Weaponized sound

Havana mystery: Weaponized sound or ‘spooky action at a distance’?

U.S. Embassy in Havana | Photo credit: Escla licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Albert Einstein never accepted quantum physics, proving that geniuses don’t know everything. One phenomenon he couldn’t explain—now known as “quantum entanglement”–he simply dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” But it has lately (decades after Einstein’s death) been proven.

Something else that’s not understood yet is the odd case of “weaponized sound” that appears to have sickened people at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. This piece in Wired Magazine, as well as this article in The New York Times, are by far the best so far on this mysterious and unexplained situation.

If you, like we, have been pondering this, wondering if an LRAD was involved or perhaps some secret source of weaponized infrasound or ultrasound, don’t expect a definitive answer just yet. Adam Rogers, the author of the Wired piece, and Carl Zimmer, of The New York Times, dug deeper than most and even talked to some scientists (in the U.S. and Russia) to see what, in anything, anybody knows. The answer is this: it’s still a mystery, but stay tuned because they’re gradually eliminating possibilities. The most probable scenario involves a combination of ototoxic chemical exposure with some form of weaponized sound. Yes, there are many ototoxic chemicals and drugs, that is, chemicals and drugs the exposure to which can destroy your hearing, including several chemotherapy drugs.

Is this kind of lethal combo possible? Probable? Likely?

Whatever it is, it apparently is NOT an LRAD. Yes, it’s true that LRAD’s are being distributed to and used by police forces since 2009, but whatever has been going on in Havana, that’s not the answer. Stay tuned.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

“Health attacks” by inaudible sonic waves are real

Photo credit: Tess Watson licensed under CC BY 2.0

James Hamblin, The Atlantic, writes about the attacks on American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba in his article, “What Are Sound Weapons?” Hamblin starts his piece by describing the incidents which caused several Havana-based diplomats to suffer headaches, balance issues, and even severe hearing loss. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Hamblin notes, refered the to incidents as “health attacks.” And the AP reported that “U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been attacked with an advanced sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.”

The weaponization of “energy waves with frequencies outside the range that the human ear can detect” is not new, writes Hamblin, and the health effects from exposure to inaudible sonic waves are real. Hamblin shares the story of residents of Kokomo, Indiana, who in 2001 experienced “annoyance, sleep disturbance, headaches, and nausea.” The U.S. National Institutes of Health investigated the matter but “couldn’t pin down the cause of the Indiana residents’ symptoms as infrasound.” The report, however, “did confirm that infrasound can cause fatigue, apathy, hearing loss, confusion, and disorientation.”

In the end, U.S. officials don’t know if Cuba is responsible or some third party, with the suggestion offered that the actor could have been “Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Iran.” But Hamblin adds that the attack is hardly sophisticated, as “[n]oise-induced hearing loss affects around one in four people,” although the source of noise is more mundane for most of us: loud concerts, shooting guns, and everyday failures to protect our hearing. Says Hamblin, “fascination with this sort of attack can be a reminder that it is worth arming ourselves in daily life against the more quotidian forms of sonic weaponry.”

The unintended consequences of (failed) diplomacy


U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba (photo: U.S. State Department)

, McClatchy, reports on the mystery surrounding a sonic device used against U.S. and Canadian diplomats stationed in Cuba that caused hearing loss. Johnson writes that it is known that the “U.S. military deploys nonlethal noise and radiation weapons to incapacitate aggressors,” like a device that “can hit you with sound that will make you not be able to stand up” or that can “literally heat up water molecules under the skin’s surface.” And, of course, “[r]esearchers have also experimented with ultrasonic and infrasonic frequencies above and below the level at which humans can hear,” which, in some cases, “can cause physical discomfort at high intensity.” “They call them brown tones,” said Vahan Simidian, the CEO of HPV Technologies Inc., a firm that makes “long-range speakers that can send sound as far as two miles.” Why do they call them brown tones? Because they “can make you sick to your stomach.” And you can guess what happens next.

