By Jason Smith
Outraged residents of Geraldton are complaining of migraines, ringing in the ears, dizziness and headaches, which some attribute to devices the City of Greater Geraldton and local businesses have installed around town and the foreshore.
These devices, known as "mosquitos", emit a high frequency noise that people over 25 usually cannot hear, but causes severe discomfort and nausea to infants, children and anyone who is unfortunate enough to have great hearing.
One local resident who was happy to go on the record, Mathew Wilson, is 28 and says he can hear the noise very well. He says that just today, he and his 20 year old girlfriend had to leave a restaurant in the middle of the day because the noise was unbearable. He went home with a migraine headache, and says his ears have been ringing for over two hours after being exposed to the noise for an hour and a half.
This occurred at 1pm today, and Mathew doesn't know if it was a mosquito device installed by the city, or a local business. He says there was definitely nobody unruly around that warranted the activation of the device. His cancelled lunch and leaving the CBD no doubt cost local retailers money, and is going to further hurt their efforts to attract people to come and frequent Marine Terrace and the city.
We asked the City of Greater Geraldton what times they turned the devices on, but they would not say.
Known to cause problems
Overseas these devices have caused great controversy. The German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health stated in a report on the 'Mosquito', entitled "Use of ultrasonic noise channels not entirely safe":
"The results of the examination are now available. The auditors were not able to certify this device as completely safe. The risk to the target group of teenagers and young adults is relatively low as they can leave the area when they hear the sound. On the other hand small children and infants are especially at risk, due to lengthy exposure to the sound, because the adults themselves do not perceive the noise. Moreover, the ultrasound affects not only hearing. Disruption of the equilibrium senses, as well as other extra-aural effects are well known. With the sound levels that can be reached by the device, the onset of dizziness, headache, nausea and impairment is to be expected. This is not the limit of the total risks to safety and health." (link)
Little children are affected
Not only is the City installing these contraptions, but some local businesses have decided they are a great idea too. But the problem is no-one is policing the use of the mosquito, and it's mainly children who are affected; people who struggle the most to voice their complaints. The devices are installed with no warning signs around, and members of the public have no idea when they are turned on and off.
Mums and Dads can take their children to places like the foreshore, or local businesses, and not even know if a hidden device is hurting their child. They cannot see or hear it, and can be completely oblivious to the fact that their young children are being silently pained.
Commissioner for Children does not support the devices
The Commissioner for Children and Young People Michelle Scott, has expressed her discontent at the use of the mosquito device, pointing out that there is no evidence from overseas that this device is even effective in reducing crime. She also pointed out that in fact many businesses and local government authorities no longer use the device because it was not producing results and was harmful to their reputation.
"In my visits to communities around the state I have found consistently that when regional communities come together to tackle complex problems like anti-social behaviour, positive results are produced," she said.
"Government agencies must focus on the strategies that are proven to be effective in addressing anti-social behaviour and protecting vulnerable children and young people. These strategies will be far more effective in protecting the community’s interests and strengthening young people’s health and wellbeing. "
What does the noise sound like?
Local resident Mathew Wilson described the sound as "an annoying alarm". We cannot really replicate the noise properly for you, as your computer or phone speakers probably won't even be able to emit the correct frequency, but we tested the following video on people whose ages were 5, 13 and 35, and they all reported that the sounds were annoying, with the 13 year old having to cover her ears at some of the frequencies because of the discomfort caused.
You should be able to hear the 8KHz sound in the following youtube clip, and if you find that irritating imagine it higher and sharper.
17KHz is the frequency most of the devices are set to that only target young people. Some of the mosquito devices that are manufactured can be set to 8KHz so people of all ages can hear the devices.
Back overseas, these devices have caused an absolute uproar. In 2007 the Irish Ombudsman for Children had legal advice that use of the device could constitute assault, given that it was in effect causing pain and harm toward people, in particular children. (read more)
Just recently, a UK couple have come under investigation (by their local council) after they allegedly installed a device to try to reduce vandalism, but caused their neighbour's two year old son to suffer ear problems, headaches and physical sickness. (read more)
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe prepared a report in 2010 on the devices, which recommended prohibiting the marketing and use of the “Mosquito” youth dispersal device.
