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Mysterious hum bedevils victims
Sarah Glen
Times Colonist (Victoria)
Times Colonist
Bernard McCarron listens for low frequency sound waves in his home.

A mysterious hum is rattling the brains and destroying the sleep of some Victoria residents.

The hum -- like the low rumble of a diesel engine, some say -- has been more than a daily annoyance to at least 40 people. Many sufferers blame it for chronic headaches, nausea, insomnia, diarrhea, fatigue and joint pain.

"It's hard to sustain an effort against the unknown," said Bernard McCarron, a retired Vic High English teacher who started hearing the hum in 1996.

McCarron organized a loosely-knit organization in 1997 for other residents harried by the hum. At its peak, there were about 40 members, made up mostly of seniors but also including some children. But McCarron says it is probable that many more people hear the sound, but don't come forward because they fear others will label them crazy.

There are now only about 20 members in the group and they communicate mostly by e-mail or telephone.

They have been checked by doctors, who ruled out tinnitis, which causes a ringing in the ears, but could not find any other explanations.

McCarron is confident a new study in the U.S. may bring some legitimacy to local sufferers. Commissioned by the city council of Kokomo, Indiana, investigators will try to find the source of the hum there. Sufferers in that city of 47,000 have been complaining for years about a low, grumbling sound similar to the one heard here in Victoria. The council will put $100,000 US into the study, which will measure the sound waves in homes of the people complaining about the hum. It will begin in the fall.

McCarron said the U.S. study is an important step forward for people harassed by the hum.

One local resident, however, already conducted her own version of the study in her home on McKenzie Avenue.

Evelyn Hartley began hearing the hum in 1994. She complained to the city then and sound levels were measured in her townhouse. A low decibel sound was detected, but low-frequency sound is difficult to identify because it can travel long distances through materials such as water pipes. No source was ever pinpointed.

"It's a hidden misery and no one seems to be paying much attention to it," said Hartley.

Low-frequency sound can be produced by industrial equipment and has been proven to cause vibrations in the chest, throat and nose.

The noise in Hartley's home fluctuated between 60 and 80 decibels. That is about the same level of noise produced by the whir of an air conditioner or the rumbling of average city traffic. But because Hartley's noise is registered in low-frequency sound waves, it falls below the level many people can hear easily.

"All I know for sure is that some people may be getting sick from it and they would never know," said Hartley.

Hartley said she can not sleep through the night because the hum is so loud. She keeps her radio and television on all the time to drown it out but sometimes the sound is so loud she is forced to sleep in her car, where it is less intense.

Although she sympathizes with Hartley and the other residents who hear the hum, Christine Bender, an environmental health consultant with the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said the hum is not a health hazard.

"Noise is a very unusual thing, and for the sensitive it could be an annoyance," said Bender. She helped conduct the study on Hartley's house.

Bender suggests people who hear the hum could move to a quieter house or buy a white-sound machine to muffle it. Earplugs may also dim the rumbling and help people to sleep.

Complaints to the city about the hum are rare. Most people phone in about noisy leaf blowers or loud power tools, she said.

With such a small population in Victoria sensitive to the hum, many residents don't even know there is a problem, said McCarron. He hopes the Indiana study will bring more awareness to the issue for people living there and in Victoria.

The city has no plans to conduct a similar study.

© Copyright  2002 Times Colonist (Victoria)


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