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During the recent Black Lives Matter Protests, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets as riot control has become extremely publicized due to controversy over excessive use of force on peaceful protests as well as backlash faced by police all over the country that has been amplified by this anti-racism movement currently sweeping the United States. According to the New York Times, tear gas has been fired at crowds by riot control officers in over 100 cities, leaving an alarming amount of protesters with serious injuries ranging from a protester who lost an eye to another who had a leg injury. Although recent media coverage of the ongoing protests is not quite as extensive as it was a few weeks ago, the use of tear gas and other controversial riot control methods is still prevalent, and the ethics of the use of these methods have been debated about for over a century.
The use of tear gas began during World War I, first used in 1914 by the French military to gain an advantage against German soldiers and drive them out of their trenches. Canisters of tear gas were used as an alternative to poison gas in warfare in a similar manner throughout the rest of the war, and was continually used despite militaries being unable to understand the biological effects of the chemicals that caused the effects of the gas. Tear gas quickly switched from a military weapon to a riot control chemical in the United States during this time as well. Because of the detrimental effects of its use and the inhumaneness of the weapon itself, the use of tear gas during warfare was banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1925 during the Geneva Convention. However, tear gas was and still is widely used across the world domestically by law enforcement agencies to clear out armed suspects from buildings and control large crowds and riots to avoid major casualties and fatalities.
Contrary to popular belief, tear gases (also known as lacrimators), are not actually gases: they are powders that float through the air in a fine mist and directly activate either TRPA1 or TRPV1 pain receptors in order to cause the trademark intense burning pain associated with these agents. A chemical commonly used in tear gases, 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (more commonly known as CS gas) is part of a category of TRPA1-activating agents that are often used for riot control. CS gas contains chlorine, and the particles can persist on skin and clothing while also directly reacting with the human body at a molecular level. However, according to Scientific American, a newer form of tear gas, called CS2, or CX, has been developed and is becoming more and more popular as a riot control agent. The particles in CS2 include silicon which allows the burning sensation to last much longer on the victims and linger in the air near where a canister of the “gas” was fired. Pepper spray is another category of tear gas that uses a much milder capsaicin-based powder to activate TRPV-1 pain receptors as opposed to more potent TRPA-1 receptor activators. These more dangerous TRPV-1 receptor activators include CN gas (commonly used in mace) and CR gas (which, according to the same Scientific American article, were used alongside CS gas and caused extreme psychological and physical trauma during their use to control riots during the Arab Spring a few years ago).
Not only are lacrimator-filled canisters potentially fatal because of the way they are fired (any fast flying projectile such as one of these canisters/grenades is dangerous, as was seen when a man lost his eye during a protest in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on May 31st) and due to psychological trauma combined with the effects of being hit with the harmful chemicals inside of them, but because they irritate the eyes and the upper respiratory system the use of these agents during the ongoing protests is highly likely to cause a COVID-19 spike. Directly after being hit with tear gas, victims experience symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, and choking, and when coughing as a result of this respiratory irritation, protesters and civilians release a large number of respiratory droplets. If respiratory droplets from an infected individual come into contact with others, COVID-19 will spread exponentially more than it would normally in these often crowded protests, whether or not people are wearing masks (which, due to the pandemic, they should be wearing regardless).
Tear gas may also prevent victims from fighting off COVID-19 due to its effect on the entire human body as a whole, especially due to the fact that its effect on the respiratory system may exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms and do more damage overall. According to an article by the New York Times, a study conducted on US Army soldiers who had been exposed to CS gas shows that people have a higher risk of respiratory illness following an experience with tear gas due to this damage to the body’s systems as well as due to an increase in respiratory secretions into the air. Although the long term effects of tear gas are not entirely clear, as most experiences are sporadic and quite varied, some have reported rashes, difficulty breathing, and overall pain as symptoms of exposure aside from intense pain.
Being hit with tear gas also has been known to cause intense shock and stress and is quite overwhelming, especially in large crowds and among the chaos of avoiding being hit by flying canisters, trampled, or affected by another riot control method. Long and short term emotional trauma can ensue after being hit with tear gas as a result of the panic, anxiety, and disorientation that tear gas causes. Overall, the use of tear gas as a way to control these mostly completely peaceful protests as well as riots is excessive because it is overall quite damaging for not only those directly hit, but those around them, and is a recipe for disaster during this pandemic.
When attending a protest or another large gathering of civilians, it can be difficult to predict the use of tear gas, but, there are precautions and safety measures one can take to be better prepared in the face of this kind of riot control. If possible, avoiding a protest or gathering where you know or think that tear gas will be used is the absolute best way to not be affected, but if you go to a protest it is important to make sure that you prepare yourself to help others and yourself if you get hit with lacrimator and avoid severe bodily harm and the spread of disease.
Avoid wearing contact lenses, as these will burn and adhere to your eyes when sprayed with tear gas.
If hit with any form of tear gas, wash out your eyes with water immediately, and do not rub them, as that will spread the powder you’ve been hit with. A hose would be ideal to rinse out your eyes, but any kind of water will do as long as it’s sanitary. Milk is not sterile (pasteurization makes milk suitable for drinking, but milk still contains a lot of bacteria), and although it may relieve pain (especially if you are hit by pepper spray), you can get an infection.
Also, wash your hands and body to scrub off particles of tear gas, and, when it is safe to do so, try to remove as much clothing as is reasonable that has been covered in tear gas to avoid spreading it around your body.
Whether or not you are directly hit or in the close vicinity of tear gas, try to move to a higher elevation as the tear gas particles will stay lower to the ground.
Lastly, if the effects of tear gas last for over 90 minutes, make your way to an emergency room for further assistance in order to avoid long term damage.
Wear a face covering (a surgical mask/N95 mask is ideal, but the more you layer your cloth face covering the more you can protect yourself and others), and if you can, wear a face shield along with your mask. Make sure to stay as socially distant as possible, as large crowds full of people are already a threat due to the potential to spread disease, and also can prove to be quite chaotic and dangerous in the event of the use of tear gas. Please be safe, and remember that the pandemic has the potential to get worse and continues to worsen in the United States.
Written by Mia Magliari and Hana Prokop
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