Here's some quotes from the report:
"The device is used to deter undesirable adolescents from hanging around and loitering in places where they are not welcome, and where it is considered that they harm the image or the ambience of the place: outside shopping centres or in passageways and on corners where young people like to gather and spend time. It is installed and used by public administrations, shopkeepers and sometimes even by schools or individual residents. In the majority of cases, no prior warnings or information concerning the installation of these acoustic devices in a specific place are given."
"Older people are not aware that they are being exposed to this kind of strong acoustic emission because it is outside their hearing range. Many children, in particular babies, have dramatic reactions to the sound. They often cry or shout out and cover their ears, to the surprise of their parents, who, unaware of the noise, do not know why."
And here's some of the report's conclusions:
– is an illegal solution under the terms of international human rights instruments;
– contains demoralising elements and could lead to possible frustration in young people;
– makes young people lack confidence in the legal system;
– could constitute a health hazard, because it targets children and young people to whom the general labour law rules on noise exposure are not applicable;
– does not solve the problem of young people’s leisure time and their tendency to congregate in their particular way, because it only has a negative and deterrent effect.
Some councils overseas are even BANNING the devices, amid concerns that the Mosquito infringes children's human rights. (read more)
People have also reportedly used the devices (link) to deliberately annoy young neighbours, but given the nature of the mosquito and the fact that only young people can hear it, difficulties can arise getting authorities to do anything about it.
What about pregnant women?
The UK Guardian reports that not only are the mosquito devices a problem for children, but no research has been done on the impact the device has on unborn babies. (link)
"People over 25 are not aware that they are being exposed to this kind of strong acoustic emission because it is outside their hearing range," he (Piotr Wach of the Council of Europe) said. "But for teenagers, it is extremely irritating and often even painful. Many children, in particular babies, have dramatic reactions to the sound."
Any antenatal class you attend will tell you to make lots of noise for your unborn baby, singing and talking to him/her as they can hear your voice. How much they are affected by devices like the mosquito are completely unknown.
Even the UK Parliament has had 28 members from various parties sign a statement declaring that there is a "lack of research into the short and long-term effects of the high frequency pitch emitted from the devices on the hearing of unborn babies, children, retail workers under the age of 25 and animals." (Link)
So what does the City of Greater Geraldton say?
One would think that young people are equally entitled to use these public places lawfully and social interaction in the public sphere is a key part of urban life, even if it occasionally gets rowdy.But the City was defensive about its decision to implement these devices over two years ago.
The City tell us that they have received no complaints from anyone since the installation of the devices, and that they are unaware that the Commissioner for Children and Young People Michelle Scott did not approve of the devices. They said they would look into any concerns she had if she contacted them. How they were unaware of her concerns is a surprise after the ABC ran a story in April 2012 about Geraldton shop owners and the Geraldton council installing the devices, which said:
"Western Australia's Commissioner for Children and Young People has warned the introduction of a device used to deter young people from public areas could breach discrimination laws." (link)
Everything Geraldton was not given specific location information about the devices, other than that they are at the foreshore and aquarena. We did manage to locate some of them and have included photographs in this article.
The council said the activation times are set outside of the main hours of community use, but would not tell us what days or times they were turned on, stating they could not tell us "obviously for security reasons". Even though it may seem more logical to inform the public as to the times they were operated so parents could ensure their young children were not affected, we were unable to find out the times they were turned on from the City of Greater Geraldton.
"A playground is for the enjoyment of families in the day time and structures can pose a risk to people using them at night time. In the past sharps and other dangerous items have been located in the sand and the playground has been vandalised. Playground equipment at night time can also provide cover for potential predators. This is not in any way positive for the community, the devices have (with other measures) resulted in a reduction in the incidence of these occurrences."
We're not sure if that was a warning to not take young children to the foreshore after sunset as they could be exposed to the devices, and cannot determine from the council if they have set operating times each day, or are manually turned on and off depending on the safety conditions of any given moment.
