Hour after hour, street after street, a hunt for stray voltage
Posted: September 26, 2009, 10:22 AM by Rob Roberts
By Michael McKiernan, National Post
Five nights a week, three converted Ford trucks weave through the streets of Toronto, checking every nook of the city for leaks in the electric infrastructure that can cause stray voltage.
At the controls tonight is Carl Clarke, a supervisor for Toronto Hydro. He oversees the three trucks and two repair crews on call to deal with any problems they identify. In his long career at "The Hydro," he's been no stranger to night shifts, so after a cup of coffee and an early evening breakfast, he's ready to play into the early hours.
"It's like a giant game of Pac-Man," said David Kalokitis, chief technology officer for Power Survey Company (PSC), the New Jersey firm that owns and operates the detection trucks for Toronto Hydro. "You have a map and you have to colour in all the streets on the map."
Toronto Hydro turned to PSC last winter as part of its all-out effort to tackle stray voltage, because of their experience working with Con Edison in New York, where they operate 14 trucks each night.
Following the deaths of two dogs and the shocking of a child in Regent Park last winter, all 600 Toronto Hydro workers were reassigned to inspect every one of the city's 13,000 handwells, while PSC brought seven trucks to complete a speedy scan of the city. The project wrapped up at the beginning of March with the total bill coming to more than $14-million.
Mr. Clarke has been honing his skills over seven weeks on the job, during which time he has gobbled up the dots on 45% of the city's streets. The project started with just one detection truck, but with winter fast approaching, when wet and salty conditions make shocks more likely, Toronto Hydro added two more and now expects a full sweep of the city to take three months in total.
Then, just like the arcade classic, the game begins all over again. Tanya Bruckmueller, a Toronto Hydro spokesperson, says the detection trucks have become a permanent feature, expected to devour between $3-4 million each year as part of the corporation's regular maintenance budget.
"It's the nature of the beast with contact voltage that you could scan today, but come back tomorrow and find something new, depending on the weather and a number of other factors. Now that we know we have it, it's always going to be there," she said.
Ms. Bruckmueller said the stray voltage hotline still gets about one call per month from members of the public who fear their animals have been shocked and she expects that figure to rise in the fall.
"People are overly sensitive now after the incidents last winter, which is not a bad thing. We always send out a crew, but we haven't detected any voltage," she said.
Mr. Clarke departs Toronto Hydro's Scarborough trouble response site at 8 p.m. and by 8:30, he's close behind the detection truck as it edges down Bathurst Street. Anything over 30 km/h is too fast for the equipment to work.
"The nice thing when you get to 2 a.m. is there's none of this," he said, pointing to the line of traffic ahead of him and the steady stream of irritated-looking late evening commuters passing his slow-moving convoy.
The detector itself is a large white appendage to the back of the truck, dotted with red LED lights along its length and secured by a triangular frame. Combined with the permanently flashing orange lights on top, the truck is a colourful, conspicuous sight on the road.
"When you're driving behind it for hours, it's almost mesmerizing. I had one guy tell me to have them turn it off one night because he thought he was going to go have a seizure," Mr. Clarke said.
Inside the PSC truck, the detector makes a low buzzing noise, not unlike a Pac-Man sound effect. The pitch peaks when an electric field is detected and two surveillance cameras attached to the back of the truck allow the operators to pinpoint the equipment that caused the noise.
"We're looking for any structure that the public can touch, and get a shock off. We sweep up everything and then pass it on to Toronto Hydro and they deal with it," Mr. Kalokitis said.
That means the sweep has found energized equipment belonging to other utilities, businesses and even private homes. One family got a 1:30 a.m. wake up call when their garage door produced a huge reading on the detector.
"We were scanning a laneway one night and found this door was energized at 100 volts," Mr. Clarke said. "They weren't very pleased, but we have a responsibility not to just leave it. 100 volts could do some serious damage."
The extreme sensitivity of the detector allows the crew to find as little as one volt on a surface within 10 metres of the truck. Toronto Hydro says the Electrical Safety Authority tolerates anything up to 10 volts, but they are reporting and fixing anything more than one volt. Mr. Clarke says there are no typical nights. On a recent quiet evening they found just six instances, but another outing days later caught 17 energized structures on one street.
"If you can fix them when they're low voltage, that's a lot better than waiting until they're higher," he said.
