By Mark Stevenson

CTV Environment Reporter



It was around Christmas three years ago when Goff Longworth first heard the mysterious hum.

He was at home when all of a sudden it started.

“For the first two or three nights I was going from room to room just trying to get rid of the sound so I could sleep,” says Longworth, a Vancouver-area fisheries biologist. “I even went into the garage, and it was out there as well.”

Longworth drove around searching for the source, bringing him eventually to a nearby port where trains were being loaded with coal while the locomotives were left running.

At first, he thought he had found the source of his problem. But a few days later the trains departed and the noise was still there. “For me, that dismissed the coal port as a potential culprit.”

His ears were tested. They were fine. So he continued to search for the source, something he describes as a “deep, rumbling, pulsating sound.” Meanwhile, the noise began to take a toll on his health. He suffered from headaches, insomnia, tension and dizziness.

“It just disrupts your entire life,” says Longworth, 55. “Imagine sound going on in your inner ear, 24 hours a day, while you are in your house. You can’t get rid of it by putting plugs in your ears. You can imagine how that would start to wear you down. And you talk to people and no one else can hear it.”

Known by suffers on both sides of the Atlantic as The Hum, the low-frequency sound has baffled both researchers and sufferers. Some are driven to wander the streets at night in search of the source, fostering conspiracy theories. And sufferers claim their plight is ignored by the medical community.

“These sounds can be extremely disturbing and can have a major impact on their lives. It can get to the point it drives them to suicide,” says Murray Hodgson, an acoustician in the school of occupational and environmental hygiene at the University of British Columbia.

“They usually approach their medical practitioner for help, and often they know nothing about the phenomenon, possibly sending them to an audiologist who measures their hearing sensitivity at higher frequencies. So it really doesn’t help at all.”

Those who hear The Hum say the low-frequency noise is greater indoors than outdoors, and many can also hear it in a car when the engine is turned off. It is audible to about two per cent of the population, they say, and most of them are 50 years of age or older.

They describe it as either “an idling diesel engine or drone of a distant aircraft,” saying that earplugs and soundproofing are ineffective. The frequency is said to range from 30 to 80 Hz.

They claim to suffer from a common range of ailments, including headaches, insomnia, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision and nose bleeds. A recent study published in the journal Life Sciences found that low frequency noise is harmful to human health. Researchers exposed 32 workers to low-frequency noise at a level of 40 dBA while on the job. The findings supported the researchers’ theory that even a moderate low frequency noise can put extra strain on people, leading to “detrimental physical and psychological effects.” The report found that the workers suffered from unusual tiredness, concentration difficulties and “a feeling of pressure on the head and over the eardrums.”

Kathy Pichora-Fuller, an audiologist at the University of Toronto, first came across a number of people complaining about The Hum when she sat on Vancouver’s urban noise task force in the 90s. Pichora-Fuller remains skeptical, and believes that many sufferers have auditory problems such as tinnitus, which causes people to hear a buzzing or ringing in their ears. However, she believes an external, low frequency force may be responsible.

One problem for researchers is that The Hum is apparently only audible only to those who suffer from it, and the range is generally considered too low for the human ear to detect.

Pichora-Fuller speculates that the low frequency noise interacts with buildings and other structures, amplifying the sound, which is essentially a vibration. This might explain why the noise is heard primarily indoors. And some people with hearing that has become extraordinarily sensitive, she explains, are somehow detecting it.

“I have never been convinced that people in Vancouver were subjected to some diabolical noise source,” says Pichora-Fuller.

The Hum heard ’round the world

In Britain, people began complaining about the so-called Bristol Hum in the 70s. During that time, the Sunday Mirror gave the problem national media coverage when it asked its readers in a headline, “Have you heard the Hum?” Almost 800 people are said to have replied yes. The national government eventually did a survey of local authorities to gauge the number of complaints about low-frequency noise, finding that an average of 500 people did a year.

Residents of Taos, N.M., have long mentioned the existence of an irritating noise, referred to as the Taos Hum. In 1993 they caught the attention of a New Mexico congressional delegation, leading to an investigation.