But the device used in Cuba was different. How? This device caused hearing loss in those it targeted. So why did Cuba purposefully deafen the diplomats? Vince Houghton, an intelligence historian employed by the International Spy Museum, speculates that it was a run-of-the-mill harassment campaign that got out of hand. Says Houghton:

The most likely scenario to me is this was used to harass, to annoy, to kind of goof off and be, like, ‘Ha ha! Let’s make them sick to their stomach. Let’s make them dizzy.’ And then, ‘Oh crap, it went too far…’

Houghton also believes that someone else was involved in developing this weapon, because the technology would be too “resource intensive” for “cash-strapped Cuba.”

The Cuban government responded by stating that it “has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that “investigators were looking into the possibilities that the incidents were carried out by a third country such as Russia, possibly operating without the knowledge of Cuba’s formal chain of command.”

The only good news from this twisted tale is that the unknown sonic device was probably intended only to harass, not disable. But when we read this piece our first thought was this: what if the resources marshalled to create this and the other appalling sound-based weapons were spent instead on educating the public on how to protect their hearing or distributing ear protection to vulnerable populations? That is, why do we accept that there is always money for weapons, but so little for public health?

Thanks to Bill Young, PhD, a noise reduction advocate from Stamford, Connecticut, for the link to The Washington Post article.

Judge denies NYPD’s motion to dismiss sound cannon lawsuit

Photo credit: Peter Bergin licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Mark Chiusano, AMNewYork, writes about the New York Police Department’s use of long range acoustic devices on people who were protesting against “the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island.” One protester, Anika Edrei, ran after hearing a crash that sounded like a bottle shattering near the crowd, but then Edrei heard “a different sound,” one which sounded like a very loud car alarm. How loud? “Another listener described it as the loudest noise he’d ever heard.”

Edrei saw two police officers carrying “a bulky appliance,” which was a long range acoustic device (LRAD). LRADS can be used as a loudspeaker, but they also generate “sharper, high decibel “alert” or “deterrent” tones intended to control a crowd.” Chiusano reports that the police’s use of the sharper, high decibel tone on the crowd was “one of the first times the police reportedly used the tone.” Edrei and others claim that they suffered injuries due to the exposure to that tone.

LRADs are military devices that were developed after the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, but Chiusano writes that the devices “made their way to some police departments, too.” The NYPD purchased two LRADs before the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Edrei and others at the protest have sued the NYPD for injuries they claimed to have sustained from exposure to the LRADs, asserting that after exposure they developed migraines, sinus pain, dizziness, facial pressure, and ringing in their ears. Chiusano notes that:

[I]nternal NYPD documents available so far appear to lend weight to the plaintiffs’ claims. A 2010 document from the department’s Disorder Control Unit says the device’s alternate function can emit sounds at higher levels “than are considered safe to human ears. In this dangerous range (above 120 decibels), the device can cause damage to someone’s hearing and may be painful.

Chiusano reports that the judge “appeared convinced of the possibility of danger, finding a ‘cognizable claim’… that use of the LRAD had constituted excessive force.” As a result, the federal lawsuit will continue, while “the conclusion of a separate lawsuit in June requires the police, in part, to release certain documents about current LRAD training and usage procedures.”

It is disgraceful that a U.S. police department would use a device that can permanently injure its victims on citizens engaging in their First Amendment right to protest.

When noise is a weapon

Photo credit: Soundweapon by Peter Bergin licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Colin Moynihan, The New York Times, reports that a federal judge has ruled that the sound emitted by a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) used by the New York City Police Department to order protestors onto sidewalks “could be considered a form of force.” LRADs may “resemble heavy-duty speakers of the sort used to make announcements at high school football games,” but they are, in fact, powerful sound cannons. “[D]eveloped in part as a response to a terrorist attack on a Navy destroyer…[the LRAD is] capable of emitting sound bursts loud enough to repel potential attackers.” Moynihan writes that on the night of the protest:

[T}he police used a model called the 100X to emit a series of sharp, piercing beeps directed at people who in some cases were less than 10 feet away. Soon afterward, six of those who were nearby at the time and said they had developed migraines, sinus pain, dizziness, facial pressure and ringing in their ears filed a lawsuit challenging the police’s use of the device.

