There’s something in the air tonight – and every night for mechanical engineer Simon Payne and it’s not pleasant – as his life has been plagued by the phenomenon known as “The hum”.
The low frequency noise, which only a tiny minority of people can hear, creates a din so loud that it is almost impossible for those who can hear it to block it out.
Simon, who lives in Little Paxton, even moved house to try to escape the noise – comparable to the sound of a distant diesel engine idling – but he could still hear it. Whenever he travels, even abroad, he may be clear of it for about a day or two and then his hearing will tune into it again.
He now can’t get by without resorting to sleeping pills, which he said he is now addicted to, because he said that the only way to block out the sound is to knock himself out.
“It has completely ruined my life, my health and my career. I have lost most of my friends and as a result become really isolated,” Simon said.
Aged 50, he said it is very rarely a sound that is heard by younger people, who traditionally can hear much higher frequency sounds. It was in 2006 that he first began to notice the hum, which he said is louder inside buildings and which he maintains has got louder.
“When I first began to hear it, what alarmed me is that I just could not identify it or block it out either. But I have been determined to try to get to the bottom of it. For me there is no doubt in my mind that it is a worldwide phenomenon and what is causing it I don’t know, but I have my theories.”
His doctor, who has said there is nothing wrong with his hearing, wanted to refer him to a specialist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, not because there is a cure, but for cognitive behaviour therapy to teach him ways to cope with the sound.
He called in Environmental Health which managed to capture the sound using sophisticated equipment. However it is difficult discern because it also picks up every other tiny sound in the house. But Environmental Health was perplexed as to the source of the sound.
Simon is not alone as tens of thousands of people across the world say they can also hear the hum.
“Most people can’t hear it so those who can are considered to be a nut case or delusional. I am not interested in claims that it may be an alien and conspiracy theories, or any of that nonsense. I am a rational person, an engineer by training and not given to flights of fancy, but I simply can’t believe I am the only person in the area to have heard this noise every night for years on end.”
Although it is recognised that the hum is a low frequency sound that certain people can hear, its source remains a mystery.
“I feel that only exposing this as a serious public health issue will force governments to act and investigate it properly,” he added.
There have been reports of the sound in newspapers throughout the UK, particularly in the south of the country, and across the world. The Hum Forum has been formed and is devoted to discussion about the noise, which they said is heard by one to 10 per cent of the population in certain areas.
Simon wants to hear from other sufferers so that a local lobby can be formed to push for research in the hope that those who are suffering do not continue to do so in silence.
On Tuesday, the city council of Berkeley, California, will vote on a cellphone “right to know” law that would be the first safety ordinance of its kind in the country. It would require cellphone retailers to include a city-prepared notice along with the purchase of a cellphone, informing consumers of the minimum separation distance a cellphone should be held from the body.
The Federal Communication Commission recommends keeping your phone 5 to 25 millimeters away, depending on the model, to limit radio frequency (RF) exposure to safe levels.
“If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF [radio frequency] radiation,” is part of the proposed language. Retailers would be prohibited from selling phones that do not bear the warning: “This potential risk is greater for children. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely.”
Berkeley might become the first city to adopt such an ordinance, but it’s not the first place to try. Health groups and consumers have been campaigning for cellular safety regulations for years now.
A cellphone warning label bill was introduced in Maine in 2010 by state senator Andrea Boland, who says the public deserves to know about the potential risks associated with cellphone radiation. “Obscure warnings in tiny print or embedded deep in phones can only protect manufacturers from users,” Boland points out, “not users from potential harm like cancers, Alzheimer’s, learning disabilities, reproductive issues, etc.”
Her bill died in committee, but a 2015 version is currently awaiting a floor vote. It would require cellphone manufacturers to print safety notifications on the outside of the packaging or add a “Safety Notice” label directing consumers to read the safety information in the owner’s manual.
The city of San Francisco came closer on this front, approving regulations in 2010 that mandated cellphone retailers display the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) — or the amount of radio frequency (RF) energy absorbed by the body — for each phone sold. The Cellular Telephone Industries Association immediately sued the city, claiming the law would confuse consumers by implying that lower radiation levels are safer, and the ordinance was thrown out.
