And a Mystery is Solved

If you’ve ever had to deal with medical oddness (which is probably something like 150% of the readers here, because most of us deal with it at least twice over) and had to try to explain to the more normal folks why you just can’t do that – whatever “that” happens to be – you’ll understand the sheer relief that happens when you figure out why something is a problem.

In my case it’s rumbly bass that moves into the vibrating range. It’s given me trouble since I was an angsty teen, making me dizzy, vaguely nauseous, and leaving me feeling as though some bastard replaced my joints with rubber bands. Of course, that’s exactly what the mechanical room next door to my new workplace does to me.

At least I know the reason for the unpleasantness: turns out the damn thing is giving off infrasound in the 17 – 19 Hz range, and I get the symptoms at anything above about 25 decibels. I checked: I spent some time Monday walking around the work place with my phone in hand and the handy-dandy infrasound recorder app running while I cross-correlated my symptoms and what the recorder was showing me.

Even more entertaining, the symptoms I get are damn near identical to what happen when I have a cataplexy episode (thank you narcolepsy) – I don’t get the full paralysis effect. Instead I get to feel as though my joints came unstrung and my balance has gone to play with my coordination somewhere that probably involves tropical beaches and drinks with umbrellas in them. And most definitely does not involve me. It’s not a particularly enjoyable sensation. So of course, I freaked out.

Now that I have a solid idea what’s causing the problem, I can more or less deal with it. Better quality noise-canceling headphones are on order (damn I wish Skullcandy still made the aviator model. Those are so comfortable), and I’ve located a handful of places in the area where I don’t get the symptoms. Sadly these places are mostly conference rooms or corporate offices-to-be. At least the HR person at work is trying to find ways to work with me that count as reasonable accommodations, and she is going to get on to building management over getting dampeners on the equipment.

Now we know why they’ve had trouble leasing and keeping tenants in that particular location… And of course since it meets that odd beastie known as “code”, they’re not too keen to do more. Except of course if the balance issues have me falling over at the wrong time, the ultimate liability lands on facilities management once they’ve been notified. In theory, of course.

Meantime, I keep doing what I can and move myself to one of the places where I’m not affected for a couple of hours to ease the symptoms while still working.

I’m sure someone here can use this for “character growth” somewhere.

32 thoughts on “And a Mystery is Solved

  1. Huh. I just downloaded an infra-sound app for the phone within the past week. Used it a time or two, but nothing of much interest appeared – and either I’ve never encountered truly irksome I-S issues or they don’t affect me much.

    On the other end of the range, I can (still, at least in one ear) hear above 13 KHz and so when the grocery store’s chilling system is screaming I notice it. Not everyone does, but some of those who do ask how anyone around can stand it and why isn’t something being done about the infernal racket?

    I am curious if noise cancelling ‘phones will work well that low… and if it’s only a matter of ‘hearing’ or if it’s more a penetrating thing (like feeling bass thump). Best of luck.

    By the way, have you seen the theory that the “sonic weapon” in Cuba is the accidental intermodulation of ultrasound devices – with some of the heterodyne products in the the infra-sonic range?

    1. I am curious if noise cancelling ‘phones will work well that low… and if it’s only a matter of ‘hearing’ or if it’s more a penetrating thing (like feeling bass thump). Best of luck.

      Since I read her first post on this and saw suggestions for noise cancelling headphones, I’ve wondered if they would help, because I, too, suspect that the problem is centered in the body, rather than the ears.

      1. Noise cancelling headphones won’t stop the vibrations, but they do help ease the dizziness as well as the “joys” of a 40-50 decibel rumble that runs all day.

  2. How difficult is it to build a whole-room noise canceler without the thing making heterodyne wails? Put in the room with the equipment might be a solution. OTOH, noise insulation is a passive solution that’s harder to break down.

    Hate to bring it up, but can they do it without mounting the equipment on some sort of motion isolator, if only springs like you see on paint mixing machines? It’s likely vibrating the floor at that frequency, and the floor and walls acting as a resonator. OTOH, if that is the case, maybe all that’s needed is to put the equipment up on the equivalent of motor mounts.

