Tear Gas is Not Benign, So Why Are Police Still Using it on Protestors?

Protestors are tear gassed as the police disperse them near the White House on June 1, 2020 as demonstrations against George Floyd's death continue. (Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Image: Roberto Schmidt/AFP

This past week we’ve seen police brutality protestors around the nation dispersed with tear gas by law enforcement, a tactic that’s been used for protesting crowds for decades. But what is tear gas, and is it benign? The answer is not at all.

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician in New York City told USA Today that tear gas should be considered a nerve agent in that it doesn’t just irritate cells, but also activates specific pain receptors leading to intense and burning pain on all affected areas as well as long term damage to the body. What’s worse is that tear gas can help the spread of coronavirus

In Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests have been ongoing the use of tears gas has sparked major concerns from residents about the long term health impacts to people as well as animals and the environment. In fact, police there were urged not to use dogs in enforcement as animals also suffer from the effects of tear gas.

Why This Matters: Tear gas been banned as a method of warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention yet it is being used on public demonstrators around the world. The NIH even says that there’s not been nearly enough testing on the substance to understand its environmental and human health consequences. Another problem is that tear gas isn’t one substance and it’s difficult to know what’s being used on crowds as the specific mixes, including the non-chemical ingredients, are often proprietary.

And as Axios explained yesterday, in the U.S. not only is it not clear what’s really in tear gas but it’s also difficult to understand which companies are making these toxic chemical compounds and selling them to law enforcement.

What is Tear Gas: As the BBC explained, the chemical compound used in most tear gas canisters is o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, known as CS, and is often used as a means of crowd control by military and police units to force people to disperse quickly.

  • There are other, stronger chemical structures – one is called CN, which was a precursor of CS. And then there is CR, which is known to be a particularly potent version that is six times more powerful than CS. CR is rarely used and it’s banned in the US because it can cause cancer.
  • Different types of tear gas with different compounds have their own toxicological effects and levels. The effects differ mostly in high dosage, but in lower concentrations they are similar.

Lack of Research: As Truthout explained, there is still little science on the long-term effects of tear gas exposure, the consequences of exposure for children or the elderly, or the ecological impacts. The lack of research, in turn, has provided justification for using tear gas as a so-called “non-lethal” alternative to live ammunition on crowds.

Sven Jordt, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine who has studied tear gas for many years said that “I’m very concerned that the use is dramatically increasing worldwide, while the research is not increasing at all.” Adding that “There’s very little systematic research being supported at this time by the U.S. government.”

What’s worse? Tear gas used in a protest situation amplifies its effects. The strain caused by physical exertion such as running makes someone coming in contact with tear gas more susceptible to more severe symptoms

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