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Making Noise Over The Hum In Kokomo, Complaints Remain
Journalist: Tammy Webber
March 28, 2004
Time has been kind to this storied city, where old neon signs hang above shop entrances and blocks of stately buildings form picturesque streetscapes.
Residents like to boast that Kokomo is the birthplace of the first American-built automobile, the pneumatic tire, stainless steel and the carburetor.
But in recent years, this city of about 46,000, an hour north of Indianapolis, has been known for something else.
The Kokomo hum.
A drone so incessant that some claim it is making their lives miserable and ruining their health.
While residents realize not everyone can hear their hum, they say it's time for the state to hear their pleas.
"We are appealing to the state, 'Will you help us?' " said Gael Deppert, an Indianapolis attorney who said she is volunteering her services to help residents. "We need to bring in scientists knowledgeable in various fields to try to grapple with this situation. We're asking the state to come in with an open mind."
On Friday, Jim Cowan, a Massachusetts researcher who has studied the hum, and Jeff Symmes, a Lafayette-area resident who says he became ill while working in Kokomo asked Gov. Joe Kernan's office for an in-depth study.
More than 100 people have complained of severe headaches, nausea, joint pain, debilitating heart problems or memory loss after they began feeling or hearing the hum.
Kernan spokeswoman Tina Noel said the governor would consider the proposal.
Maureen Christie said a state study is overdue. She said she began hearing the hum in 1999; the pipes in her home rattled and it sometimes sounded to her as if she were in an airplane flight path. Her sinuses bother her, she has memory lapses and her joints ache.
When she called the State Department of Health to report a booming sound, she said someone there told her she might want to check her yard for a meteorite.
"I never called them again," said Christie, 61.
State environment officials said they're not quite sure where to begin.
"We don't have experts on low-frequency noise," said Tim Method, deputy commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
In fact, there has been little research in the United States on low-frequency noise or its health effects. There are no federal or state standards for such emissions and no money to study them, Method said.
He said the agency asked for assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when the issue arose a few years ago, but neither provided funding or technical help.
"This is new for almost everybody," said Method, who participated in a discussion early last week with state health officials -- talks that included Deppert, Symmes, Cowan and other researchers. "We're willing to listen."
Brian Riffe shakes his head and smiles.
He's never heard the hum and doesn't believe it exists -- except perhaps in the imaginations of a small group of residents.
"I think it's silly, I really do," said Riffe, 21, who manages Victory Bike Shop. "I don't want to talk badly about some person who is seriously having problems, but I think maybe we should have more proof."
He also worries that attention generated by the hum -- stories have appeared in national media as well as UFO Web sites -- gives the town a bad name.
"I love this town and this is one more thing: Kokomo's got crazy people complaining about the hum," he said. "Maybe there is some proof behind this, and if there is, I'll eat my words."
Skepticism is the biggest stumbling block to getting regulators and health officials to support a study, said Symmes.
"Most people think it's a joke, and that's a problem," he said.
Symmes was diagnosed by researchers in Portugal with vibroacoustic disease -- a condition induced by low-frequency vibrations that causes thickening of the pericardium, the thin membrane around the heart.
He said he first suspected something was wrong when he was working in Kokomo in 1999 and began having nosebleeds, severe headaches, fatigue and joint pain that couldn't be explained by doctors -- complaints similar to those of dozens of other residents, based on letters written to lawmakers.
Vibroacoustic disease also can cause pulmonary fibrosis and damage the central nervous and immune systems, said Mariana Alves-Pereira, a researcher at the Center for Human Performance in Portugal, where most studies of the disease have taken place.
The fact that some people in Kokomo -- especially those who work in industry -- may be exposed to it 24 hours a day, seven days a week "is very worrisome," she said.
"In Kokomo, our worry is that it apparently is in the home, in schools, in playground -- everywhere," said Alves-Pereira.
There is no doubt that low-frequency vibrations exist in Kokomo.
An $80,000 study funded by the city of Kokomo last year confirmed low-frequency tones coming from equipment at two local factories, perhaps contributing to the hum. Although Haynes International, a manufacturer of metal alloys, and DaimlerChrysler's casting plant have agreed to try to muffle the sounds, researchers say the mystery of the Kokomo hum is far from solved.
The hum also could be caused or worsened by radio and electromagnetic frequencies from cell phone towers and other as-yet-undiscovered sources, said Cowan, the Massachusetts acoustical engineer who conducted the study.
An Illinois consulting company that measured radio frequencies and radiation as part of the study described a "fairly complex electromagnetic environment for a small city," due to cellular phone towers, radio stations and nearby airports.
That could explain why some residents report hearing a high-pitched sound, rather than the low booms or vibrations of low-frequency noise, he said.
Infrasound, very low-frequency noises, are below the range of human hearing, but can create vibrations and cause other objects to produce sound. Most people cannot hear tones below 20 hertz; Cowan measured tones as low as 10 hertz near Haynes.
Electromagnetic radiation does not cause measurable pressures, but some theorize it could cause sounds to be generated in a person's head, Cowan said.
Next month, Cowan will retest in Kokomo to determine if the low-frequency tones around Haynes and DaimlerChrysler have abated.
"I personally think electromagnetic fields have more to do with (the hum), but we won't know that till we check it out. That's the big mystery."
Experts estimate it would cost about $400,000 to survey and inspect sources of ultralow-frequency noise and electromagnetic waves and determine if they might cause residents' health problems. They also want the state to host a scientific symposium on the issue of noise pollution and its effect on health.
Kokomo city attorney Ken Ferries said officials know the city's study didn't provide all the answers.
"It's not unusual in industry to have machines that create noises, but I don't think that's the whole story," he said.
That's why there is no time to waste, said Deppert, the Indianapolis attorney.
"My sense is that technology has advanced more quickly than our understanding of the health implications of that technology," she said. "I hope that the state could be a significant contributor to the body of information and maybe help all of us catch up with the learning curve."