With this ruling, the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, which asserts that “their 14th Amendment rights had been violated, by an excessive use of force,” can proceed against the city and two members of the Police Department’s Disorder Control Unit. The judge found that the officers used one of the LRADs to order protestors onto the sidewalks, but also “employed the deterrent tone between fifteen to twenty times over a span of three minutes” and  “at points the officers used the device within 10 feet of the plaintiffs and angled it toward them.”  One of the plaintiffs said that “the sound that night was earsplitting and seemingly without respite,” adding that “[i]t’s like a noise flamethrower.”

The idea that a weapon developed to repel terrorist attacks was used on U.S. citizens who were protesting peacefully–a right guaranteed under the Bill of Rights–is appalling. One hopes that this lawsuit will remove LRADs from all police arsenals, and lead to the general recognition that sound can be a weapon and noise must be controlled.


What’s the one thing never mentioned when discussing drone delivery?


Imagine 100 of these, overhead, constantly

Dyllan Furness, Digital Trends, writes about the U.S. military’s successful launch of “one of the world’s largest micro-drone swarms” in October in a piece titled, “The sound of 103 micro drones launched from an F/A-18 will give you nightmares.” Click the link to the piece and hit play on the video at the top of the page. The micro-drones can be heard starting at 2 minutes, 17 seconds.

We’re not sure if the sound will give you nightmares–although it is unnerving–but it did make us wonder about what would happen to our soundscape should Amazon and others succeed in convincing governments that drone delivery is a great idea. What you hear on the video is 103 micro-drones–small drones “with a wingspan under 12 inches.”  Now imagine a battalion of full-size, package-wielding delivery drones flying above your head. Just saying.



Anti-social miscreant nabbed by cops

Photo credit: El Segundo Police Department

Photo credit: El Segundo Police Department

Joseph Serna, L.A. Times, reports that “praise poured onto El Segundo Police Department’s Facebook page from ecstatic residents” this past Sunday, November 13th.  Why?  Because “'[t]hey found the air horn guy!!’ wrote Jenn Birch.”  Yes, John W. Nuggent, pictured above, outfitted his “little blue four-door, 2006 Chevrolet Aveo” with “an air tank with hoses connected to a device near the car’s gas pedal.”  When the officer tried the car’s horn, he heard what sounded like the horn of “a big truck or train.”  Nuggent then admitted that he was the guy who had been driving down the middle of the street for six weeks, waking up the residents with his horn, all to annoy one specific resident with whom he had had a dispute.

Nuggent was arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace.  We suspect the prosecutor should get an easy conviction.



A fascinating read about the weaponization of sound:

When Music Is Violence.  Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, reports on the use of extremely loud noise in psychological-operations and warfare.  The American public was introduced to this tactic in December, 1989, when the military employed it in Panama, blasting “non-stop music [to] aggravate [Manuel] Noriega into surrendering” after he was expelled from power and took refuge in the Papal Nunciatura in Panama City.  Although the “media delighted in the spectacle”, both “President George H. W. Bush and General Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took a dim view of it.”  Despite a lack of enthusiasm for weaponized noise at the top of command, the use of loud music as a weapon has increased. “[D]uring the occupation of Iraq the C.I.A. added music to the torture regime known as “enhanced interrogation,” and the tactic has also been used in Guantánamo.

Ross looks at the intersection of music and violence, noting that when “music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature.”  He states, “[s]ound is all the more potent because it is inescapable,” and notes how technological development has led to long-range acoustic devices that “send out shrill, pulsating tones of up to a hundred and forty-nine decibels—enough to cause permanent hearing damage.”  The discussion turns darker as Ross examines the “music sadism” pioneered by the Nazis, and draws the thread to Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Mosul, and Guantánamo, where “the loud-music tactic displays a chilling degree of casual sadism: the choice of songs seems designed to amuse the captors as much as to nauseate the captives.”  And there is more.

Do click the link above.  The article is thought provoking, disturbing, and absolutely worth reading.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D. for the link.  Dr. Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area.  He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.