In an op-ed column, the Water Utility’s Tom Heikkinen discounted public concerns about health risks of smart metering systems, stating that “no responsible discussion of health concerns over radio waves can avoid the critically important concept of exposure” and “even water can be toxic if you drink too much of it.” Oddly, both statements come directly from industry’s public relations playbook on discounting risks.

In stark contrast to the Madison Water Utility, a coalition of over 40 public health experts believes public exposures to radiofrequency/microwave radiation from smart metering systems could cause significant public health problems over the long term. Moreover, Heikkinen’s mention of cancer as the only possible health outcome of RF/microwave exposure is a red herring, as the oxidative stress to cells and other biological effects caused by RF/microwave exposure could result in numerous other types of debilitating effects such as immune, neurological and reproductive abnormalities. Especially vulnerable are children, the elderly, and those who are already ill.

Given this extensive evidence, we propose that the best way to protect public health is to not install smart meters at all. There are many safer alternatives.

Yet instead of considering this comprehensive scientific evidence, and taking precautions by choosing less risky alternatives to smart meters, Heikkinen and Madison’s public health officials are ridiculing citizens’ legitimate risk concerns by unabashedly borrowing talking points from sources such as its smart meter supplier, Itron Inc., and the powerful Electric Power Research Institute, an industry front group. Why?

Ironically, Heikkinen, city officials, and the industry are the ones misleading the public about the “critically important concept of exposure.” Water Utility and industry claims — that smart meters have “tiny” exposures compared to cellphones — are based on methodologically unsound protocols such as not accounting for cumulative exposures. Expert analyses show that when these factors are considered, exposures from smart meters can be significantly higher than those from cellphones. Unlike cellphones, smart meters send out millisecond-long high bursts of radiation every few seconds — i.e., many thousands of times per day. People living, working and/or sleeping near smart meters will be exposed to continuous pulses of high radiation for many hours per day — not just for mere seconds. Those in dense urban settings may be exposed to several meters at once. Furthermore, unlike cellphones, smart meters cannot be turned off.

Potentially more problematic exposures could emanate from the 101 higher-powered “repeaters” and “collectors” that will be placed around Madison to relay RF signals to the Water Utility. What levels of radiation will be emitted from repeaters and collectors? Where exactly will they be located? Without this information, we are flying blind as far as assessing — or better yet, preventing — human and wildlife exposures.

After months of requests for this crucial information, the Water Utility has provided only a few numbers — copied from Itron and industry reports. We question these numbers, as do many experts around the world. And now Heikkinen says that the Madison smart meter system will include a fiber-optic network. This contradicts all available public documents and Water Utility statements up to this point. Has Heikkinen suddenly dumped wireless in favor of safer, wired connections? Or was this a misstatement?

We are stunned by the lack of transparency and horrible democratic process, and dismayed by the city’s willingness to ignore hundreds of peer-reviewed studies. Instead, they continue to regurgitate information from the same industry sources that are making money selling smart meter systems to public utilities.

Numerous cities and counties elsewhere are asking for smart meter moratoriums, or at least requiring opt-outs. Here in Madison, officials have reluctantly agreed to allow an opt-out (with punitive fees), only after its own citizens filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (because the city was so unresponsive to their questions and concerns). As citizens in a city that prides itself on its transparent and vibrant democracy, we find this highly troubling. The city’s pride has become hubris, and is eroding public trust.

So what should citizens who are concerned or uncertain about the safety of smart meters do? We strongly believe there is enough scientific evidence to merit precaution. In this case, that means, at the very least, opting out of having a smart meter in your home. Also, we urge people to support the citizen petition to the PSC, which asks for a moratorium on smart meter installations until a full investigation of health and safety risks, security and privacy issues, and long-term real costs of smart meters has been conducted.

The city did not fully investigate these issues before approving smart meters. We sincerely hope the Wisconsin Public Service Commission will.

Maria C. Powell is an environmental scientist and a participatory researcher who heads the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization and the Nanotechnology Citizen Engagement Organization. Kristine Mattis is a doctoral student at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin.