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Mysterious brain injuries at embassies may be linked to common ultrasonic devices

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: brain injuries suffered by embassy workers in China and Cuba may have been caused by everyday ultrasonic devices; Ireland votes on whether to repeal abortion ban

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's notable stories

Several workers at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba. have reported hearing strange high-pitched noises, which may be connected to cases of mysterious brain injuries among the staff. (Alejandro Ernesto/EPA)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Brain injuries suffered by embassy workers in China and Cuba may have been caused by phenomenon linked to everyday ultrasonic devices, researchers suggest
  • Irish voters head to the polls to decide whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that has effectively banned abortions in the country since 1983
  • The early forecast for the Atlantic hurricane season is windy, with plenty of destruction
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

The sound and the worry

The U.S. government is warning its employees in China to be wary of "unusual sounds" that might be causing brain injuries.

It's an echo of the problems in Havana, Cuba, that sickened 24 American diplomats and their families, as well as 10 people at Canada's embassy. A staffer at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou was recently diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury — a.k.a. concussion — after experiencing a "variety of physical symptoms" between late 2017 and early April.

A health alert issued by the American embassy in Beijing yesterday said the unnamed employee reported "subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure," prior to falling ill.

In an appearance before the U.S. Congress, Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State, said medical personnel have been sent to the consulate to investigate the new case, which he likened to the ongoing situation in Cuba.

U.S. investigators have been chasing many theories about what's harming American diplomats in Cuba, including a sonic attack, electromagnetic weapon or flawed spying device. (Desmond Boylan/Associated Press)
"The medical indications are very similar and entirely consistent," he said. "We are working to figure out what took place, both in Havana and now in China as well."

The American and Canadian diplomats and their families in Havana reported a variety of concussion-like symptoms, including dizziness, headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and cognitive impairment — yet none had experienced a physical blow to the head.

Initially, there were suspicions that the Cubans might be deploying some new type of sonic weapon, based on reports that some of the affected Americans heard painful, high-pitched noises.

Last October, the Associated Press released a six-second sound clip that was apparently recorded by a U.S. diplomat — a grating, electronic screech that sets teeth on edge.

Months of investigations have failed to determine the cause of the illnesses — at least as far as the public has been told.

American and Canadian diplomats and their families in Havana have reported a variety of concussion-like symptoms, including dizziness, headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and cognitive impairment (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)
Consequently, both Canada and the U.S. have reduced staff levels at their embassies and sent dependents back home.

Some experts, however, believe they know the source of the noises and the sickness, and that it's far from sinister.

"To call it an attack is to rule out a more likely explanation that it was an accidental exposure," says Timothy Leighton, a professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at the University of Southampton in the U.K. "This peculiar recipe of symptoms has been anecdotally reported for years. They just haven't been taken seriously."

In 2016, Leighton published a paper in the Royal Society journal Proceedings A theorizing that waves from a whole host of ultrasonic devices — from automatic doors to public address systems and even pest repellers — might be quietly making people ill by disturbing balance sensors in the ear and confusing the brain.

A Valeo representative swipes his finger across a phone to activate a self-parking car remotely. Self-driving and self-parking cars commonly use ultrasonic sensors to navigate. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
The symptoms of ultrasonic illnesses are similar to the after-effects of a concussion, Leighton says. "I think it's perfectly possible that people can get headaches and nausea from high-frequency sounds that most of us can't hear."

For his 2016 study, the professor recorded the background noise in a number of public locations where people had previously complained about odd sensations and illnesses, including a train station, library and museum. In all cases he found high levels of ultrasonic noise.

Leighton is currently at work on another paper that demonstrates what he calls a "marginal link" between concussion-like symptoms in humans and exposure to very low levels of ultrasound. (Ethical guidelines prohibit scientists from exposing people to more powerful blasts and perhaps more severe symptoms.) It will be published in a special issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America devoted to the topic of ultrasound in air.

The idea of someone attacking an embassy with an ultrasound weapon is far-fetched, he says, because such sound waves rapidly degrade over distance. High-frequency noises powerful enough to provoke symptoms would have to therefore come from somewhere inside the embassy — most likely in the same room.

Ultrasonic bird repellers are used to keep birds away from buildings and airports. (The Citizens' Voice, Warren Ruda/AP)
He's not the only one singling out accidental exposure to ultrasound as a likely explanation for the diplomatic illnesses.

Kevin Fu, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan who works with ultrasound, analyzed the U.S. diplomat's six-second audio clip, and decided to try and figure out its source. One of his grad students, Chen Yan, devised a series of simulations that suggest the noise may have been caused by intermodal distortion — which, according to this science blog post, "occurs when two signals having different frequencies combine to produce synthetic signals at the difference, sum, or multiples of the original frequencies."

In one experiment, Yan set up two speakers playing ultrasonic noise at different frequencies and managed to recreate the ear-shredding screech reported by embassy workers.