On Bloor Street, outside Varsity Stadium, the PSC truck stops and within seconds, technicians Darnell Howard and Danny Borras have coned off their vehicle. Spreading out with hand-held voltmeters, they test every traffic light, billboard and lamppost in sight, dodging traffic to get a reading on a manhole cover. This time it's a false alarm.
"Not all of them are real, but they're trained to be thorough. There are no quotas," Mr. Kalokitis said as his team clambered back into the truck, ready to tackle their next street.
Photo of Darnell Howard of Power Survey Company preparing to inspect manholes for stray voltage by Brett Gundlock, National Post
"International EMF conference in Stavanger, Norway On November 17th there will be an international conference in Stavanger, Norway. This is an opportunity to hear presentations on electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and health effects. The conference is an excellent opportunity to update your knowledge on documented health effects from wireless technologies such as mobile phones and wireless networks. Please find attached details about the conference including information on how to make a reservation. The final program will be distributed within a week or two. Welcome to a most important conference in Stavanger, Norway."
(Olle Johansson, assoc. prof.
The Experimental Dermatology Unit
Department of Neuroscience
171 77 Stockholm
The Royal Institute of Technology
100 44 Stockholm
Anti-wi-fi paint offers security
By Dave Lee
BBC World Service
Researchers say they have created a special kind of paint which can block out wireless signals.
It means security-conscious wireless users could block their neighbours from being able to access their home network - without having to set up encryption.
The paint contains an aluminium-iron oxide which resonates at the same frequency as wi-fi - or other radio waves - meaning the airborne data is absorbed and blocked.
By coating an entire room, signals can't get in and, crucially, can't get out.
Developed at the University of Tokyo, the paint could cost as little as £10 per kilogram, researchers say.
The makers say that for businesses it's a quick and cheap way of preventing access to sensitive data from unauthorised users. Presently, most companies have to invest in complicated encryption software to deter hackers.
Speaking on the BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme, Shin-ichi Ohkoshi, who is leading the project, explained how the paint could have many uses beyond security.
"In a medical setting, you could transmit large volumes of data from a medical device, such as an endoscope, to a computer.
“You could block phone signals from outside and stop people's phones ringing during the movie.”
Shin-ichi Ohkoshi, University of Tokyo
"By painting a solution containing our magnetic particles on the walls, you would quickly, and effectively, shield the room from stray electromagnetic radiation from outside."
While paints blocking lower frequencies have been available for some time, Mr Ohkoshi's technology is the first to absorb frequencies transmitting at 100GHz (gigahertz). Signals carrying a larger amount of data - such as wireless internet - travel at a higher frequency than, for example, FM radio.
"I'm working on a material that can absorb a larger range of frequencies. We are capable of making a paint that can absorb over 200 gigahertz."
He hopes that soon the technology could be woven into clothing.
"We're not sure about the true effects of electromagnetic waves, in this range, on the human body.
"We're assuming that excessive exposure could be bad for us. Therefore we're trying to make protective clothes for young children or pregnant women to help protect their bodies from such waves."
At the movies
The paint could also provide some much-needed relief during nights out at the cinema.
"Our current mobile phones work at much lower frequencies, around 1.5 gigahertz. But, our material can also absorb frequencies that low, so you could block phone signals from outside and stop people's phones ringing during the movie," he said.
As well as helping to keep the cinema quiet, the paint may also pave the way for higher quality screens.
"Movie pictures are beamed on the screen by the projector at the back of the cinema. But in the future, you could use a data link that works with millimetre waves.
"You would have problems with interference, unless you painted the wall and ceiling of the theatre with an absorbent material like ours.
"In fact, we've had an order from an American company keen to use our ink in its movie theatre - we've just sent them a sample."
Some security experts remain unconvinced by the paint.
"The use of electromagnetic shielding techniques are nothing new," said Mark Jackson, security engineer at Cisco UK. "They have been utilised by highly sensitive environments for many years."
Mr Jackson notes that while the paint may block eavesdroppers, it would not prevent other types of hackers or intruders.
"Paint that blocks RF based Wi-Fi transmissions does not in any way remove the need to ensure a robust security model is deployed," he added.
"Surely the thought of having to redecorate a building in order to provide Wi-Fi security is more costly & complex than security functionality available in even the cheapest of Wi-Fi access points?" he said.
