‘Sonic Attack’ in Cuba Caused ‘White Matter Damage’? The Facts Don’t Add Up

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It resembles a scene from a James Bond film. Between November 2016 and October 2017, twenty-four staff members at the American embassy in Havana, Cuba, were reportedly sickened after being the target of a mysterious “sonic attack.” Several Canadian embassy personnel also became ill with symptoms ranging from “mild brain trauma” to changes in the white matter tracks of the brain. The Associated Press even obtained an audio recording of a high-pitched whine that several diplomats identified as coinciding with the attacks they experienced. Most staff members were “targeted” in their homes and while staying at one of two nearby hotels.

Whatever happened in Cuba, it is almost certainly not the result of a sonic attack. Sonic weapons are bulky, impractical, and inefficient. Attempts to weaponize infrasound—acoustical waves at the low range of human hearing (twenty hertz and below)—have been challenging due to difficulties in focusing the wavelengths. Efforts to develop an ultrasonic weapon—at the upper limits of human hearing (20,000 hertz and above)—have been equally unsuccessful, as the sound waves dissipate rapidly with distance. Most of the waves would simply bounce off the walls of any building.

There is also the problem of explaining the range of symptoms. While claims of concussions and changes in white matter get much of the media attention, most symptoms were relatively mundane and included headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, fatigue, tinnitus, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, confusion, insomnia, hearing loss, vertigo, and nosebleeds.

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