The problems in the embassies and consulate may therefore be as simple as a burglar alarm sensor or a high-tech anti-bugging system, crossing over with a plug-in mouse buster.

Ireland referendum

Irish voters head to the polls tomorrow to decide whether or not to repeal a constitutional amendment that has effectively banned abortions in the country since 1983.

The latest opinion surveys suggest that the "Yes" to a repeal campaign is headed for victory.

And a major factor may be the thousands of members of the modern Irish Diaspora making the trip home to cast their votes.

Pro- and anti-abortion campaign posters are seen fixed beside a sign for a polling station in Dublin, Ireland on Thursday. (Aidan Crawley/EPA-EFE)
The #HomeToVote hashtag has been trending for days as mostly young and mostly female Irish citizens share their travel plans and intention to back the repeal of the 8th amendment.

Estimates of just how many Irish citizens have emigrated abroad vary. The 2013 United Nations report on migration suggested that close to 770,000 Irish-born people are scattered across 72 other countries.

The Republic's department of Foreign Affairs and Trade puts the number at 1.47 million.

Pro and anti-abortion posters are displayed on lampposts outside government buildings in Dublin ahead of Friday's abortion referendum. The abortion debate that has inflamed passions in Ireland for decades will come down to a single question: yes or no? (Peter Morrison/Associated Press)
Either way, the flood of returnees seem set to bolster a "Yes" side that has already picked up momentum from an "unprecedented" surge in the registration of young voters.

Earlier this week, the National Youth Council of Ireland estimated that there has been a 90 per cent increase in the number of young voters signing up for this vote, compared to the 2015 referendum that legalized same-sex marriage. It says as many as 125,000 have been added to the rolls. 

The polls close at 10 p.m. (5 p.m. eastern in Canada) tomorrow, with results expected in the early hours of Saturday morning, Irish time.

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Hurricane forecast

The early forecast for the Atlantic hurricane season is windy, with plenty of destruction.

Researchers at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released their annual outlook this morning, predicting a "near normal or above normal" number of storms.

Hurricane Fred is seen near the Cape Verde Islands in this NOAA satellite image in August 2015. That year had the worst season on record, with 15 hurricanes. (NOAA/Reuters)
An average year sees a dozen named storms, half of which become hurricanes. The hurricane season runs from the beginning of June until the end of November, with its peak usually hitting in the second week of September.

The science is hardly exact, with this year's prediction calling for:

  • A 70 per cent likelihood of 10 to 16 named storms.
  • Five to nine of those storms to graduate to hurricane status.
  • Somewhere between one and four major (Category 3 or greater) weather events.

Another forecast, released last month by Colorado State University, predicted 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major systems. It also foresaw a heightened chance of a big-deal hurricane making landfall on the continental United States.

In comparison, last year saw 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major ones packing winds in excess of 178 kilometres per hour. That's well behind the worst season on record — 2005, with 15 hurricanes.

Houses are surrounded by fallen trees a week after the passage of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 27, 2017. The island is still struggling to repair the damage Maria did to its electrical grid. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)
But 2017 was the costliest hurricane season ever, due to the combined destruction of Harvey, Irma and Maria, which caused a total of $215 billion US in losses.

Research suggests that global warming is creating hurricanes with both more intense winds and greater amounts of precipitation, and that "100-year events" like the Harvey-induced floods in Texas are now occurring once every 16 years.

Records dating back to 1851 show that 10 of the 15 seasons with the most named storms have happened post-1999.

Quote of the moment

"If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write."

- U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the door open in a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un cancelling a planned June 12 summit meeting in Singapore.

U.S. President Donald Trump waves while walking across the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A few words on ...

The NFL's crackdown on anthem protests. Sports Illustrated journalist Robert Klemko says this will likely encourage players — some who didn't even take part in protests — to do so now.

What The National is reading

  • Flight MH17 was brought down by a missile fired from Russia, investigators say (CBC)
  • Zuckerberg set up fraudulent scheme to 'weaponize' data, court case alleges (Guardian)
  • Exhaustion and relief on board first Hercules airlift for Manitoba fire evacuees (CBC)
  • U.S. prepares to take action against Nicaragua if Ortega fails to cooperate (Miami Herald)
  • World War II bomb explodes in Dresden (Deutsche Welle)
  • Texas governor signals support for gun control measures after school shooting (Fox News)
  • A new catcalling law in France would charge a €750 fine (Quartz)

Today in history

May 24,1966: Truman Capote on writing In Cold Blood

Truman Capote's take on the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, and the subsequent arrest and trial of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, was a groundbreaking nonfiction book. But he didn't like that people focused on the crime rather than his art. "The subject matter of my book was purely incidental," he tells Robert Patchell in this interview at his New York apartment. "It was the least interesting, or important thing, about the book."

Truman Capote on writing In Cold Blood

4 years ago
Duration 26:25
From his New York apartment, the American author explains the difference between his non-fiction writing and journalism.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.