Brasunas says.
They didn’t expect a strong reaction from Duke.
“We thought, ‘Well, there’s four houses, so they won’t do anything crazy,’” he says. “And we were wrong. They came in full force.”
On June 28, officers with the Asheville Police Department escorted line workers from Duke Energy to the neighborhood as they cut electricity to the houses belonging to Brasunas and his neighbors. The families spent the next month without power.
Duke Energy has now installed smart meters for a significant number of customers in North Carolina, but the rollout has experienced some pushback from consumers like Brasunas with concerns about the impact of RF emissions on the human body.
To appeal to people who wanted to opt out of smart meter installation, Duke Energy Carolinas submitted a proposed fee scale in July 2016 to the North Carolina Utilities Commission, the body that regulates utility rates for the whole state. The proposal stated that Duke would charge an initial setup fee of $150 and monthly fees of $11.75 for customers to receive a smart meter with its communications equipment turned off.
The commission approved the fees, but with a major change: Duke would have to waive the opt-out fee for any customers who submitted a doctor’s note certifying that RF emissions impact their health.
It would be “inappropriate,” the commission wrote in its June 22 decision, for the utility provider to charge customers who need to avoid exposure to RF emissions a fee to protect their health.
Meghan Musgrave Miles, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, says smart meters help customers save energy and money by providing them with access to regular information about their energy use. This helps users reduce energy consumption and avoid expensive bills. “Current metering technology only provides usage information when the bill is delivered,” Miles says. The information provided by the new meters also allows Duke to more efficiently manage its energy output.
As of September, Duke Energy Carolinas has installed more than 1.7 million smart meters in North Carolina. About 6,700 North Carolina customers in the company’s service area have requested information about the smart meter opt-out program — less than half a percent of users with new meters. The opt-out program officially started on Oct. 1.
Duke Energy Progress, which includes Asheville in its coverage area, doesn’t currently have an opt-out program but has received about 1,300 requests from customers for information about how they can decline to have a smart meter installed. Instead of opting out, Progress customers can be put on a temporary bypass list.
As of September, Duke Energy Progress has installed more than 135,000 smart meters in North Carolina. Miles says Progress plans on sending the utilities commission a proposal similar to that of Duke Energy Carolinas in the near future.
Straddling the line
RF energy, the type emitted by the communications equipment in smart meters, can have a biological impact on humans, according to the Federal Communications Commission. “It has been known for many years that exposure to very high levels of RF radiation can be harmful due to the ability of RF energy to heat biological tissue rapidly,” the agency writes on its website.
The emphasis, however, is on the words “very high.” The FCC’s website cites research that “environmental levels of RF energy routinely encountered by the general public are typically far below levels necessary to produce significant heating and increased body temperature.”
Miles says the RF emissions from Duke’s smart meters are “significantly lower” than the limits set by the FCC. On average, she says, the radios in the smart meters transmit at 0.08 percent of the FCC’s wattage limit.
“Both the FCC and the World Health Organization have stated that the small amount of RF emitted by smart meters poses no threat to human health,” Miles said by email. (Her response also appears verbatim on the company’s website.) “Consumer safety is one of Duke Energy’s top priorities, and we continuously work to ensure the safety and reliability of the products and services we offer.”
The utilities commission, however, believes that Duke Energy Carolina’s decision to roll out the meters was made in an “uncertain regulatory environment.” The FCC, not the North Carolina Utilities Commission, is the regulatory body in charge of addressing the health impacts of RF emissions, the commission said. The FCC’s exposure guidelines, the commission wrote, were last updated in 1996, and the organization has had an open docket on the question of biological impacts from exposure to RF energy at frequencies between 300 Hz to 100 GHz since 2013. Duke Energy Carolina’s smart meters, the commission wrote, operate in that range, at 900 MHz.
The utilities commission received about 130 statements from customers leading up to its ruling. More than half, the commission said in its report, claimed that smart meters give off RF radiation “that is dangerous to human health and harmful to plants and animals.”
“I think the commission took about as good as a position as it could,” says Jack Floyd with North Carolina Public Staff, an agency that works with the utilities commission on behalf of consumers. In the absence of more valid data from a federal or medical authority, Floyd says, Public Staff didn’t take a position on the validity of these concerns.
“I believe that [commissioners] recognize that there’s a lot of material out there on both sides that asserts that this is a valid issue and that there’s also information that the level of the exposure of RF emissions is not substantive to the point that it’s causing issues,” Floyd says. “So we’re kind of stuck in the middle.”
The commission’s ruling only applies to Duke Energy Carolinas, but employees with Public Staff anticipate Duke Energy Progress will submit a virtually identical proposal in the near future.
Mary Ann Tierney, the founder of SafeTech Kids NC, says that hundreds of local people are affected by RF emissions — too many for the local doctors who treat these issues. She estimates that at least seven area doctors have written notes for patients, but adds that the physicians she’s worked with don’t want to talk to the media.
“They don’t want to be involved on this on a public level,” Tierney says. “They don’t have time.”
Although the commission’s ruling is a victory for people who say RF emissions are harmful to their health, some commenters dispute a requirement that notes from doctors must be notarized. Dr. Sonia Rapaport, the director of Chapel Hill-based Haven Medical, submitted a comment to the commission criticizing this decision.
“As I do not have a notary in my practice (nor do most physicians),” Rapaport wrote, “this additional requirement adds a significant burden to patients seeking this exemption and is a significant obstacle, both financial and logistical, to their safety.”
Facing the prospect of adapting to a life without electricity, Brasunas and five of his neighbors documented their interactions with police and Duke Energy employees on camera.
“They’re cutting off our power because we don’t want smart meters,” Rene Catano, one of the residents whose power was cut, can be heard saying in a video posted on YouTube. She appears to be speaking to two Duke Energy employees that are looking up at the power lines near her house. “We pay our bills on time. We don’t want our children exposed to radiation, and we ourselves are protecting and defending our own health.”
Christina Hallingse, a spokesperson for the Asheville Police Department, says it’s not unusual for a utility company to request that officers standby while employees perform a “lawful action” that could be met with resistance.
“Our responsibilities in any such matter is to merely act to preserve the peace, and to take action to prevent any sort of violent or criminal behavior by any of the involved parties,” she says.
The officers on scene did not file an incident report, “which indicates that no police action was needed beyond our presence there,” Hallingse says.
Referencing state law, Miles says that anyone other than a Duke Energy meter technician who attempts to tamper with a meter may be charged with a misdemeanor and fined. It’s also a violation of the company’s service regulations and is grounds for the company to discontinue service.
“These customers created an unsafe situation by installing meters that were not tested nor authorized by Duke Energy. When meter tampering occurs, we are obligated to take immediate action,” Miles says, citing a utilities commission rule.
Adapting to life without electricity was a little bumpy for the four families. The group purchased generators, everybody started taking cold showers, and laundry started piling up. “We definitely had food go rotten,” Michael says. The families were kept afloat in part by donations submitted via a GoFundMe page Brasunas set up shortly after their power was turned off. As of Sept. 28, the page had accumulated $1,616, a bit more than half of their goal.
In July, the group received a call from a representative from Duke Energy, which got the ball rolling for the families to have their power turned back on. Duke, Brasunas says, agreed to install a “time-of-use” meter, which he says does not transmit data wirelessly and must be read manually each month.
Brasunas acknowledges that there are people who are skeptical of claims that RF emissions have a detrimental effect on the human body, but he believes there’s enough evidence to support his position.
“I’m not the kind of person that says to anybody, ‘You’re wrong, and you just don’t know,’” Brasunas says. “I just encourage people to do their own research and get educated.”