Identification of highly radiosensitive patients may lead to side effect-free radiotherapy
Berlin, Germany: An international group of scientists has taken the first step on the road to targeting radiotherapy dosage to individual patients by means of their genetic characteristics, a radiation oncologist told Europe's largest cancer congress, ECCO 15 – ESMO 34 , in Berlin today (Thursday September 24). Professor Dirk de Ruysscher, from Maastricht University Medical Centre, Maastricht, The Netherlands, said that his team's work might provide the basis for personalised radiotherapy in which, with a simple blood test, doctors may be able to select the optimal radiation dose for a particular patient.
The team of scientists from The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Canada studied a group of patients with hypersensitivity to radiation therapy, drawn from the largest world-wide database available – the European Union-funded Genetic pathways for the prediction of the effect of irradiation (GENEPI) study, which integrates biological material with patient data and treatment specifications. The database included information from more than 8000 European patients.
"Part of this project is the establishment of a sub-database in which very rare patient characteristics are brought together with the hypothesis that their genetic traits will enable the characterisation of molecular pathways related to radio-sensitivity," explained Professor de Ruysscher. "A major problem for radiation oncologists at present is that we are bound by the need to avoid damage to normal tissues. This means that the dose of radiation generally used is governed by the response of the most radiosensitive patients, and this may lead to many patients receiving lower than optimal doses, hence affecting the ability to deliver a higher dose that may result in better local tumour control."
A tissue bank including skin fibroblasts (the structural framework of skin cells), whole blood, lymphocytes (white blood cells involved in the immune system), plasma, and lymphoblastic (immature lymphocyte) cell lines from patients who were known to be hypersensitive to radiation was established from patients in Europe and Canada.
When compared with a control group, also drawn from the GENEPI study, the hypersensitive patients showed either severe side effects occurring at very low radiation levels, or severe side effects lasting for more than four weeks after the end of radiotherapy and/or requiring surgery, or severe late side effects occurring or persisting more than 90 days after the end of radiotherapy.
The scientists identified 33 such patients, 10 males and 23 females, of whom 11 (two males and nine females) ultimately proved to be really hypersensitive to radiation, underlining the rarity of this condition. Their mean age was 61.6 8.5 years (range 49 – 74). One patient had non-small cell lung cancer, six breast cancer, two head and neck cancer and one lymphoma. The radiation doses, the overall treatment times, and the follow-up times all fell within the usual parameters.
"The severe side effects included acute skin reactions, extreme skin thickening or fibrosis, lung tissue inflammation and blindness due to optical nerve damage," said Professor de Ruysscher. "Although radiotherapy is a highly effective way of treating cancer, it is important that we are able to identify the patients who will react badly to it and adjust their dosage accordingly."
Radiotherapy works by causing DNA damage in cells in a particular area so that they destroy themselves. Because cancer cells reproduce more and are undifferentiated (lacking the ability to become a more specialised cell type), they are less able to repair the damage caused by radiotherapy than are differentiated, normal cells which can usually repair themselves. However, some of the normal cells surrounding the treatment site may also be damaged during radiotherapy, and it is this damage that leads to side effects.
Scientists already know that different types of tumours respond differently to radiotherapy; highly radiosensitive cancer cells such as leukaemias can be killed by quite low radiation doses, whereas melanomas need such a high dose that it would be unsafe to use radiation therapy in this case. The finding that individuals, as well as tumours, react differently will enable doctors in the future to target doses even more carefully, taking into account not just the radiosensitivity of the tumour type but also the potential reaction of the particular patient to treatment.
"We hope that the EU will fund a successor project to elucidate genetic pathways in combination with other patient data so that we can make predictive models that can be implemented in standard clinical practice," said Professor de Ruysscher. "We believe that, if we can understand what it is going on at a molecular level, we may be able to develop a blood test that will allow us to know precisely how an individual patient will react to radiotherapy, and to target the dose accordingly. Such personalised treatment will be a major advance, allowing us to minimise both radiotherapy doses and unpleasant side effects, while treating the tumour in the most effective way possible. Perhaps even more importantly, it will enable us to give higher doses to many patients and hence improve control of their tumours."
Abstract no: 2007, Radiotherapy and Radiobiology session, Thursday 10.45 hrs CEST (Hall 15.3)
 ECCO 15 – ESMO 34 is the 15th congress of the European CanCer Organisation and the 34th congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology.