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Vibroacoustic illness strikes

BY SUSAN KIM | KOKOMO, IN | June 14, 2002

"A lot of people have been complaining about it."

—Rev. Robert Trueblood

This town is humming and it's not with excitement. A low-frequency noise -- residents call it 'the Kokomo hum' -- has driven at least one resident away and annoyed others, and now city officials are launching a study to track down its origin.

Not everyone in Kokomo has heard the noise. But just about everybody has heard about it.

"A lot of people have been complaining about it," said the Rev. Robert Trueblood, pastor at the Alto United Methodist Church.

Trueblood, who lives three miles south of Kokomo, said he had never heard the noise. "But I know there's a pile of money going to be spent on it," he said.

The Kokomo City Council plans to spend $100,000 on a study that will try to determine the level of the sound -- described by those who can hear it as the low hum of a diesel engine -- and its potential effects on people. The city has requested proposals for the study.

At least one resident -- Diane Anton -- has complained of nausea, short-term memory loss, and hand tremors she blames on the sound. She left Kokomo because of it.

The sound seems to be centered in the downtown area near St. Joe's Hospital, though sound engineers don't think the sound is not coming from there.

It's the kind of thing people talk about after church on Sunday -- even if they're not actively praying for it to go away.

"We have three families that live over that way, and none have heard it," said the Rev. Dennis Riggs, pastor at the Bon Air Nazarene Church. One of the families is his. Riggs lives within a half block of St. Joe's. "We've lived there since December."

Riggs hasn't met anybody who's bothered by the hum. "We don't know a single family who's ever heard the sound. We just don't hear it."

But that doesn't mean nobody hears it, he acknowledged, adding that he reads in local newspapers about people who have identified themselves as having heard the sound. "There are some people that feel it's an issue."

According to City Attorney Ken Ferries, as many as 90 people in the city of 47,000 have complained about a low-frequency hum over the past three years.

In past studies at other locations, sound specialists have found that constant exposure to low-frequency noises can cause vibroacoustic illness. The symptoms are nausea, headaches, and dizziness. Sound engineers have also determined that some people are more sensitive to low-frequency sounds than others.

Riggs theorized that the sound was coming from large equipment. Kokomo, in central Indiana, is an industrial town.

In Kokomo, some residents are complaining that at least some city government officials know where the noise is coming from but won't sanction the factory responsible for it. Others cite cases in which the federal government was thought to be aware of low-frequency sound problems but ignored them in favor of large industry.

About 10 years ago, some residents in the town of Taos in New Mexico reported they were bothered by a low-frequency hum.

One group in Kokomo, called Our Environment, distributes materials about the negative effects of noise pollution.

Until the study finds something, most people are just going on with their lives. "It's not like everyone in the community is going bananas," he said.

At the town's First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. William Emrich said he doesn't know anybody who's heard it, either. "But I've had relatives from across the country call and ask if I have."

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