What is Happening?
An unconfirmed entity in Iran is responsible for the release of nitrogen gas in school classrooms, poisoning at least seven thousand female Iranian students in at least sixty schools starting on November 30, 2022. These poisonings began not long after the nationwide hijab and chastity law protests began in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September 2022 after her detainment for allegedly incorrectly wearing her hijab.
These poisonings have caused respiratory issues, nausea, fatigue, and minor seizures. Hundreds of students have been sent to the hospital for nitrogen gas health symptoms. Female students had reported that they smelt a strange odor before they became ill, indicating the release of a gas into schools.
In November 2022, officials first associated these symptoms with a bacterial infection or food poisoning, as many schoolgirls were hospitalized. In late November and early December 2022, over sixty-five students reported poisonings through inhalation. In February 2023, parents protested outside of government offices demanding answers about the school poisonings. Iranian authorities claimed that schoolgirls and families were spreading rumors and causing mass hysteria.
The Iranian government sent toxicologists to identify the gas on February 28th of this year, reporting it to be nitrogen. Iranian authorities sent mixed messages to the public about the school poisonings; some authorities denied that these poisonings took place, while others called for action. An Iranian authority that originally denied that the poisonings occurred was Tehran chief prosecutor Ali Salehi, stating that the Iranian government will prosecute journalists who have been reporting on the poisonings.
On March 3rd, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi acknowledged that the poisonings were happening. President Raisi allocated blame towards foreign enemies of Iran; he was most likely accusing either Israel or the United States. Iranian education minister, Yousef Nouri claimed that the girls who were going to the hospital were not poisoned in schools.
In March 2023, Iranian deputy interior minister Majid Mirahmadi claimed that five unidentified individuals were arrested for the school poisonings. However, no details or confirmation were provided about these arrests.
The reports of school poisonings stopped for three weeks in March when schools were closed for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. However, the poisons resumed after Nowruz and the last reported school poisoning was in April 2023.
Why it Matters
These school poisonings are a health and safety concern, impact education for girls, and have political implications.
The school poisonings have caused female students to develop respiratory issues and experience minor seizures, amongst other health issues. This is an issue because it prohibits the ability of young girls to function in society. These issues do not only result in immediate health issues but can result in long-term health challenges. Doctors and nurses in hospitals were also devoting more resources to this issue.
Since these poisonings began, schoolgirls have not felt safe when attending school. The Iranian government is responsible for providing all children an education and ensuring that they feel safe and have the means to attend school. These schoolgirls risk poisoning or even death every time they attend school.
Parents have been taking their daughters out of school, potentially impeding progress in female education in Iran. The school poisonings incited fear in female students about attending school. The protesters in Iran are mostly young, educated women; the inability of girls to attend schools is suppressing the voices of a population the government hopes to silence.
The rise in school poisonings at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 has political implications about the Iranian government's intentions. The Iranian government risks facing international anger over this issue. There is speculation that the Iranian government is directly responsible for the release of nitrogen gas into schools, or if the Iranian government is not directly responsible, the state is complicit in the poisonings in an attempt to limit progress in female education, the main group behind the movement against Iran’s compulsory hijab laws.
Where it is Headed
The poisonings stopped once this story gained more international media coverage, and international institutions have taken action like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called for the Iranian government to protect schools. It is not unlikely that the Iranian government perpetrated the nitrogen gas attacks on girls’ schools or was intentionally unresponsive to the attacks because the government benefited from girls being hindered from participating in protests. These poisonings demonstrate that the Iranian government is threatened by educated young women, and will either take extreme measures to limit progress in women’s education or turn a blind eye to their safety.
There have not been any poisonings identified during the 2023 school year yet. If more anti-government protests are spearheaded by young women, however, the Iranian government may act once again to attack young women.