Joe Mullins, a former University of New Mexico physicist, was part of a team of researchers who combed the area for a week with highly sensitive equipment. While investigators were unable to find a source, Mullins remains convinced that it is not something that is in the minds of sufferers; rather, it is something very real.

The investigation determined that the vast majority of so-called Taos “hearers” were in fact hearing low frequencies inaudible to everyone else. However, the inquiry did not put an end to local conspiracy theories. Many people, he says, remain convinced the U.S. defence department is behind The Hum.

“It’s still a mystery,” he says. “But it is very real.”

Many in Kokomo, Indiana, blame low-frequency noise for causing a range of ailments, including headaches, diarrhea, joint pain and fatigue. They say the so-called Kokomo Hum started in 1999, bringing the deep growl of an idling train to the sleepy industrial city of 47,000. Still, many in the city do not believe it exists. Those who have complained about the noise have been accused of superhuman hearing and asked facetiously if they also see “little green men.”

But the complaints are being taken seriously. The city has earmarked $100,000 U.S. to hire an acoustical engineering firm to study the problem.

The Victoria Hum

Bernie McCarron started hearing a similar sound from his Victoria, B.C., townhouse about five or six years ago and its been grinding on his nerves ever since.

“It has effects on you emotionally, physically, psychologically, even spiritually,” says McCarron, 78. “You just get so frustrated.”

Inside his garage, McCarron has a map of Vancouver Island with about 40 pins on it, most of them around Victoria, representing people he knows who also hear The Hum. The retired English teacher spends much of his spare time corresponding with other sufferers, trying to get the city to recognize the problem.

McCarron describes the Victoria-area hum as a low-frequency “hummmm”; while others say it is more of a “whump.. whump. whump,” similar to the base from a car pumping out deafening music.

To concentrate and to sleep, McCarron plays classical music and uses a device he purchased from Sears that produces white noise to drown out The Hum.

“I know of three or four people pushed to the limit, [to] breakdowns, because they can’t figure out what it is,” says McCarron.

“Every night. Every week. Every month it has an effect on you.”

While Victoria is not currently investigating the problem, Dan Scoones, a senior bylaw officer with the city, has no doubt it exists. Scoones has received numerous complains over the years about The Hum, and the subject recently came up during discussions on the city’s new noise bylaw.

“I have no doubt it exists because people who report it are sound mentally,” he says. “They are all kinds of people and they come from all walks of life.”

Scoones says he can relate to people who hear low frequency noises because he also suffers from extra-sensitive hearing, but in his case he hears high-frequency noises at the other end of the spectrum.

Unfortunately, little can be done at present to put an end to the problem, says Scoones. For one, the source has not been identified, he says. As well, if the source was found and determined to be far off beyond city limits, as many sufferers contend, it would not violate the city’s noise bylaw.

“I can’t hear the thing. So it’s difficult to enforce something that’s not identifiable,” says Scoones.

“Besides, there is no reason reason why the noise bylaw would apply if there’s a real source.”

Research into the source of The Hum has been sparse and inconclusive. But those who hear it on both sides of the Atlantic, blame unintentional industrial noises, along with distant traffic, aircraft, and trains, according to a British website devoted to the subject. As well, sufferers point the finger at Loran C, radio transmissions used for marine navigation. All can produce low-frequency sound waves that can travel long distances.

Goff Longworth, the Vancouver fisheries biologist, hopes local officials will take The Hum seriously, investigating the problem to put an end to suffering and conspiracy theories that somehow the government or military is involved. He is tired of people dismissing it and he remains convinced that people who hear the mysterious noise suffer from a physiological condition that makes their hearing hyper-sensitive at some point during the course of their lives. He now knows 35 people in his area alone who suffer from the problem.

Fortunately for Longworth, he stopped hearing The Hum about nine months ago. Still, he worries the mysterious noise will come again.

“I thank God I don’t hear it now but I tremble in fear with the thought of it returning.”