Was it an “act of war” or “mass hysteria?”
That’s how a recent headline from The New York Times read about a controversial series of events dating back nearly six years.
Did enormous quantities of targeted radiation make American diplomats sick?
Those were the questions officials had when a strange and mysterious ailment dubbed the “Havana Syndrome” struck diplomats and spies at a U.S. embassy in Cuba’s capital city and later, a U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China, in early 2017. More than 200 incidents have been documented worldwide, mainly by American officials.
Perplexed, and with accusations of foreign involvement widespread, American government officials, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Defense (DoD), reportedly turned to a small group of experts for immediate, in-depth expertise.
The group reportedly included neuroscientists, psychologists, otorhinolaryngologists, and physicists, including certified health physicists (CHPs).
For a good reason, too, says Dan Sowers*, a CHP and current radiation safety officer at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, headquartered in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The Agency is a part of the DoD.
“We have CHPs working and helping in pretty much every corner of the world, in nearly every sector, including hospitals, reactors, and in the national labs,” Sowers says. “But we don’t hear about them too often until something big hits the news, like a Chernobyl-style event.”
Or, in this case, “microwaves in Havana.”
“Then, suddenly, everybody wants to know about radiation,” Sowers says. “Because radiation is always there, right in front of us. So, that goes to my excitement about the certified health physics business—and how important it is that we keep growing it.”
Why CHPs are Needed to Solve the Havana Syndrome
The American Academy of Health Physics (AAHP) is leading the charge in expanding interest in health physics, also referred to as the science of radiation protection.
The association is a community of scientists and members with two primary goals. One is to derive all the beneficial uses from technologies that use or produce radiation. The latter—this is where their expertise is needed to help solve the Havana conundrum—is to protect people and the environment from potential radiation hazards with the highest standards of ethics and integrity.
“This is what we do,” Sowers says.
It’s not easy, he says.
“There’s an incredibly challenging application process [to become a CHP]. You need to have six or more years of professional experience in the occupation,” he says. “There are strict degree requirements, plus a technical contribution to the field that you have to prove, and a very challenging two-part exam that you have to pass.”
But after you ace the credentials, he says, career-shaping opportunities and challenges await.
Sometimes, even international headline-making ones.
What is the Havana Syndrome?
Here’s the gist of what the Havana Syndrome is—and possibly isn’t.
In late 2016, American diplomats stationed in Cuba reported severe and, in some cases, debilitating neurological symptoms with no ready explanation. Symptoms included headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and hearing loss. A comparable situation played out in early 2017 at a U.S. consulate in China.
According to news outlets, most patients said their symptoms were brought on by a “piercing, high-pitched sound,” as though they had been caught in “an invisible beam of energy.”
In other words, a sudden jolt of radiation.
“It’s not entirely clear how microwave or non-ionizing radiation came to be potentially blamed,” Sowers said. “But once that hype came out, the media understandably jumped on it.”
In most cases, radiation exposure is no reason to sound the alarm. “After all, it’s everywhere,” Sowers explains. “It’s used by your cell phone and car radio. You cook food with it. It’s how Wi-Fi operates. It even comes from the stars.”
Most of the time, he adds, this radiation passes through us harmlessly. "If your body does absorb it, the most it can do is add a little heat. And I'm talking about exceptionally low amounts of heat energy, easily dissipated by your body’s natural functioning including blood flow and sweating, nothing that could manipulate DNA or cause harm."
But there are exceptions.
"Now, if you have an exceptionally large microwave or radio wave generator, say something that's in the back of a van, and you focus a tremendous amount of that energy in a direction into a person, you could theoretically induce some physiological changes," he says. "You can disorient somebody because such a scenario could alter the blood flow in the brain. You can cause heating sensations and other physiological changes. So, we're not talking about something that can kill people unless you're right up against it, but it can affect people in a harmful way."
Is that what happened to American officials in Cuba and China?
Did CHPs Solve the Havana Syndrome Mystery?
Not all experts, including CHPs, agree on what triggered these symptoms, nor is there a consensus on the continued controversy surrounding the Havana Syndrome.
In 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported that a radio frequency energy of radiation that includes microwaves likely caused both incidents. The report did not attribute blame, but the group did stress how foreign adversaries, including Russia, had “significant research” on “the effects of pulsed, rather than continuous wave [radio frequency] exposures."
So, was it a “sonic weapon,” as some media members wondered?
Probably not, the CIA said in early 2022. The analysis “ruled out” the possibility that the symptoms are the result of a “sustained global campaign by a hostile power aimed” at American officials—except in about two dozen cases, where foreign involvement “could not be ruled out.”
What’s more, Cuban scientists and physicists said in 2021 that the conspiracies and theories surrounding Havana Syndrome “violate the laws of physics.” An editorial on PsychologyToday.com even suggests the syndrome was caused by social contagion, citing independent research.
These contrasting theories, and the prevalent use of radiation, are all reasons why becoming a CHP and mastering CHP credentials is so critical, now and in the future.
All CHPs, Sowers says, have the same goal.
“Radiation protection exists in commercial nuclear power and nearly every hospital, whether from a diagnostic x-ray machine or a very complex nuclear medicine procedure,” Sowers says. “We’re all dependent on it. Just look at this example. We will always need health physics and radiation protection.”
And the CHPs who guide it.
For more information on how you can become a CHP and join AAHP, email us or call us 888-282-3446.
*The opinions expressed by Daniel Sowers are his own personal views, not those of DoD or DTRA.