The State Department is conducting a tight-lipped investigation into unusual symptoms suffered by United States diplomats and their families stationed in Havana, Cuba. Beginning in late 2016, members of the U.S. embassy community began to suffer from various symptoms, which worsened until some patients were removed to the U.S. for medical treatment. Off the record, U.S. officials have reported and experts theorize about a sonic device that caused the symptoms. Meanwhile, the official investigation continues—to determine both the purpose of the device and who was responsible.
According to an anonymous source for the New York Times, the American diplomats’ symptoms included headaches, dizziness and hearing loss. The affected employees, who were not at the same place at the same time, suffered from what seemed like concussions. As a result of this incident, the U.S. flew a minimum of six people to the University of Miami’s hospital in 2017 for diagnosis and treatment of their unusual illness. One of the people examined at the university hospital purportedly had a blood disorder. According to one U.S. official, at least some suffered permanent hearing loss.
CBS News reports that, according to their review of medical records, some patients who were treated at the Havana Embassy were diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury and potential damage to their central nervous systems.
While the State Department would not confirm these details, on August 24, 2017, spokesperson Heather Nauert did state at a press briefing that more than 16 Americans from the embassy community were treated for a variety of symptoms. On September 1, that number was updated by Nauert to 19, including one diplomat diagnosed with unnamed symptoms as recently as August 2017.
“We would never give information about the the health status of one of the Americans,” Nauert said. State department officials are reluctant to release information about specific symptoms because they are still investigating which were caused by the events in Cuba.
The American Foreign Service, which serves as the diplomats’ union, released a detailed list of the symptoms suffered by their members. They ranged from permanent hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury, loss of balance, brain swelling, severe headaches, and “cognitive disruption.”
According to other U.S. officials, five Canadian diplomats and family members living in Havana also experienced related symptoms.
Unnamed U.S. officials told CNN that the ongoing investigation indicates the symptoms were the result of a sonic wave machine located in or near diplomatic housing. But, as of August 24, Nauert said no device has yet been found.
“We can’t rule out new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community,” Nauert said.
She confirmed the investigation is ongoing and continues to be revised as they obtain new information.
During the course of the investigation, the U.S. government concluded the symptoms must be attributed to a device that emitted sounds outside the human hearing range, anonymous U.S. officials told Time.
The most popular and viable scientific theory about how an audio device could cause the type of symptoms experienced by the diplomats in Cuba without detection by the diplomats is through infrasound. Frequencies at or below the range of a human’s ability to hear are known as low-frequency sound, or infrasound, and are used by whales to communicate long-distance. Some thunderstorms, machinery and other mechanisms also emit these types of frequencies.
Charles Liberman, a hearing loss researcher from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, agrees that infrasound is a viable possibility. He explains that to induce hearing loss with sound, you would need to overload the mechanical portion of the ear that senses audible noise.
“You overstimulate the part of the ear that’s mechanically tuned to those frequencies and it falls apart,” Liberman said.
What’s more, Liberman indicated, there’s growing evidence that infrasound—given off by windmills and wind generators when the blades beat—is causing headaches, dizziness and nausea to people who live and work close to the machines .
In a 2014 study, researchers from the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich demonstrated that low-frequency sounds, beyond human’s capacity to hear, could disrupt tiny whistles produced by the ear, in response to noise. Liberman posits that if the infrasound stimulated the part of the ear not dedicated to hearing – for example, the system that controls balance – the symptoms wouldn’t appear right away.
“You could imagine them being very slow onset and very persistent,” Liberman said. “It might take days before you even notice any funny sensations.”
Research also indicates infrasound can create symptoms beyond those controlled by the ear.
Dr. Scott Masten, toxicologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told CNN: “At certain amplitude infrasound can cause physiological effects — it can change heart rate, respiratory rates, blood pressure.”
According to an NIH survey, low frequency sound could cause other symptoms such as “intolerable sensations,” incapacitation, disorientation, vomiting, bowel spasms and “resonances in inner organs, such as the heart.”
Dr. Hung Jeffrey Kim, neurotologist at Georgetown University Hospital explained that low frequency sound can travel deep into your brain, where it can cause nerve injury and even a microhemorrhage. With long-term exposure, this can damage cognitive and memory functions.
Nauert’s August 24th statement did not blame the Cuban government.
“We’re not assigning responsibility at this point,” Nauert said, citing the unknown identity behind these incidents. “The investigation is ongoing.”
Cuba flatly denies any involvement.
Cuba issued a statement in Spanish, which read: “The Ministry emphatically emphasizes that Cuba has never allowed … Cuban territory to be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, without exception.”
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