They did not explain why the devices were set to only target youth, rather than emit a frequency that would deter older people as well, given that it appears their goal is to stop everyone from using the playground end of the foreshore outside of daylight hours.
We asked what measurements have been conducted to gauge their efficacy?
"There has been a noted decrease in damage to property following each installation, but it is hard to attribute this result purely to the ‘mosquito’ device but when linked with other measures, such as lighting, CCTV, security patrols and more people using an area all act as measures to deter crime."
While no statistics were provided, the 'noted' decrease may not even be attributed to the controversial devices, given that a controlled measure of the devices efficacy has not been completed. It may be the lighting, CCTV, security patrols or increased numbers of people using the area that have caused the reduction of vandalism and syringes to the playground area.
But adding the lighting and encouraging more people to visit the foreshore begs the question why parents of little children are not being advised to stay away from the lit playground area or grassed areas next to it, as their children could be harmed by the mosquito devices at certain times.
No community discussion
While there was a news report when the devices were first installed which we're told shed a positive light on the devices, the City has had no direct correspondence with any member of the public with regards to the installation of the devices in either a positive or negative view.
Given the massive public outcry the use of the devices has caused all over the world, this may be something worth discussing with the community.
What does the community have to say?
When Everything Geraldton first discussed the use of these devices on Facebook, some members of the public were outraged that these things were being used against young people. Others actually didn't believe they existed, believing the people talking about the devices to be making up stories.
Overall it appears most Geraldton residents are oblivious to their existence and implementation.
Police were originally supportive of the devices, according to an ABC story last year (link), but the Commissioner for Children and Young People Michelle Scott, said she had written to the Police Commissioner demanding police withdraw their support for the technology.
When we contact the police about the devices two months ago, they pointedly said they had nothing to say on them and directed all enquiries to the council. Perhaps the Commissioner's letter worked.
Local entrepreneurs group Pollinators has been working toward getting some youth focused initiatives off the ground here in Geraldton. Executive Officer Andrew Outhwaite said that their practice of engaging in a positive manner with local youth has been a very effective. "Not a single laneways project has been vandalised," he said. Mr Outhwaite couldn't say for sure why, but believed it may partly be because it was built by the community, is owned by the community, and looks good so people don't want to mess it up. "High barbed wire fences are offensive" he said, trying to get across an attitude of not looking at teenagers as the enemy but looking for meaningful ways to work with them.
When the ABC spoke with the Midwest Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2012, the CEO at the time, Bill Headly, expressed support for the mosquito device, claiming he witnessed it force a group of young people away from an area. (link)
What do the manufacturers say?
The people who make and sell the mosquito devices seem to only ever point out that the device affects teenagers and people under 25. We even came across a news story by the Daily Telegraph in Sydney that published a statement claiming the device could only be heard by people aged 13-25. (link) In fact this is not the case, as we have observed that young children are also irritated by the noise the device creates.
Businesses selling the devices even tell prospective customers that the device only effects 13-25 year olds (link) rather than informing people that the noise affects young children just as much, if not more. They also claim the device is harmless.
The social and economic cost of the devices
The story of Mathew Wilson, who says he left the Marine Terrace part of the city today with a migraine after being exposed to the noise from a mosquito device, highlights a problem with local businesses implementing these devices.
While the restaurant that lost his business probably didn't have a mosquito device installed, it lost a customer because a neighbouring business (or the City of Greater Geraldton?) decided to switch their mosquito device on.
Not only will businesses and councils that install these devices earn a very poor reputation among young people who feel targeted and victimised by them, but the overall goal of attracting people to the CBD, Marine Terrace and Foreshore will be hamstrung as families with young children will not take the risk as they have no way of knowing if they are subjecting their children or unborn children to physical pain.
Update 30/8/13 - The City of Greater Geraldton has responded to this story: http://everythinggeraldton.com.au/geraldton-news/2013/8/30/city-responds-to-story-on-mosquito-devices