Approaching menaces – are you threatened by a lamp post near you?

Michelle Berriedale-Johnson investigates.

Twenty first century triffids? Living lamposts marching down the Whitehall to oust the government? Well, not precisely – although some lamp posts have ‘come alive’…

lamp posts cartoon

It is all down to the perfectly reasonable desire of organisations, both state and corporate, to control their operations more efficiently and cost effectively, both for their own benefit and that of their consumers. The only problem is that their chosen means are the air waves – an ever increasing smog of microwave transmissions turning lamp post lights on and off, monitoring our electricity consumption, allowing us to text, speak and watch full length movies on our mobile phones and preventing (or not) bomb-toting terrorists boarding plans with us.

No one doubts the usefulness of being able to monitor your electricity use and thereby identify areas where you could be saving both electricity (the planet) and money (your pocket). The trouble is that the monitoring is done is through a sensor connected, by wifi, to a base station somewhere in your house, thus adding yet another layer of radio wave transmissions to those powering your mobile phones, your computer wifi system, your baby alarms and your hands-free landlines. Not to mention the electromagnetic fields created by your fluorescent or compact fluorescent bulbs and the ‘dirty electricity spikes’ in your ring mains. And that is just in your own house. Also affecting your living space will be the electromagnetic radiation coming through your walls, ceilings and floors from your neighbours’ systems and, unless you live in the depths of the country, from the local telephone masts and tetra communication masts which will be situated anything from 100 yards to half a mile from your house.

Although mobile phone companies in particular are fighting a strong rearguard action, the weight of evidence connecting mobile phone usage and mobile phone masts (eg electromagnetic radiation) with cancer and a whole raft of other health problems is now massive. But while this connection has been made with mobile telephony, the obvious extrapolation is made less often: that if the information-carrying pulsed electromagnetic waves of mobile phones are damaging to health, so are the  information-carrying pulsed electromagnetic waves of the wireless networks now being used to control everything from lamp posts to your meter readings.

Lamp posts…

Although the lamp post example sounds like a send-up, it is in fact only too true.

In March this year, Surrey County Council started work on fitting all its street lamps with 686MHz 25 mW microwave transmitters which will constantly communicate, via a mesh system, with a branch base station within one kilometre of the lamp, which will, in turn, constantly communicate with control centre some distance away. This will allow the most effective use to be made of the electricity powering them, turning them on and off from a central control point as needed.

Although, theoretically, information is only transmitted for 0.1 seconds every four minutes, depending on how the mesh system is working and how close your house is to the lamp post, you could be exposed to significant long term, low level radiation.

The ES-UK help line has already received a number of calls from electrosensitive Surrey residents and one report (published in their September newsletter) from a lady who can now only live in the back part of her house as the lamp post outside the front of her house has been ‘refurbished’ and ‘wired in’. The lamp now registers high levels of radiation so being in the rooms at the front of her house close to the lamp post gives this lady violent migraines and makes her feel really ill.

And it is not only Surrey residents who need to worry. Whatever about monitoring lamp post electricity use, Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, claims that he will have every lamp post and every bus stop in London entirely wifi enabled by the 2012 Olympic Games. A similar scheme in the City of London already offers people internet access everywhere – which may explain why electro sensitives find the city of London particularly  hard to deal with…

Smart meters

The increasing popularity of ‘smart meters’ to monitor your domestic gas or electricity use presents a similar problem. The new meters are radio controlled so that the utilities can both read your meter and monitor/control your usage without ever going near your house. In some countries (such as Italy) the information is sent via a cable system (like telephone) which is relatively harmless, but most are proposing to use wireless communication. British Gas is aiming to install two million ‘smart’ meters by 2012 using wifi (at 2.45 GHz) to connect to local mesh networks which will use Vodafone links to connect to the control centre. (**See below for very interesting comments from PowerWatch.)

British Gas say that by 2020 it will be a legal requirement to have a smart meter  in your house although, when asked, they said you would probably be able to opt out on health grounds – you can also opt out in the Netherlands. But even if you do not have a smart meter yourself, you may still get radiation pollution from your neighbour’s meters.

