The Color of Climate

The Hidden Costs of Deploying Tear Gas at Protests

Experts worry about the environmental and health impacts of the chemical weapon

Drew Costley
OneZero
Published in
6 min readJun 3, 2020

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A tear gas canister erupts as protesters disperse on May 30, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

Rhys Washington had just joined a crowd of protesters in La Mesa, California, when he heard a loud bang. “I went there, and immediately after I got there, there was a tear gas canister deployed, maybe five or 10 seconds after I got there,” he tells OneZero.

Washington, a 19-year-old Black painter and poet who lives in San Diego, a city 15 minutes from La Mesa, was one of hundreds of protesters in the city’s downtown on May 30. Like thousands of protesters across the United States, they were protesting the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Last week, an officer in La Mesa assaulted, then arrested, a Black man with no clear evidence of having been provoked.

As a thick white cloud of tear gas rose into the air, people hunched over because it was so difficult to breathe, Washington says. They were “shuffling around like zombies, trying to catch their breath while their eyes were watering.” His eyes watered too as he drooled and coughed. He felt he was “asphyxiating” as he looked for help to reduce the irritation. It was his first time being tear gassed.

“I knew how painful it looked, but I didn’t know how painful it felt,” Washington says. “And it feels a lot more painful than it looks.”

Thousands of protesters have had similar experiences over the past several days as police shot tear gas into both peaceful and violent crowds. Police have used tear gas in San Luis Obispo and Oakland. They’ve used it in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered. They’ve used it in Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. On Monday, they used it outside the White House to clear protesters so President Donald Trump could go to a nearby church for a photo op.

Some experts in the United States are concerned about the health impacts of tear gas on protesters. Black people are especially vulnerable because their communities have been…

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Drew Costley
OneZero

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.