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Iranian Schoolgirl “Chemical Attacks”:
Mass Poisonings or Mass Hysteria?

After several months and no concrete evidence of a toxic agent, no deaths, and nearly all victims being young girls who quickly recovered, reports of mass poisonings in Iran should be viewed cautiously, if not skeptically. In recent decades several eerily similar outbreaks were eventually identified as having a psychological origin. (Most recently, the new report about the Cuban-based “Havana Syndrome” that turned up no evidence whatsoever for any acoustic weapon appears to be another example of the psychological origin of such incidents.1) Consider the following.

A young student at an Islamic girls’ school becomes distressed, starts gasping for air, then passes out. Several other girls quickly exhibit similar symptoms, and soon dozens of girls are rushed to a local hospital suffering from what appeared to many to be a poison gas attack. Symptoms include headache, nausea, and dizziness. A description of the recent mass poisonings reported in Iran? No, Afghanistan 2009.

Girls at another Islamic school smell a strong odor and suddenly exhibit headaches, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, and blurred vision. Several faint. Ambulances rush to the scene and take them to nearby hospitals. The recent events in Iran? No, the disputed West Bank region of the Middle East in 1983.

The parallels between the events in Iran, Afghanistan, and the West Bank are striking. In all three instances, we see young Islamic girls living under extraordinary stress falling victim to a mystery condition.

Since November 2022, reports of schoolgirl poisonings in Iran have involved nearly a dozen separate schools. Media accounts of these “attacks” describe them with such words and “mysterious” “unexplained,” and “baffling.” A popular folk theory holds that these girls are being punished for defying attempts by religious leaders to force them to wear their hijabs in public. But predictably, reports of poisonings have served to inflame anti-government sentiments and there seems little to gain from attacking innocent schoolgirls. According to Iranian officials, no arrests have been made and no chemical agent has been identified despite medical exams that have included blood tests.2

The Afghan “Poisoning” Scare

Between 2009 and 2016, dozens of schools in at least seven provinces across Afghanistan were affected by incidents that were widely reported at the time as mass poisonings.3 I know—in 2016, I was a consultant to a member of the Afghan government on a study of an outbreak in Herat province.4 Our conclusion: the girls were suffering from mass psychogenic illness, a condition triggered by anxiety. The students were under extraordinary stress for attending schools in defiance of the Taliban, stoking fears of reprisals. Taliban spokesmen, while admitting their opposition to girls attending school, always denied involvement.5 Another conspicuous aspect of the outbreaks was that none of the girls died, they almost always made a quick recovery, and no toxin was ever identified in the air, water, or food. Thus far, no toxin has been identified in Iran either, out of nearly a thousand victims.

Not only did we conclude that the girls in Herat were suffering from psychogenic illness, a separate study by the World Health Organization reached the same conclusion based on an investigation of 22 schools.6 While the full report was never released, the WHO later issued a statement that was based on samples of blood, urine and water, concluding that no evidence of poisonings was ever found.7 In 2013, it was revealed that separate investigations had been conducted by both the United Nations and the International Security Assistance Force—a multinational military mission overseeing Afghan security between 2001 and 2014. They too reached the same conclusion,8 as did a 2015 study by the Afghan Government of outbreaks in Herat.9

The Palestinian Schoolgirl “Poisonings”

In March-April 1983, nearly one thousand Palestinian schoolgirls in the disputed Israeli-occupied West Bank region were stricken with headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, stomach pain, and weakness. Many of the victims lost consciousness. The episode made global headlines and led to alarming accusations of mass poisonings. The scare occurred amid the long-standing Palestinian mistrust of Jews and rumors that Israeli agents or civilian extremists had had deliberately poisoned the girls. The initial ‘poisoning’ that triggered the outbreak took place at a school in Arrabah and was later traced to an odor from a dirty latrine. Two separate investigations published in The Lancet, concluded that the illness was psychological.10 Another investigation, appearing in the American Journal of Psychiatry, later found that an alarmist report in a prominent Israeli newspaper significantly contributed to the outbreak when a journalist erroneously asserted without foundation that some of the victims had gone blind.11

Another scare involving the reported poisoning of Islamic schoolgirls by Israelis occurred in Egypt in 1993 after 1,500 students between ages 9 and 16 experienced nausea, headaches and fainting spells resulting in the closure of 32 schools. The episode was spread by rumors that the girls were being targeted by Israeli agents intent on rendering them sterile.12 In recent history there have been several other instances where incidents of apparent state terrorism turned out to be psychogenic in origin.13

Why Islamic schoolgirls? Why Iran? Why Now?

What do the outbreaks in Iran, Afghanistan, the disputed territories, and Egypt have in common? Nearly all involve young schoolgirls living under repressive conditions and with no means of redress. In each of these episodes, when the first girls begin to fall sick, given the tense political climate, rumors of poisoning quickly spread. Outbreaks such as these are not just confined to Islamic settings. What is fascinating about these cases is that while the names and the places may change, the same patterns re-emerge, yet we continue to be fooled.

