Q&A: Michigan toxicologist wins international award for Iraq birth defect research.

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Mozhgan Savabieasfahani talks with Environmental Health News about winning the 2015 Rachel Carson prize and how conflicts in the Middle East can have a lasting environmental legacy

March 11, 2015

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

Mozhgan Savabieasfahani was born in Iran just six years after the 1953 Iranian coup d'état – an overthrow of an elected Prime Minister led by the United Kingdom and the United States that left lasting damage to the U.S. reputation in the region.

Now, 62 years later as an independent environmental toxicologist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Savabieasfahani’s research sheds light on how the U.S. is still impacting lives in the Middle East.

Savabieasfahani's work has helped uncover the rise in birth defects in Iraqi cities after the 2003 invasion. She has linked chemicals and metals left behind by the U.S armed forces to the health impacts.

Now Savabieasfahani is being recognized for her work. She was awarded the 2015 Rachel Carson prize, an award given out every two years to a woman who has made significant contributions to the environment.

The prize, awarded by a board based in Norway, is named after Rachel Carson who was a marine biologist, author and considered by many to be the mother of the modern environmental movement. Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, exposed the hazards of pesticides on the environment, particularly birds.

In a phone interview, Savabieasfahani spoke about the environmental toll of the Middle East conflicts, what the Rachel Carson prize means to her and how she thought the people calling to give her the award were a scam agency.

(Interview lightly edited for clarity and brevity)

Can you tell me about the research that won you this award?

MS: Since 2009 we’ve been organizing different teams in three different cities of Iraq Hawijah, Basra and Fallujah, looking at incidences in birth defects. We were looking at these observations and got into hospital records to see what’s happening. We collected hair samples from children and parents of children affected with birth defects. We used nail samples, hair samples and teeth of children.

We found very high levels of mercury, lead, titanium and various toxic metals in hair of children and parents of children with disorders or birth defects, showing metal contamination has happened since 2003 – with increased disorders and defects.

Is the assumption that this contamination is from U.S. military activities?

[Previous research] found high levels of titanium in lung tissues of U.S. soldiers that served in Iraq and Afghanistan, from burn pits. We found the same type of magnesium and titanium in the hair samples of children in Hawijah, a city taken over by U.S. military in 2003. The U.S. military burned waste there from 2003 to 2010 exposing both children and their parents.

I see you grew up in Iran. Has your experience there played a role in current research?

In 2004, I was teaching at a university near border of Iraq, when war was escalating. I remember going to our campus, it was a half hour drive, if it was possible to drive, we would hear the sounds of bombs. The Earth would shake. I remember one guy killed by a stray bomb.

I have no doubt this has been quite influential in how I see everything. People think of bombs and bullets being so far away, especially people in the U.S. But people whose lives have been touched by these killings, they will never forget.

How did you hear about the Rachel Carson prize and what does it mean to you to win it?

I knew about this award – but I was not in touch with the committee or organization. I received a phone call when I was in the library and the lady told me I had won something. You know you get these calls from sellers in the U.S? I thought it was that, so I told her I don’t want anything. She said ‘No, no you have won a prize’.

I'm quite touched and honored to be in the company of women like Rachel Carson and Theo Colborn, women who deeply cared about the environment and their fellow human beings. I’m quite touched and honored to be in the company of women like Rachel Carson and [previous winner] Theo Colborn, women who deeply cared about the environment and their fellow human beings and got people to think. If my work is worthy of that, I’m quite thrilled.

What is the next step for your research in Iraq?

We’re organizing to do more studies, dig out more data, hopefully allow us to apply for grants to do larger scale work in Iraq. Through the trips we made to various universities, people are now aware of the situation in Iraq. We’re going to get more resources behind working in Iraq and we’re quite hopeful that will happen.

We want to actually make a difference on the ground for women and children in Iraq who are severely compromised in terms of health care.

We cannot forget about people who are in dire situations. We cannot wash our hands, walk away and just say ‘things are very rough’.

It might be hard but we have a responsibility to do it.

Check out more about the Rachel Carson prize and past winners here.

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author's name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN's version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.


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