    1. I seem to recall a short story from Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart (1957) about that sort of thing… but I think he got the energy transfer wrong… for effect. Ah, yes, Silence Please, the first story in the collection.

    2. I wouldn’t be surprised if everything is sitting on bare cement and vibrating everything. I know the damn walls vibrate.

    3. More than once a company has built a wafer fab close to railroad tracks. Isolating the photolithography section of the fab from the vibrations of passing trains turned out to be very expensive. The usual solution is to dampen the building’s natural resonant frequencies* plus dig a long, deep trench between the building and the tracks–all at the fab owner’s expense, of course.

      * a must in one of the cases because the fab was located on the upper floors

    1. Neat – it’s not quite on the scale of the orchestra brass section I was once part of deciding to see how much plaster we could flake off the ceiling… but the principle is the same.

  3. Sound energy and its effect on the human body was part of a seminar that I attended with the American Association of Physics Teachers – fascinating how seemingly non-existent sounds could generate so many problems.

    The noise-canceling headphones might block your perception of the sound, but anything that causing such a major problem for your body seems to be something that will affect it, but you won’t get the warning. The perceived sound isn’t the problem – the energy in that frequency is.

    1. Oh, I know. I’m operating on a Band-Aid fix that lets me keep working (as opposed to needing workers comp since the workplace is the cause of the problem) and being extra careful about balance – which is the biggest problem I have.

      The headphones help to reduce the issues from having to try to work beside a constant low rumble in the 40-50 decibel range. The building is apparently up to code, though, so… who knows? Words like “ADA” and “reasonable accommodations” and “OHSHA” may get used if I’m lucky.

      1. Beat me to it with the ADA comments. That’s the stuff. It’s got to be cheaper to dampen that equipment than to get sued.

      2. Consider another aspect of what lfox328 has told us – there’s research out there that supports the case that infrasound damages _everybody’s_ well being, _whether they hear it or not_.

        Now there’s got to be a plaintiff’s attorney interested in that factoid.

        I feel dirty, like I’m advocating chemical weapons or something, but the cause is just, and the power situation asymmetrical (as the w0k3 kids say) so maybe the lawfare (or rumor of lawfare) is justified.

  4. A bit of a search on infrasound problems indicates it happens often enough, generally solved by isolating motors from the structure with better springs/dampers and motor mounts.

    I don’t know if the noise cancelling headphones will work well at that low a frequency. I’d be worried about whole body pickup at such long wavelengths.

    Sad to say, this might require the invocation of the ADA spell (or threats thereof) aimed at the building management. ADA gets abused a lot, but this seems to be a case that could cause real harm. And, there should be a long term benefit in getting and keeping tenants.

    1. Oh, I know. I have a sneaky suspicion that everyone involved in making the decisions is looking for the cheapest way out – I’m also encouraging everyone in the building who is having problems with the noise to report it to HR so that it’s not “just one person”.

      And yes, this is definitely something where invoking ADA may be needed and justified. I don’t want to think too much about what could happen if I’m either overtired or overemotional while in the building.

  5. Sounds like an inner ear problem. Get those ears looked at.

    Active sound canceling headphones will not do well with infrasound due to weak bass response. Long story short the speakers are too small and the voice coil can’t match the low frequency waves.

    Passive sound insulation is the way to go.

    1. The headphones help with the noise and to some extent my inner ear – my balance is actually better (if not what it should be) when I’m wearing them. I know they’re not doing anything for the whole body vibrations.

      Getting someone with the authority to insulate the bloody mechanical room properly would help. So would putting a layer of insulation around the walls. Particularly the vibrating ones.

      1. I was typing on my phone, so I didn’t have the patience to explain well.

        Active sound cancellation means the headphones generate an equal and opposite wave to cancel the incoming sound. Headphone speakers are too small to do that for infrasound, they don’t have the voice coil travel and they don’t move enough air. Infrasound waves are meters long.

        Passive cancelling headphones insulate the ear with sound absorbing material. No electronics, just foam. Shooting headphones.

        The SkullCandy Crusher ones I posted the other day are the bomb. I have a pair on right now. The TV is on, people are watching it, I’m in the same room and listening to Sarah Brightman, lowest volume setting, I can’t hear the TV. That’s pretty good insulation.

        Insulating the equipment room would be nice for higher frequencies, won’t do a damn thing for infrasound. Meters-long wavelengths. The machines will vibrate the insulation just as well as they’re vibrating the wall now. You’re experiencing a full-body compression wave that is moving your skull bones and messing with your semi-circular canals, that’s why you lose your balance and get nauseous. The equipment creating the vibration needs to be shock mounted, normally that’s done by specialists. Putting a hockey puck under four corners isn’t going to get it done, and my wild guess is that’s what’s been done.

        I put an air compressor on 4 hockey pucks in my shop. The pucks stop it from breaking the concrete floor but it still shakes the building when its running. This is a concrete pad on the ground, mind you. Start the compressor, you can feel the wall vibrate.

        1. I found a few articles on the issue yesterday. Apparently, there are some decent isolation springs/dampers for air conditioning equipment. At least one article claimed the dampers cured the problem entirely. That was a roof mounted chiller, and the vibration hit the entire building. YMMV, and no idea of the cost to get them in place.

  6. Oof. Glad you found the source of the problem. Are you sure the building wasn’t constructed for the US State Department? 😉

    1. I’m fairly sure it was constructed for and by that ubiquitous authority “the lowest bidder”.

  7. The HR folks should get the landlord to bring in an accoustician to try and locate the source. As you noted, it’s really hard to attenuate low frequencies. Much better to address the root cause. Might be properly sized and selected vibration issolators, or repairing a failing piece of equipment. I once found a troublesome air compressor that still had shipping chocks in the vibration issolators. Good luck!

  8. A couple years ago, I was having trouble with BPV (benign positional vertigo). It’s a problem that can occur when the tiny, grit-like particles that rest at the center of your inner ear float up and, instead of dissolving like they usually do, become lodged in one of the semicircular canals. The canals help orient your sense of motion and space, affecting even the coordination of your eyes as gravity of your motion pulls the fluid in the canals in one direction or the other. Having a grit particle in one of the canals has the effect of placing much heavier “gravity” in that canal because the particle carries a much heavier mass in the canal than the fluid that’s there. The result is very disorienting, profound dizziness, combined with uncontrollable jittering in your eyes as the balance system tries to compensate for what it perceives as significant motion.

    During testing and treatment for that, the doctor gave me a specialized hearing test and discovered something even more bizarre (and, in a way, interesting). The hearing test detected that my left ear was receiving significantly more sound than the right…more sound than it *should* be receiving. A scan confirmed his suspicion.

    Superior Semicircular Canal Dehiscence (SSCD or SCD) occurs when the bony/collagen structure enclosing part of the superior semicircular canal is broken or wears away, leaving an opening into the canal. This results in the affected ear receiving far more sound than it should. The symptoms are bizarre.

    For me, I can hear my heart beat in my affected left ear, hear it clearly enough to take my pulse. Loud sounds can overwhelm me, as if I’m being crushed by them. And at times, when I’m singing, certain ranges of notes I hit resonate through my head like an echo chamber. I’m also beginning to experience problems with my sense of balance and vulnerability to motion sickness. Others have it far worse than me. Some people can hear the sound of their eyeballs moving, for example. For those folks, the weight of all that noise is maddening, almost crippling.

    I apologize for taking the long way for me to get to the point, but I’m wondering if your sensitivity to certain noise ranges is related to an SSCD-like problem. If you can find a specialist to give you an initial hearing test, one that can turn up signs of SSCD, that could, at least, rule it out (or in) as a cause. Even if it’s *not* SSCD, an inner-ear exam and hearing test might help explain the sensitivity and help you come up with solutions that can help.

    Good luck

  9. Hi Katie. Skullcandy Aviator brand has been discontinued, but as of this moment (Friday morning) Amazon still has three sets in inventory ready to ship. Just wanted to point that out!

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