As It Happens

Microwaves behind 'sonic attacks' on Canadian and U.S. diplomats, says doctor

A researcher from the University of California, San Diego medical school has completed the most comprehensive study yet into the possibility that microwave radiation is responsible for the mysterious illness afflicting U.S. and Canadian diplomats in China and Cuba.

'The profile in symptoms matches strikingly with what might be called radiowave or microwave sickness'

Tourists in classic American convertible cars ride past the United States embassy, right, in Havana, Cuba. (Ramon Espinosa/The Associated Press)

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It began with a sound, described by those afflicted as an intensely loud buzzing, grinding, or piercing squeal — followed by months of headaches, disorientation, and trouble paying attention.

That sound and the resultant symptoms were markers of a mysterious ailment that struck down American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba and China between 2016 and 2017.

While a conclusive agent or weapon has yet to be identified, the so-called "sonic attacks" forced the Canadian and U.S. governments to bring their people home early for fear that a third party was purposely targeting personnel.

Officials and experts have repeatedly suggested microwave weapons as an explanation. And although a report released earlier in March didn't link the diplomats' symptoms to microwaves, Dr. Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, is certain that microwave electromagnetic radiation is to blame. 

Golomb spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from San Diego. Here is some of their conversation.

Dr. Beatrice Golomb of the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. (Courtesy of the UCSD Department of Medicine)

Dr. Golomb, should we assume that if this does turn out to be due to microwaves, that it is intentional — is it necessarily weaponized microwaves?

It doesn't have to be weaponized. The three possibilities are: weapons, surveillance devices — or I'll include in the same category counter-surveillance devices — and the third would be, but very unlikely in this case, innocent communications sources of the kinds that lead to these same health problems in some people in the civilian sector.

My hypothesis would probably veer toward the surveillance end of things. It is well-known that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was microwaved from 1953 to the late 1980s or 1990s. Health problems were reported by diplomats.- Dr. Beatrice Golomb, professor of medicine the University of California, San Diego

If it turns out that this was a weapon, how does it get targeted to affect a certain individual or group of individuals?

Well, in the same way that you would target a laser — based on the positioning of the emitting device relative to the individual.

But my hypothesis would probably veer toward the surveillance end of things. It is well-known that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was microwaved from 1953 to the late 1980s or 1990s, depending on the source. The U.S. engaged in shielding efforts related to that. Health problems were reported by diplomats.

According to New York Times articles, it had been bugging by Moscow. But Russia reported that what they were doing [was] trying to thwart our surveillance devices that were on the roof of the embassy.

So you think that these diplomats in China and Cuba may have suffered these consequences as a result of listening devices?

I see no reason to assume weaponry, in favour of surveillance devices. What I have seen so far appears compatible with surveillance.

What is the implication in terms of long-term exposure to these kinds of waves?

That's a good question. And Russia is well-ahead of us in doing research in this area. In fact, their threshold for allowable radiation is 1/10,000th of what ours [is].

From Russian studies in the 1970s in which they followed people who had occupational exposure to radio-frequency microwave radiation, who had developed health problems of the kind that are now being reported by diplomats, what they stated was that the most important thing in determining the long-term health course was avoidance of re-exposure.

An American flag flies next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony for visiting U.S. President Donald Trump outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

So people who have been exposed, they should not be in that situation again?

Especially the ones that have at least moderate effects. It's a minority of diplomats who report these health effects, just as it's a minority of people in the civilian sector who report health effects from microwave radiation.

I've read it's much like someone experiencing symptoms of a concussion, but having not had an actual a head injury.

Yes, some describe it like a concussion. It's interesting that in both [the diplomat and civilian] cases, at least a fraction of the individuals affected had prior head injuries. So one possibility is that head injury may be a pre-disposing factor.

What is the likelihood these diplomats will make a full recovery?

It will vary from diplomat to diplomat. We know this from the old Russian literature, with following people. It's the same as with head concussion. Some will make a full and complete recovery, some will have lingering problems.

If the correct cause is correctly identified, then mechanisms, both for protection — in terms of things like shielding — and also treatments that may help ameliorate the symptoms and improve recovery may be implemented, as opposed to if the lines of thinking are going in the wrong direction.

Written by Kevin Ball and Ashley Mak. Interview produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A edited for length and clarity.