Category Archives: health

Zounds! the Sounds?

Much has been made recently in the press about the mysterious “health attacks” on American embassy personnel in Cuba. In February of this year several embassy personnel reported strange symptoms including hearing issues upon returning to the us. Reported symptoms range from brain damage to hearing loss, speech disturbances, headaches, dizziness, nausea and tinnitus.

Some of those reporting symptoms claim to have heard various noises while others didn’t. Some report that these “attacks” occurred at night, even reporting that the attacks were only perceived when in bed or in a particular location in a room. Several Canadian diplomats and their families also reported untoward symptoms.

US officials have accused the Cuban government or agents acting on its behalf of conducting nefarious “sonic attacks.” Cubans have vehemently denied any such attacks. Speculation of others suggests that Russian or Chinese agents are responsible in an effort to degrade the otherwise improving relationship between the US and Cuba. Earlier Washington expelled two Cuban diplomats and recently decided to remove 60 % of the Americans from our embassy there.

Based on what little we know and even less we understand, what is the reality? Three scenarios come to mind: The illnesses are real and are due to purposeful attacks,or the illnesses are real but due to unrelated causes, or the illnesses are not even real physical symptoms but rather psychological issues. There is overlap between the latter two scenarios.

Physical evidence or even plausibility for the first scenario is weak. Many health physicists believe that any sound device that could produce actual brain damage (concussion) is inconceivable. A device capable of delivering that much power, at a distance, and through walls and windows of all kinds is just not realistic. Lower power devices may be able to produce lesser effects but the range of conditions over which people were effected such as at home, at the embassy or even while staying in hotels stretches credulity.

Assuming that all the above symptoms are real, what evidence is there that sonic attacks were responsible? If hearing loss exists, was there any evidence that the hearing loss wasn’t pre-existing? Could the reported brain damage have been there, undetected, from some other event? Dizziness, nausea, and headaches are extremely common and can be due to a welter of causes.

If we abandon the sonic attack hypothesis, what’s next? There are other conditions which could account for the symptoms, Meniere’s disease being foremost. This condition could explain all the above symptoms short of brain damage. The symptoms are due to fluid accumulation and or pressure differentials in the inner ear. Note that these symptoms are occasionally reported by travelers returning from warm moist climates to the north, especially in the winter. The first reported cases were from embassy officials traveling from Havana to the US in February.

Another confounding feature of all this is the reports of various strange nigh time events where noises or even spooky vibrations occurred. And in weird circumstances such as in only one part of a room and not another. Could this be no more than extremely lucid nightmares? Certain drugs, especially those used to prevent malaria infections, are know to produce these effects.

Finally and most contentiously is the possibility that some, if not many of the reported symptoms are psychological in nature. Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate physicist, defined science as “what we do to keep from fooling ourselves.” We need to be sure we are not fooling ourselves and know much more conclusively the origin of the symptoms. We should refrain from making decisions which may do harm to the fragile but improving relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Cell Phones and Cancer, Again

Like the Phoenix rising from ashes, so is the “cell phones cause cancer” meme. The current claim is based on a study done with rats exposed full body for nine hours a day for several months. The result was a statistically significant increase in two types of tumors, gliomas and schwannomas. Gliomas are tumors in glial cells of the brain and are rare, the incidence in 2008 was less than 7 per 100,000. In this study the schwannomas were found in heart cells and are even rarer. Important also was the fact that there was a dose-response relationship. Higher intensity cell phone radiation produced a greater incidence of tumors.

So is it time to keep that phone on speaker and never, never carry it around in your bra? Maybe not, at least the bra part. Where as there were increased tumors observed in male rats, there was no increase in tumors in females regardless of the dose (intensity of radiation.) That in itself is a problem as both male and female rats have glial and schwann cells so why were only the males affected?

The bigger problem with a link between cell phones and cancer is the fact that it is biologically implausible. Cell phones utilize radio waves as do WiFi, TV, microwaves and others. This is the lower energy form of electromagnetic radiation that does not cause ionization and therefore doesn’t cause chemical reactions. A chemical reaction is required to cause a mutation in DNA and hence initiate cancer. Higher energy radiation known as ionizing is a well know cause cancer. Too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the most common cause of cancer. X-rays are also a known cause of cancer.

The history of cell phones and cancer is somewhat odd. In 1989 Susan Reynard , 31, was diagnosed with an astrocytoma, a tumor of the astrocytes which is another type of brain cell. The tumor, in the eyes of her husband resembled the outline of a cell phone – just like she held it to her head. She died in 1992 and her husband sued the phone manufacturer and service provider claiming a causal link between her cell phone use and the tumor which killed her. He lost the suit.

A number of studies with laboratory animals and epidemiological studies with humans have been been conducted over the years with variable outcomes. Studies with animals always suffer from the fact that there may be physiological differences between us and other animals, hence risk factors will be different.

Even without a controlled study the connection between brain cancer and cell phone use seems sketchy. Whereas the incidence of brain cancer has remained relatively steady over the past few decades, use of cell phones has increased several hundred fold. It is estimated that 91% of adults in the US use cell phones.

Epidemiological studies look at the relationship between disease and human population factors. The most accurate are prospective studies where a group a people are followed over a long time span to see if there is a correlation with a disease and their exposure. A prospective study concluded in 2011 confirmed this lack of a relationship. Thousands of participants across 13 countries were followed for close to a decade. The was no discernible relationship whatsoever between cell phone use and cancer.