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|People Hearing Persistent, Mysterious Hum Aren't Alone
New York Times
No one else in Phil Ciofalo's neighborhood in northeast Albuquerque by the foothills of the Sandia Mountains is bothered by the humming sound that irritates him constantly. They can't even hear it.
In other neighborhoods around the globe, however, Mr. Ciofalo has company, other people who complain of hearing a persistent humming sound, usually when they are in their homes seeking peace and quiet from a busy world.
"These people are definitely not crazy," said Jim Cowan, senior consultant for Acentech Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Acentech was hired by the City of Kokomo, Ind., to study a mysterious hum that residents first complained about in 1999. "They are just picking something up that others can't," Mr. Cowan said.
The preliminary investigation in Kokomo has determined one possible source for the hum, but like other studies it concluded that there could be several causes and that more research was needed.
The people who hear a hum do not appear to be suffering from tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ear that is not produced by an external source.
Dr. James Kelly, an ear specialist and director of surgical sciences at the University of New Mexico who examined complaints of a hum in Taos, said that "tinnitus hearers report hearing higher frequency sound" than the people he studied.
"The Taos hum is a low-frequency phenomenon," he said.
Dr. Kelly added that most hearing disorders affect perception at higher frequencies.
The most common description of the hum is that it sounds like the low rumble of a distant diesel truck idling. Some people also feel a vibration, or don't hear any sound but just sense the vibration. Others report various maladies they associate with the hum, including headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds, dizziness, fatigue and memory loss.
There have been reports of hums in England, Scotland, Australia and other places in the United States for decades.
The "hummers," as they are sometimes called, vary widely in age and in the times and locations that the sound is most pronounced.
Billy Kellems, a 37-year old truck driver in Kokomo, has been hearing a hum since 1999.
"It's like a train yard or a jet on the tarmac in the distance," he said, to describe the humming sound that he thinks causes his headaches and diarrhea.
Mr. Ciofalo, 81, says the hum he hears in his New Mexico home has made him irritable and gives him frequent headaches.
"It started about four years ago," he said. "It was a low hum sound that would come and go, but now I hear it all the time."
His housemate, Martin Schweighardt, who has numerous health problems, including difficulty hearing, does not hear the sound. They have lived in the house since 1984.
Mr. Ciofalo has contacted the county health and environment office and written his senators and members of Congress. Representative Heather A. Wilson, a Republican, forwarded his request to specialists at the University of New Mexico, and Mr. Ciofalo has received technicians from Sandia National Laboratories in his home to do tests.
He has temporarily had his power, security alarms, water and phone turned off and now sleeps with headphones on. He also had his hearing tested and found it to be "as good as a newborn baby."
In the 1990's, complaints about a humming sound in Taos reached Congress and an investigation was done.
But with the study inconclusive as to a source of the hum, news of it nearly vanished.
The hum, however, continues for some people in that area who share their problem by writing about it in local newspapers or in online discussion forums.
Dr. Kelly said that a lack of financing was the reason no further study had been done, but both he and Mr. Cowan recommended more research on low-frequency hearing to learn how it might affect human health.
Not everyone is convinced that the hum is real. In most cases there is simply no evidence that the hum people are hearing is coming from an external source.
Gregory Speis, a senior electronic technician at the University of New Mexico, was sent to Mr. Ciofalo's house to conduct tests this year after the chairman of his department received the letter forwarded from Representative Wilson's office.
Mr. Speis said he was unable to hear the hum or detect it with his equipment.
"I'm the kind of guy that believes in U.F.O.'s even though I've never seen one, and I would say this is not as probable as a U.F.O.," Mr. Speis said by phone from his office at the university.
Mr. Speis said he had heard rumors about the Taos hum. "I think some people want to hear things," he said. "I wouldn't call it mass hypnosis, but maybe it's the power of suggestion."
Kokomo has invested $80,000 to find the source of the hum 126 residents (in a town of about 47,000) there say they are enduring. That preliminary investigation determined that large ventilator fans at two industrial facilities could be causing the noise. The next step will be to measure the sound at those sites as the companies decrease or muffle the fans, then re-interview the affected residents.
"Although it's going to make a difference for most people, it's not going to make a difference for everybody," Mr. Cowan said.
The problem with some studies, including the less formal one going on at Mr. Ciofalo's home, is that even the most sensitive sound-monitoring equipment is often unable to detect the sound people say they hear.
Typically, people hear sound between 20 to 20,000 hertz. Sounds above 20,000 hertz are called ultrasound and below 20 hertz are called infrasound.
Internal organs can resonate, or sense a vibration, at certain infrasonic frequencies. The industrial fans in Kokomo were found to be emitting sound at 10 and 36 Hertz.
"Higher frequency sounds tend to be absorbed in the atmosphere; lower frequencies don't fade out as quickly and in fact can travel hundreds of miles with little attenuation," authors of the Taos study noted in 1993.
Perhaps the obvious solution is simply to move, and many people have after being unable to bear the chronic humming. But Mr. Ciofalo won't consider it.
"I'm not a quitter," he said. "I would like to see who or what is doing it. Why should I have to pick up and go?"