A similar system is already up and running in Canada where the emissions are currently running at around 6.0V/m which is significantly higher than the international Bioinitiative safety limit of 0.6V/m for mobile phones. Indeed a calculation done on the Canadian system suggests that, working at two thirds of its maximum capacity, one of these meters would give off the same amount of radiation per day as the recent (and very conservative) Interphone study suggested would be enough to increase cancer risk over a period of 10 years.

However, there are some cautious souls around. In California – where else –  several counties have already opted out or imposed moratoriums on smart meters on health grounds. Indeed, Fairfax town has actually passed an ordinance allowing the town’s police to physically prevent contractors from installing radiation meters!

Airport scanners

More immediately concerning is the wholesale use of radiation at airports to, supposedly, detect budding bombers and high-jackers. The Americans, being especially paranoid about security (or, possibly having more powerful ‘security’ lobbyists) have already installed nearly 200 body scanning machines at 50 domestic airports with another 800 on the way.

There are two types of machine – the ‘backscatter’ device which projects an X-ray beam onto the body displaying an image on a monitor to be viewed by a TSA (Transport Security Administration) officer in the next room, and the millimetre wave machines which bounce electromagnetic waves off the body to produce a similar image. Both machines can detect objects which are made of materials other than metal (plastics or ceramics) but they cannot see inside the body and cannot detect all types of explosives. So, one might well ask, what is the point of them?….

That aside, there is considerable concern about privacy and what use could be made of the images which, in theory, could not be saved, but which apparently can.

In health terms there are also major concerns not only about the amount radiation that the machines give off when they are working properly (the manufacturers say very low, but does anyone believe them?) and even more concern about how much they would give off if they were to go wrong which, in the nature of mechanical things, is more than likely.

(The international Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety report says that although the risk is 'extremely small' pregnant women and children should not be subject to scanning, and that Governments must justify the additional risk posed to passengers, and should consider 'other techniques to achieve the same end without the use of ionizing radiation.')

This is especially worrying as there is there are widespread worries about how thoroughly the machines were tested for safety. The guidelines against which they were tested were laid down by a committee which included representatives from the companies that make the machines and the Department of Homeland Security who wanted to use them…

Can one opt for an old fashioned metal detector and ‘pat down’? Well, theoretically, yes but according to investigations  done by the New York Times, the ‘other options’ offered to one passenger were leaving the airport or being arrested. EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Forum, has a forum on which you can report your experiences should you try to opt out of scanning.

A cheering post script. According to a report in the Corriere della Sera last month, Italian airports are likely to abandon the use of body scanners. A final decision is to be taken by a government commission but the airports in Rome, Venice and Palermo have already stopped using them judging them to be both slow and ineffective.

Post script - 24th November
The fear of a US nation-wide protest against naked body scanners and aggressive 'pat downs' (National Opt-Out Day) scheduled for November 24th resulted in the TSA turning off all body scannersat airporst for the whole day and allowing passengers to walk straight through with no scanning and no 'pat downs'. So what does that say about their claim that naked body scanners 'are absolutely essential for detecting hidden bombs and that passengers won't be safe without them'?....

December 2010 – See the open letter to Dr John Holdren, Assistant to the President of Science and Techonology by members of the University of California, San Francisco.


If you have concerns about either lamp posts you can contact Surrey County Council – who do offer a feedback form. If enough people do so it could have some effect.

If you wish to object to Boris’ desire to enable every lamppost and bus stop in Londonyou can email him direct at

British Gas are still at an early stage with their smart metering – the man I spoke to about opting out on health grounds was quite vague. However, once again, the more concern is voiced and questions they are asked, the more they may consider the health implications of their plans. There is a phone number you can use (0845 955 5820) on their Smart Metering pages.


** RE Smart Metering. A  report on the PowerWatch website suggests that 'according to Ofgem's own figures, an average household will pay about half of the £350 cost per home to install the meters through energy bills over the next few years, yet will save only about £14 a year on annual gas and electricity bills (i.e. about 1% per year) by 2020.'
PowerWatch then go on to examine smart metering in much more detail - both the Ofgem report and the many other approaches being made by other organisations and companies.

Also see Michelle's blog post

First published in October 2010


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