Gas flares and children playing

Professor Provides Expertise for BBC Documentary on Oil Fields in Iraq

October 5, 2022

On a chilly April morning, Manuela Orjuela-Grimm, a pediatric oncologist and epidemiologist, sat in Pupin Plaza on Columbia’s Morningside Campus, as a video team recorded her conversation across multiple time zones. The topic: scientific evidence of health harms to children in Iraq.

Manuela Orjuela-Grimm on Zoom

This three-way on-camera Zoom conversation between Orjuela-Grimm, BBC producers in London, and Shukri Al Hassen, a scientist at the University of Basrah, Iraq, can now be seen as part of a new feature-length documentary titled Under Poisoned Skies: Inside Iraq’s Sacrifice Zone for BBC News Arabic. Two years in the making, the documentary, filmed by Jessica Kelly and Owen Pinnell, examines the devastating impacts of air pollution from oil fields in Iraq on the health of children living in nearby communities. Orjuela-Grimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Columbia Mailman School and Columbia Irving Medical Center, provided her scientific assessment of data collected by Al Hassen. She also served as inspiration for the Iraqi professor’s research.

A decade earlier, Orjuela-Grimm was the lead author of a study that presented evidence that children exposed to high levels of the common air pollutant naphthalene—one chemical in a family of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—are at increased risk for chromosomal aberrations, a known risk for cancer. The study (based on samples and data from Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health) provided a template for research carried out by Al Hassen after he learned of government reports on elevated pediatric cancer rates in communities living near the oil fields, which are some of the biggest in the world.

Instead of capturing natural gas during oil extraction, the oil fields’ owners and operators choose to burn it off. “These gas flares release a cocktail of toxic chemicals known to be harmful to human health,” explains Al Hassen in the documentary, which is also available in Arabic. To shed light on the situation, Al Hassen collected and analyzed urine from children living near the oil fields, including from homes where children who had been diagnosed with leukemia lived. He tested for a PAH called 2-naphthol, which like all PAHs is created through the burning of organic compounds like natural gas. “The children have strikingly high levels of metabolites from PAHs in their urine,” Orjuela-Grimm says in the documentary after analyzing the data. “That’s certainly concerning and suggests [the children] should be monitored closely,” she adds.

Asked for comment on the Orjuela-Grimm’s input, Al Hassen said her academic work “has inspired us a lot, and it was the basis for the measurement and guidelines we relied on in this investigative and documentary project. Here in Basra, Southern Iraq, a real problem is the high incidence of cancer due to gas flaring. We hope that we will work together to uncover this truth.”

Filmmaker Jessica Kelly said she first reached out to Orjuela-Grimm based on her 2012 naphthalene study. “She played an invaluable role in our documentary by providing a clear and scientific analysis of the urine samples we had gathered from children living close to oil fields in Iraq,” Kelly said. “Ultimately, her analysis has allowed us to hold the big oil companies to account for their pollution.”

“This project provided an incredibly gratifying and rare opportunity to see the impact of research carried out in New York City that can help assess risk in a distant and relatively resource-poor site where children and families are enduring preventable suffering,” said Orjuela-Grimm. “It was a privilege to be invited to volunteer with a scientifically savvy and inspiringly motivated investigative journalism team. Ultimately, my hope is that such collaborative efforts can inform strategies for the prevention of avoidable illness such as those associated with exposure to by-products from the combustion of fossil fuels, and to contribute to creative strategies for remediation of the damages already incurred.”