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The Phenomenon of Low Frequency Hums
Excerpts from a special chapter on the phenomenon of low frequency hums taken from a book by Leslie and Clive Sheppard called "Tinnitus" (Norfolk Tinnitus Society, 1993)What would cause an otherwise perfectly normal man to sleep on a local park bench during many of the late Spring and Summer nights? Or to camp out in Market Square whilst his wife brings him food and drink during the day? The answer to this and much more lies in the Phenomenon of Low Frequency Noise, which is being reported by many thousands of people in this country [Great Britain]. In this particular case this man's local park and his city centre are two locations he has discovered in which these mysterious noises do not trouble him.
This problem has been known for at least two decades yet still remains a mystery although the number of complaints have increased at an alarming rate. It has been authoritatively stated that many thousands of people all over the country are complaining of being plagued by low frequency noise. This may well be a conservative estimate, for amongst a wealth of personal reports on my own files many of these people are stating that they find it best not to say anything to others about it in case they may be regarded as "mad" or "weird".
There must be a host of unreported cases. Although not a sufferer, I personally became aware of the phenomenon around 1986 when the media reported a number of complaints of a low pitched humming sound in the small village of Worlingham in Suffolk. I am aware that there existed reports of this problem much earlier than this. I spent a whole day in Worlingham at the time and interviewed a considerable number of these people.
My tentative suggestion that perhaps some of them were suffering from a low frequency type of tinnitus was met on all sides with adamant rejection. They were quite certain that the noise they were hearing was not in their head or ears but was reaching them externally. All were articulate, sensible people, and in no way "cranky" or unusual. Of the people I interviewed there was a fairly even distribution of both men and women from all walks of life.
Although I have had tinnitus for many years, quite frankly I could hear nothing of the kind of noise they seemed to be experiencing, yet even as I spoke to them many were obviously being greatly disturbed by something. It was at the time that my earlier book on tinnitus was just going to the publishers and I felt that the problem was so closely allied to tinnitus that I decided at almost the last minute to include a chapter on it in that book.
Possibly there have been no other published books dealing with this particular phenomenon since, but the outcome has been that I have received numerous reports on the matter not only from Britain but from several foreign countries as well.
I do not think that anyone would dispute the fact that this phenomenon exists and that everyone should be made aware of the fact that it is causing untold misery to many thousands of people. Yet despite many attempts no one has yet been able to trace the source and prove it. It has become popularly known as "The Hum" and those suffering from it are known as "Hummers".
In 1989 these people, finding that nothing was being done except for spasmodic reports appearing in various newspapers etc from time to time and leading nowhere, formed their own Society in Britain known as the Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association and today they appear to have a large membership. Not only do they keep in contact with each other by means of a regular newsletter, but I also know that many of them have their own private circles and these people regularly phone one another comparing intensities and other current features of the noise.
Numerous suggestions have been put forward at different times from various sources as to the cause, most popular being that the large underground pipes carrying North Sea Gas are to blame. The strength of this suggestion has often been apparently backed by the fact that increased incidence seems to occur soon after the laying of these pipe lines.
But on this British Gas reply "It is one hundred percent certain there is no link. We have done all sorts of tests on the whole theory." Other suggestions have revolved around such things as electricity pylons, water mains, underground railways and water pumps, generators, fans, transformers, electromagnetic fields set up around radio or TV transmitters, microwaves, etc...but nothing has been firmly identified as being the cause.
Meantime, thousands of sufferers are having the quality of their lives severely affected and feel extremely bitter that so little is being done to help them. It is an interesting point that from a report of a Conference on "The Hum" held at The Royal Society of Medicine, London, on the 25th of November 1989 it appears that the majority of people suffering from the problem state that the noise appears to have two differing components. There is a a straightforward "hum" plus another lower frequency modulation component.
Sufferers report that the noise is quite unlike that of tinnitus as it does not emanate from within the head or ears and to many of them it appears to reach them through walls, floors, and ceilings when inside, and externally when outside. It causes them considerable stress and loss of sleep which greatly lowers the quality of life. The long term effects of such exposure have yet to be documented. . . . A sufferer from Leicester whose daughters and herself are all suffering badly from the noise writes "at all hours of the day and night we roam around the area trying to locate the source." Being unable to sleep in the house when the noise is particularly bad, she is forced to sleep in the garden shed, the only place in her home where she is free of the problem.
This phenomenon is not by any means confined to Britain for I personally know that it exists in Italy, Canada and Spain [and the U.S.] and probably worldwide. There are a number of very good reasons why these people should be taken seriously. It is all too easy to point to the possibilities of some aural disfunction -- this is the standard explanation from most of the medical profession. But it is pointed out that these sufferers from "The Hum" are able to find certain places in which they do not experience the noise any time.
This is very different from the experience of anyone with tinnitus in which the noises are with them wherever they may be. Additionally a number of these people will tell you that they have tinnitus and are quite aware that one noise is within the head and the other definitely coming from some external source.
It seems to me that one very reasonable explanation might be that certain people may have an extension of the normal spectrum of hearing, and if this extension leans toward the lower range of frequencies they may well be picking up some noise which others cannot hear as it is beyond the range of normal hearing.
There have been reports of "Hummers" going into deep limestone caves such as exist in Cheddar and Wookey Hole when the noise completely ceases -- a further indication that this is no fantasy. Whilst noise experts admit to being completely baffled, thousands of people continue to suffer from the phenomenon and are being made ill by untraceable sounds which the other members of their families cannot hear at all. . . . I feel that what is needed most of all at the moment is for the three professional camps involved -- the authorities, the medical world, and noise experts -- to agree to pool knowledge and resources in a combined effort to try to pin down the cause.
Note: Acclimatisation is difficult as the human brain cannot pinpoint
the directionality of low frequency acoustic signals. As with all strange
new noises, the brain seems to seek to label the source and presumably
designate it as safe or dangerous - safe noises can be put aside, but unidentified
noises could be dangerous. This is a very primitive response to possible
danger. In the wild, little animals are alerted to the approach of big
animals, as big animals tend to make lower frequency sounds.