UMass Boston

Environmental Health Research in Iraq

IREX Partnership with Sulaymaniyah Polytechnic University and the Kurdistan Institute for Strategic Studies and Scientific Research


In 2016, the William Joiner Institute was awarded a grant from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) to build a collaborative training and research relationship with the Sulaymaniyah Polytechnic University (SPU) and the Kurdistan Institute for Strategic Studies and Scientific Research (KISSR) in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq over the next year. The funds are from the U.S Embassy in Iraq's Higher Education Research Exchange Program. Dr. Thomas Kane is serving as co-director of the project together with Dr. Nasih Othman, a physician and epidemiologist working at both SPU and KISSR in Sulaymaniyah. Othman is a specialist in environmental health issues, and has experience in treating over 100 victims of the chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Kurdish region of Iraq has been devastated by war and internal conflicts for the past half century. Its military forces, "The Peshmerga," are currently engaged in intense fighting with ISIS forces in the Mosul area of Iraq, and continue to suffer both military and civilian losses in the fight against ISIS. There are an estimated 400,000 refugees from other parts of Iraq and Syria currently located in the Sulaymaniyah governorate; these numbers continue to increase with the intensification of the fighting in and around Mosul. The years of conflict, which include the use of chemical agents against the Kurdish military and civilian population, the concomitant economic difficulties, and the increase in the refugee population have all contributed to serious environmental health problems and health risks in the region, including water supply problems and water and air pollution, contaminated soil, unexploded ordnance and landmine risks. A strain on the housing, education and health infrastructure and local environment has resulted from the heavy influx of migrants from other regions.

The project began in July 2016 and has included research methodology training by Dr. Thomas Kane and Dr. Nasih Othman on environmental health needs assessment methodology, environmental health risk assessment methods, and qualitative research design and training for key informant interviews, in-depth interviews, and focus group discussion observation checklists for the environmental health needs assessment conducted in Sulaymaniyah as part of the project activities. Another goal is to identify key policy issues and longer-term research projects and opportunities to study the health and social consequences of war in the Kurdish region. Dr. Kane and the environmental health team visited Halabja, the site of the 1988 chemical attacks against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein. Over 5,000 men, women and children of all ages died from the highly lethal nerve gas used in the 1988 chemical attack, and more than twice as many were injured from exposure to the blistering agents and mustard gas also used in the 1988 attack. The trip to Halabja included a visit to the museum and memorial dedicated to the victims of the chemical attacks, visits to several mass graves of victims, and a visit to the Halabja Chemical Victims Society which provides support to some 2,500 survivors of the chemical attacks. Dr. Kane also met with and interviewed several survivors of the 1988 chemical attacks still suffering from the effects of exposure to the chemicals. For example, one of the respondents had lost 80 percent of his lung capacity as a result and has been on constant oxygen supply for the past 28 years. The team also made a brief visit to the new hospital in Halabja that treats some of the chemical attack victims. There has been little or no public health or environmental health research conducted in Halabja, and Dr. Kane and the EH team are proposing to conduct a long-term retrospective multidisciplinary study of the health and special impact of the chemical attacks and war on the population of Halabja, and will be developing a study proposal for consideration by potential donors, including the WHO, CDC-Fogarty Program, and NIEHS.  Dr. Kane and the EH team also met with key government and NGO stakeholders during the visit. They also observed a number of refugee camps, one in Sulaymaniyah City and two on the way to Halabja.

Five members of the Kurdish environmental health team travelled to the US in November 2016 to discuss the results of the Sulaymaniyah environmental needs assessment, review risk assessment methods, and meet with the UMass Boston School for the Environment, as well as other key environmental health specialists in Boston.

From December 2016 through February 2017 Dr. Kane will assist the Sulaymaniyah environmental health team in finalizing the Sulaymaniyah Environmental Health Needs Assessment Report and in developing a concept proposal for the long-term study of the impact of the chemical attack on Halabja. 

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