Similar episodes have been reported in strict Christian schools in Malawi, although instead of odors, these cases were driven by a belief in demons.14 Young Puritan girls living under prolonged stress and an oppressive political regime was the same recipe for the outbreak of twitching, shaking and trance states in the early 1690s that led to accusations of witchcraft at Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

If history is any guidepost, expect the next phase to be the search for scapegoats as people on the margins of society, in the wrong place at the wrong time, are accused of being perpetrators. It happened in Afghanistan, the disputed territories, Egypt, Malawi, and Salem.

These episodes eventually end, but they often do not end well. END

About the Author

Robert E. Bartholomew is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He has written numerous books on the margins of science covering UFOs, haunted houses, Bigfoot, lake monsters—all from a perspective of mainstream science. He has lived with the Malay people in Malaysia, and Aborigines in Central Australia. He is the co-author of two seminal books: Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior with Hilary Evans, and Havana Syndrome with Robert Baloh.

  1. Barnes, Julian and Adam Entous. (2023). “Foreign Adversaries ‘Very Unlikely’ to Blame for Havana Syndrome, Intelligence Review Finds.” The New York Times, March.
  2. Artemis, Moshtaghian, Pourahmadi, Adam, Kennedy, Niamh, Mezzofiore, Gianluca, and Thompson, Nick (2023). “Alarm Grows in Iran over Reports that Hundreds of Schoolgirls were Poisoned.” CNN, March 2, 2023; Afshang, Maryam (2023). “Iran Investigates Poisoning of Hundreds of Schoolgirls with Toxic Gas, BBC News, March 1, 2023; Esfandiari, Golnaz (2023). “Mysterious Wave of Sickness Hits Iranian Schoolgirls, Amid Speculation Over Poisoning.” Radio Free Liberty, February 24.
  3. “Afghan Schoolgirls Targeted in ‘Taliban Gas Attack.” The Stateman (New Delhi, India), May 15, 2009; Nordland, Rod (2010). “Poison Gas Sickened Afghan Schoolgirls.” International Herald Tribune (Paris), September 1, p. 8; “Taliban Suspected of Poisoning 120 Afghan Schoolgirls.” The Hindustan Times (India), May 25, 2012; Wagner, Meg (2015). “More than 100 Afghan Schoolgirls, Teachers Poisoned in Suspected Taliban Attack.” New York Daily News, August 31; “200 Schoolgirls Fall Unconscious after Nimroz Gas Attack, Pajhwok Reporter (Afghan Independent News Agency), May 17, 2016.
  4. Bartholomew, Robert E., Lockery, Stephanie, and Najm, Abdul Fattah (2016). “Terror Attacks that Never Were: Myths of Poison Gas Attacks in History and More Recently on Afghan Schoolgirls.” The Skeptic 21(3):44-49.
  5. Hamed, Mohammed (2010). “Afghan Girls Fall Ill in Suspected Gas Attack.” Reuters, April 25; “Taliban deny poison attacks on girls’ schools.” BBC News, May 27, 2013.
  6. “Mass Psychogenic Illness in Afghanistan.” 2012. Weekly Epidemiological Monitor (World Health Organization, Eastern Office for the Mediterranean) 5(2):27:1 (May).
  7. Aikins, Matthieu (2012). “Toxic Panic. Newsweek, July 9, accessed at:
  8. Aikins, Matthieu (2013). “The ‘Poisoned’ Schoolgirls of Afghanistan.” The New York Times, April 25.
  9. Niayzi A, Sadequ S, Joya S, Faizi S, Rasoli A, Moaid K, et al. Report on Case Control Study Poisoning in Herat School Students. Ministry of Education, Afghanistan, Final Report. November 24, 2015; Najm AF. Assessment Report…of Poisoning of School Students in Herat Province. Community Health Project, International Assistance Mission (Afghanistan); 2015, 4pp.
  10. Landrigan, Philip, and Miller, Bess (1983). “The Arjenyattah Epidemic: Home Interview Data and Toxicological Aspects.” The Lancet ii:1474-1476. See p. 1475; Modan, Baruch, Tirosh, Moshe, Weissenberg, Emil, Acker, Cilla, Swartz, T.A., Coston, Corina, Donagi, Alexander, Revach, Moshe, and Vettorazzi, Gaston (1983). “The Arjenyattah Epidemic.” The Lancet ii:1472-1474.
  11. Hafez, A. (1985). “The Role of the Press and the Medical Community in an Epidemic of Mysterious Gas Poisoning in the Jordan West Bank.” American Journal of Psychiatry 142:833-837. See p. 834.
  12. “Spring Fever.” The Fortean Times (London). 1993;69:16.
  13. “State Terrorism Masquerading as Psychogenic Illness,” Pp. 167-177, in Baloh, Robert, and Bartholomew, Robert E. (2020). Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria. Cham, Switzerland: Copernicus Books.
  14. MacLachlan, Malcolm, Maluwa Banda, Dixie, and Mc Auliffe, Eilish. (1995). “Epidemic Psychological Disturbance in a Malawian Secondary School: A Case Study in Social Change.” Psychology and Developing Societies 7(1):79-90.

This article was published on March 10, 2023.

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