Now the Berkeley proposal seeks to address concerns that even as cellphones become ubiquitous in our lives, many people remain unaware of basic safety recommendations.
Ellen Marks, executive director of CABTA, endorses cellphone “right to know” laws, pointing out that while the majority of cellphone manufacturers include such safety information, it can be very difficult to find. For example, she notes that BlackBerry manuals tell users, “Keep the device at least 0.98 inches (25mm) from your body when the BlackBerry device is turned on and connected to a wireless network.” But it takes 5 steps to find the warning — you must click on settings, general, about, legal and RF exposure — and most users don’t even know it’s there. “The public deserves the right to know that there is safe distance information required by the FCC hidden deep in the phone or in the manual,” Marks said.
The radiation guidelines, established by the FCC in 1996, assumed users would carry their cellphones at least a small distance away from the body, in a holster or belt clip, which was common practice at the time. Health activists warn cellphone users today tend to keep their phones in pockets, which means they could be exposed to much more radiation — possibly 2 to 7 times more.
To further reduce RF exposure, the FCC suggests using a speakerphone, earpiece or headset, or texting rather than talking.
A “global health experiment”?
Berkeley’s vote comes the day after the release of a letter signed by 190 scientists from 39 countries calling on the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and national governments to develop stricter controls on cellphones and other products that emit RF or electromagnetic fields (EMF). The letter states, “The various agencies setting safety standards have failed to impose sufficient guidelines to protect the general public, particularly children who are more vulnerable to the effects of EMF.”
Other respected medical groups have also suggested action is needed. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged the FCC to adopt cellphone radiation standards that are more protective for children, and to require more meaningful disclosure for consumers.
Cellphones emit RF energy — or non-ionizing radiation — that is absorbed by tissues nearest to where the phone is held. Although exposure to ionizing radiation, the kind used in x-rays, has been proven to increase the risk of cancer, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) states “there is currently no evidence that non-ionizing radiation [from cellphones] increases cancer risk.” It said the only known biological effect of RF energy is heating, which has not been proven to damage DNA, generally believed to be necessary for cancer development.
A February 2015 study, however, looked at the effects of mobile phone and Wi-Fi radiation on existing breast cancer cells and found the closer in distance the RF exposure was to the skin, the greater the damage to the underlying cells. Specifically, it found radiation increased reactive oxygen species (ROS), which impairs the ability of cells to repair themselves, which has been proven to contribute to cancer development.
In 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radio frequency like that emitted by cellphones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” But the American Cancer Society maintains “the evidence remains uncertain,” and the issue needs further study; in the meantime, it recommends that anyone concerned about it simply try to limit their exposure.
Many experts believe larger studies over a longer period of time are needed as the number of cellphone users continues to skyrocket and wireless technology evolves. A full understanding of the effects of long-term exposure remains to be seen since cellphone use only became prevalent within the last 20 years.
Many health activists are troubled that the pace of research is not keeping up with the emergence of technology. “I think we’re undergoing a major global health experiment unprecedented, perhaps, in the history of the planet,” Dr. Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California Berkeley, told CBS News. Similar to exposing the effects of smoking, he says, it could take up to 20 years to convince consumers about what he believes are the adverse health effects of wireless radiation.
Could a warning make a difference?
Dr. John West, director of surgery at the Breastlink medical practice in Orange County, California, has seen a number of cases that have convinced him there’s a connection between cellphone radiation and breast cancer.
One of those patients is Shea Hartman of Lake Elsinore, California, who was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2012 when she was just 21 years old.
“She had this bizarre mammogram that showed this distribution of cancer that corresponded exactly to the size and shape of the length and width of her cellphone,” West explained.
To be precise, the calcifications of the malignant tumor on her left breast formed a rectangular shape measuring 3.5 by 9.5 centimeters, remarkably similar in shape and size to her Samsung Alias cellphone.
“From 8th grade on, I would put my phone in my left bra,” Hartman told CBS News. “I mostly did it during school and while I was at work because I didn’t want to miss phone calls.”
Tiffany Frantz of Strasburg, Pennsylvania, was also diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at the age of 21.