Flawed studies and politics fuelled the hypothesis, say experts
A new report on Havana syndrome — a mysterious illness that afflicted hundreds of United States diplomats and intelligence officials worldwide — has brought renewed attention to microwave weapons.
Microwaves may have led to some of the cases of the disease that caused vertigo, nausea, vision and hearing difficulties, memory loss and headaches, according to the report by the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Experts, however, told Down To Earth that the microwave weapon theory doesn’t hold water. Flawed studies and politics fuelled the hypothesis, according to them.
Microwaves do not work very well as weapons, said Robert E Bartholomew, honorary senior lecturer in the department of psychological medicine at Auckland University. He wrote a book on the subject with American neurologist Robert W Baloh.
Microwaves can knock out electronic gadgets, wifi and even drones. Exposure to high levels of microwaves can cause a painful burn in humans.
“We expect to see visible effects on the skin and flesh,” Cheryl Rofer, a chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote in the Foreign Policy news website. “None of that was seen with the Havana syndrome.”
There’s no evidence that a microwave weapon exists, despite more than five decades of research on microwave technology.
What’s more, questions remain on how effective these weapons would be and how they would flow through buildings.
“When an electromagnetic ray or wave-beam enters the enclosure, it will bounce around and not follow a set trajectory,” Edl Schamiloglu, an electrical engineer at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque told Nature. This will make it difficult to target a person.
The United States had allegedly developed a prototype of a microwave weapon for the marine corps in 2004, according to the Guardian.
But nothing has come of it. “There is no evidence that the research was taken beyond the prototype phase, and a report on that stage has been removed from a US navy website,” The Guardian noted.
There is no evidence that the US and Russia have built such weapons either.
These symptoms of the disease are pretty common, experts pointed out. “There are hundreds of people not working in US embassies, who complain of symptoms identical to those reported by the US diplomats,” Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Edinburgh, UK, told DTE.
“Should these people also be considered as being affected by the same syndrome?” he added.
Some victims reportedly heard a sudden loud noise. As microwaves can induce such sounds, some believed that the radiofrequency beams were directed at them.
However, Bartholomew said the microwave frequency in question would produce a sound too low to be recorded. “With the hubbub of Cuba and the everyday noises of modern life, you’d have to crank up the power and end up frying the person’s skin in the process,” Kenneth Foster, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told The New York Times.
Cases of the syndrome have also been reported in Geneva, Berlin and a few other places.
The theory implicating microwave weapons is not backed by solid science. Foster said:
What you have here is politics being mixed with science. In the last five years, the American government spent tens of billions of dollars, wasting valuable time and resources.
Reports investigating Havana syndrome have contradicted each other, adding to the chaos.
On February 2, 2022, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which provides oversight to the intelligence community, concluded that exposure to pulsed electromagnetic energy, particularly in the radiofrequency (RF) range, was likely responsible for a subset of cases. RF includes microwaves and radio waves.
This contradicted the January 2022 report. The United States Central Intelligence Agency’s report (CIA) concluded that they found no evidence implicating US adversaries.
The report also stated that most of the reported illness was likely linked to a previously undiagnosed medical condition or stress.
The 2018 Jason Report made a case against microwave weapons. By analysing the sound recording provided by the diplomats, scientists said at least eight of the original 21 Havana syndrome incidents were “most likely” caused by crickets. The report was made public only in 2021.
Two studies published in the Journal of Advanced Medical Association suggested that Havana victims showed brain damage, fuelling the microwave weapon theory.
A 2018 paper concluded that 21 individuals with suspected exposure appear to have had sustained injury to the brain.
In 2019, a study found significant differences in the brain anatomy between people with suspected exposure and their healthy counterparts.
However, scientists have questioned such research work. I don’t see any evidence of brain damage in either of the two studies, Bartholomew said. “Those studies should have never been published,” he added.
For example, the 2019 study found minor brain anomalies. It is common for studies on small groups to show brain anomalies, he added. “Patients experiencing prolonged stress also show these changes. This is not brain damage.”
Sala concurred. “There is no evidence of brain damage. The few subsequent reports are methodologically flawed and inconclusive,” he added.
Originally, the syndrome was branded as “sonic attack”, as fastidious and persistent noises accompanied the symptoms.
But the sonic hypothesis lost ground when scientists saw that the noises were very likely from local mating crickets.
What else could explain the illness?
“This is a textbook outbreak of mass psychogenic illness,” Bartholomew said.
This condition refers to a group of people falling sick after believing they have been exposed to an environmental “trigger” like a bad smell or prolonged stress caused by a rumour of exposure to a poison.
Prolonged stress appears to have been behind the Havana syndrome.
People experiencing mass psychogenic illness are likely to experience headaches, dizziness, faintness, nausea, weakness or a choking feeling – the same signs one would experience during a “stage fright”.
“Mass psychogenic illness symptoms are as real as any real symptom,” Bartholomew explained. “The people are experiencing real pain, real suffering,” he added.
These signs take time to subside – sometimes over months, days or weeks. But when stress goes down, the symptoms will disappear.
“However, if you have been told by the media and doctors that you have brain damage, the symptoms will take longer to subside,” he explained.
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