You’re Probably Not Being Microwaved Right Now

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Despite alarming reports that enemy governments are beaming people’s heads with brain-damaging microwaves, some scientists remain skeptical. What’s publicly known, so far, is that since 2016, 26 U.S. embassy workers in Cuba and one in China have reported hearing strange sounds and developing a suite of troubling, sometimes debilitating symptoms — ringing ears, insomnia, dizziness, headaches and nausea.

Over the last few days, a duel between experts broke out, with several scientists claiming in one press account that a microwave weapon is a “prime theory,” and other experts saying the theory “makes no sense.” Which ones are believable? The doubters have more credibility because they are backed by years of research into the health effects of microwaves and other radio frequency radiation. For decades there’s been tremendous public concern over exposures from military radar equipment, power lines, cell phones and home wi-fi, and researchers have responded with due diligence.

Experts touting the microwave theory cite research by the U.S. and other governments to develop a microwave weapon that might silently damage people’s brains or make them hear sounds that aren’t happening, thus causing psychological distress. This is disturbing news, but doubters say that none of those attempts were successful, unless there’s something that remains highly classified.

A classified microwave weapon is still unlikely, said University of Pennsylvania bioengineering professor Kenneth Foster, who was assigned to do research on the safety of microwaves back in the 1970s, when he worked for the Navy. He found that microwaves can heat up the fluid in a person’s head by a fraction of a degree, setting off sound waves that will stimulate the cochlea. People, including him, have exposed themselves to microwave pulses and heard a clicking sound. He compared it to what you hear when you tap your teeth together.

While microwaves can cause people to hear a sound, he said that, without burning people, it would be impossible to make the radiation powerful enough to cause neurological damage.

The plot thickened again this week, when intelligence officials told the media that Russia was probably behind the attacks. Meanwhile, many scientists are waiting for evidence that deliberate attacks took place at all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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