Why Are Iranian Girls Being Poisoned?
In the past three months, more than 1,000 Iranian students, primarily schoolgirls, have become ill in what appears to be a wave of poisonings. What is causing these illnesses? According to reports, at least 26 schools across the country reported dozens of girls who had fallen ill on Wednesday – a clear escalation. Many patients have reported the following symptoms: respiratory problems, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. How did these reports spread across the country, and what might be behind them?
In total, 58 schools in eight provinces have been affected since the first case was reported on 30 November at a school in Qom. The majority of cases have been reported at girls’ schools. There have also been cases involving teachers, students, and parents.
In dozens of social media videos, the BBC has verified the locations of numerous schools. Videos show ambulances arriving and crowds gathering outside the school gates. Young people are seen in distress in many videos being transported to hospitals by ambulances.
Identifying the cause
Protests against the Iranian government have been going on for over a month, and many claim students are being poisoned to prevent girls from attending school. Some pupils and parents believe schoolgirls who participated in government protests were targeted. Iranian officials believe that a variety of factors caused the students’ illness, and President Ebrahim Raisi has ordered an investigation to find out what caused it.
It is unclear, however, what caused the illness. In many cases, finding the substance suspected of causing chemical warfare is the only useful evidence, according to associate fellow Dan Kaszeta at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
A sample must be taken with the right equipment since substances can dissipate or degrade quickly. Iranian witnesses have reported smelling tangerines or rotten fish, although this can be misleading. In the Iranian incidents, different odors were described, and they are hard to tie to chemical hazards, according to him. The anti-government protests in recent years have been marred by tear gas, Kaszeta says. Poorly made tear gas emits foul odors when released. An answer could be found with biomedical testing and blood and urine tests. Kaszeta says thousands of chemicals could poison people. Afghan schools were not investigated for poisoning in the 2010s, he says.
It was found that Iranian schoolgirls’ blood did not contain any toxic substances, according to Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at Leeds University. Hay, who has investigated suspected chemical attacks around the world, said a comprehensive screening is essential before ruling anything out. He believed nerve agents or organophosphate poisons were unlikely to be involved, based on what he had seen. According to BBC Persian, one daughter couldn’t walk for over a week after the attack. It’s important for investigators to conduct interviews, blood tests, and urine tests systematically. Most poisoning victims recover quickly, but most are sick for quite a while.
Is there a psychological explanation?
Despite no toxic substance being ruled out, Hay and Kaszeta suggested psychological factors may play a role. According to Professor Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist, and epidemiologist at King’s College London, the symptoms were not the result of a chain of poisonings but rather a “mass sociogenic illness” – a spread of symptoms that are not attributed to any biological cause.
Several factors contributed to his conclusion, including the spread of cases and the fact that mainly schoolgirls have been affected, with fewer males and adults. In most cases, patients have recovered quickly due to the nature of the symptoms.
Rather than toxic poisoning, Wessely believes the symptoms of mass sociogenic illness result from anxiety. According to him, most poisoning symptoms are similar, such as racing pulses, fainting spells, body tremors, butterflies in the stomach, numbness, or anxiety.
This is not surprising, given government repression in Iranian schools. The Iranian outbreaks were similar to those in Kosovo in 1990 and the occupied West Bank in 1986. According to researchers, neither outbreak was caused by biomedical factors; it was a mass sociogenic event.