At least 21 US diplomats and family members in Cuba have experienced symptoms including hearing loss, mild brain injury, and central nervous system damage.
- Mysterious “sonic weapons” have been blamed for symptoms affecting American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba.
- Victims reported hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury, nervous system damage, and balance issues.
- Sound-based weapons exist, but experts aren't sure whether any were used in this case.
No one knows exactly what happened to the growing number of Americans and Canadians who have returned from diplomatic missions in Cuba with mysterious and disturbing symptoms.
Some can no longer remember words, others have hearing loss, speech problems, balance issues, nervous system damage, headaches, ringing in the ears, and nausea. In some there are signs of brain swelling or concussions — mild traumatic brain injuries.
Before the symptoms appeared, some of the victims remember strange occurrences. One diplomat reported a “blaring, grinding noise” that woke him from his bed in a Havana hotel, according to the Associated Press. The AP reports that some of the affected heard and felt nothing, while others heard similar grinding noises or a “loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas,” always in short bursts at night.
The vibrations, piercing sounds, balance issues, and hearing loss led some to surmise that an acoustic or sonic weapon was used against the diplomats.
But a number of experts aren't sure whether such a device exists.
“There isn't an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms,” Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist and author of the book “The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind,” told Business Insider via email.
“Brain damage and concussions, it's not possible,” Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and psychoacoustics expert, told the AP. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”
Horowitz explained that no known inaudible — and seemingly undetectable — device could have the properties attributed to these strange sonic weapons.
What really happened in Cuba?
The US government first acknowledged these cases in August. Since then, the number of affected victims has grown to at least 21 Americans connected to diplomatic missions and fewer than 10 Canadian households.
Many diplomats and their family members started seeking out medical attention for mysterious nausea, hearing problems, and balance issues in late 2016.
The attacks — if that's what they were — appear to have stopped. But the cause is still unknown. The FBI and Royal Canadian Mounted Police searched the homes and places where personnel seem to have been exposed to whatever it was that triggered the symptoms, but didn't find any clues.
A motive for the strange “attacks” is unknown. Cuban officials denied involvement in the incident and also said they would never permit another country's security forces to carry out a covert attack.
“Cuba has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception,” the Cuban government previously said in a statement.
Diplomats have experienced other forms of harassment, like break-ins and surveillance, since the US formally restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015. But a physical attack is unprecedented, and many experts say Cuba has no interest in damaging relations with the US. Some experts have said that the fact Canadians experienced similar symptoms make the possibility of an intentional “attack” even less likely, since Cuba and Canada have a strong relationship.
The US hasn't accused Cuba of perpetrating attacks and the Cuban government has reportedly been cooperative with the investigation.
What we know about sonic weapons
Sonic weapons exist, but for the most part they are “highly visible and easy to avoid,” according to Horowitz. There is no known sonic weapon or malfunctioning covert listening device that could be used in a covert way.
The fact that victims didn't all report hearing a certain noise, and that symptoms varied from person to person, make the case even more confusing.
Toby Heys, the leader of Manchester Metropolitan University's Future Technology research center told New Scientist that it's possible for something emitting infrasound — vibrations at a frequency below what humans can hear — to cause hearing loss. But Heys said that would require large subwoofers, making covert deployment unlikely.
Ultrasound devices, which operate above the range of human hearing, exist and could damage the ears, Heys said. But these would need to be directly targeted into the ear.
“Overall, I would be pretty circumspect about the claims to be honest — it is all very Philip K. Dick territory,” Heys said. “That said, we are living in a fairly surreal world right now.”
Horowitz said via email that without more evidence of these weapons, this incident should be considered a non-story, and that other possible explanations for these medical problems should be considered.
In the meantime, the mystery continues to grow.