More US diplomats, workers and their families in China are undergoing medical evaluation and evacuation amid growing reports of mysterious noise and pressure episodes that appear to be linked to the development of mild traumatic brain injuries, according to reports from The New York Times.
Last month, the State Department revealed that a U.S. employee of the U.S. Consulate in the city of Guangzhou, just northwest of Hong Kong, reported experiencing “subtle and faint, but abnormal sensations of sound and pressure” and a mildly traumatic experience. suffered a brain injury despite there being no evidence of a blow to the head. The episode drew eerie parallels to the mysterious “health attacks” experienced by diplomats at the US embassy in Cuba, in which 24 Americans suffered similar brain injuries.
That unidentified employee in Guangzhou was evacuated and sent to the US for more medical examinations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, issued a health warning on May 23 for those left behind in China. Though the ministry suggested vigilance, it added that it was “not aware of similar situations in China, neither inside nor outside the diplomatic community,” suggesting the episode was an isolated event thus far.
But in an interview with the TimeMark Lenzi, an American security engineer at the Guangzhou consulate, disputes that suggestion. “They knew very well that it wasn’t so” [an isolated case],” he said.
He, his wife and two children were evacuated on Wednesday, June 6. He said he and his wife had been having unexplained headaches and sleeping problems since late last year — about the same time the first, unidentified evacuated worker reported experiencing problems. The pair also reported unexplained noises, similar to marbles rolling around a metal funnel.
Since the health warning, more workers have come forward reporting such noise episodes and symptoms, including “dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, fatigue, cognitive problems, visual problems, ear and hearing loss, and trouble sleeping,” according to the State Department. . These symptoms generally correspond to those of a mild traumatic brain injury.
On May 31, a medical team and specialists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in Guangzhou and began screening some of the more than 100 employees at the consulate.
Fear and flight
In a statement released to the press late Wednesday, State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said:
As a result of the screening process to date, the department has sent a number of individuals to the United States for further evaluation and a comprehensive assessment of their symptoms and findings.
The department would not disclose the counts of those screened and evacuated so far, but an official told the Time that a “significant number” of people working in Guangzhou had requested screening.
For a “town hall”-style meeting that took place on Tuesday, June 5, acting director general of the Foreign Service William E. Todd flew to Guangzhou to discuss medical evacuations with workers, among other things.
The evacuees are being sent to the University of Pennsylvania Center for Brain Injury and Repair for further evaluation, where a team of doctors conducted in-depth clinical studies on 21 Americans affected by similar episodes in Cuba. In those cases, the team determined that the victims had “injured widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” Their results were published in March in JAMA.
So far, there are no leading hypotheses for the cause of the noises and brain injuries, despite the rampant discussion of “sonic seizures” and malfunctioning monitoring equipment. As Ars has pointed out earlier, it is unlikely that audible sounds or even infrasound alone can cause such brain damage, especially without large, hard-to-hide audio equipment, such as huge loudspeakers, being noticed by victims. A team of researchers suggested that ultrasonic interference from devices such as room occupancy sensors could explain the sounds people report. But again, there is no evidence or clear hypothesis that this causes the constellation of symptoms and brain injury in victims.
High intensity, focused ultrasound (>20,000 Hz) can cause brain tissue heating and damage. But, as Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and psychoacoustics expert, previously told the AP, “a person would have to submerge their head in a pool of very powerful ultrasound transducers” to sustain a brain injury.
As the team of doctors speculated in their JAMA report, the sounds can only be associated with the harmful phenomena, not the cause of injuries. Other guesses about the cause include collective delusions, toxins and infectious agents.
On Thursday, June 7, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was willing to assist the US in investigating the mysterious episodes.