Tag Archive: Cuba

After Cuba can the U.S. still claim noise is just an “annoyance”?

Photo credit: Stevenbedrick licensed under CC BY 3.0

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

Are you following the Cuba episode on “weaponized sound”? If so, here’s some additional reading.

Nobody’s certain what’s going on there. Is it a hoax? A Trumpian cover for pulling the U.S. embassy out of Havana?

No. It could be both real and very ironic….

What’s interesting to those of us who are concerned about the epidemic of noise in America and the effects of that noise on everyone’s health, is this:

The official posture of several intimidatingly large U.S. federal agencies—for example the Departments of Commerce and Transportation and the EPA—is that noise is nothing more than “annoyance.” That policy has been in place for over 35 years. But if noise is merely “annoyance” how has it been “weaponized” by some foreign adversary?

The latest speculation is that the “sonic attack” in Havana might have involved “infrasound.”

Fact is, In the U.S. infrasound is poorly understood precisely because there’s been so little funding to research it. Why? Because if noise doesn’t matter, if it’s merely “annoyance,” then just ignore it. And so the U.S. has ignored noise for decades, but that may be coming to an end.

Perhaps the decades of ignoring noise and its impact on health will now change and researchers will have to unscramble some wily adversary’s “secrets” because they appear to be in use against us. Ironically, by ignoring the importance of sound and noise for nearly four decades, the U.S. has fallen behind and will have to scramble to catch up.

But that’s an old story, isn’t it?

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.