The Hidden Costs of Deploying Tear Gas at Protests
Experts worry about the environmental and health impacts of the chemical weapon
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 hit especially hard by the coronavirus, and they already bear disproportionately high burdens of disease.
Sven-Eric Jordt, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at Duke University, tells OneZero that even a single exposure to tear gas can increase the likelihood of developing respiratory illnesses, like influenza, the common cold, or the coronavirus, in the future. “I’m very concerned that a single exposure could very much increase their likelihood to get infected and also develop more serious complications related to Covid-19,” he says.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says people who are exposed to tear gas may experience blurred vision, runny nose, difficulty swallowing, coughing, rashes, and vomiting. Long-lasting exposure or exposure to a large dose of tear gas, especially in a closed setting, can cause blindness, glaucoma, death from chemical burns to the throat and lungs, or death from respiratory failure. The most common active ingredient in tear gas is a compound called 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, or CS. It targets pain receptors in the body and causes irritation in the respiratory system, eyes, and skin.
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Tear gas was first used as a chemical weapon in warfare in 1914. Its use in a war context was completely banned in the 1990s, but it’s still used by law enforcement agencies around the world today. Anna Feigenbaum, PhD, associate professor of communication and digital media at Bournemouth University and author of the 2014 book Tear Gas, tells OneZero that international sales of tear gas have been rising since 2011.
“As crises of democracy, climate change, and economic disparity continue to cause social unrest around the world, riot control salesmen peddle their products as a solution to counter protests and power up the police,” Feigenbaum says. The nonlethal weapons industry could generate $12 billion in revenue by 2023, according to the industry analyst group Stratistics MRC, doubling its yearly revenue from 2016.
Demand for tear gas surged in 2019 as law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong used thousands of rounds of tear gas — 10,000 by some estimates, 3,000 by others — to control protesters. The use of tear gas in Hong Kong highlighted not only its health effects but also its consequences for the environment, which are also a concern in the ongoing protests in the United States.
Tear gas isn’t actually a gas but a solid powder that spreads when the canister that’s holding it combusts. That powder eventually settles onto surfaces — trees, bushes, sidewalks, streets — and stays there for days before it breaks down. In this time, it can be spread onto clothing and food, which may cause gut irritation if ingested. Deployed at high concentrations in the span of a few hours, tear gas can cause acute air pollution that harms animals in addition to people nearby.
The health effects of ambient exposure to tear gas are not well known, but public health experts are concerned about the potential for exposure to tear gas as a contaminant.
Researchers writing in The Lancet in October 2019 called it a “public health controversy” that the Hong Kong SAR Government hadn’t decontaminated areas where tear gas had been deployed. They called on the government to monitor those areas for unforeseen environmental impacts, like groundwater contamination or harm to local wildlife. After the paper was published, Hong Kong’s Food and Health Bureau acknowledged the health and environmental risks of tear gas exposure and encouraged residents to wear protective gear when removing tear gas left behind after protests.
In the United States, the conversation about tear gas at protests must likewise focus on the health and environmental effects, especially on vulnerable communities participating in the protests.
Black and Latinx communities already bear the brunt of air pollution in the United States, facing disproportionately high rates of asthma and respiratory illness. And air pollution is particularly terrible in some of the cities where tear gas was deployed against protesters. Police used tear gas in Oakland, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and Atlanta — all of which are on the American Lung Association’s list of most polluted cities.
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“The environmental disparities also are quite significant in many of these areas, especially in urban or poor areas where minorities live near factories or sites where pollution is coming from industry,” Jordt says. “And we know from epidemiological studies that respiratory illnesses are much more widespread in these areas.”
Researchers who studied the impacts of this weapon tend to focus on the health effects of exposure to tear gas, so the environmental impact — like the impact on wildlife, trees, and water — isn’t well known. Nevertheless, Feigenbaum says that “tear gas is considered toxic waste” and notes that the Environmental Protection Agency has special guidelines for its disposal.
“Tear gas contaminates agriculture and groundwater,” she says. “It poisons food, which should be discarded after exposure. It also poisons animals, often causing them serious injury or death.”
Some researchers, including Jordt and Emily Ying Yang Chan, the lead author of the Lancet paper about Hong Kong, are calling for more academic research into how the chemical weapon affects the environment. This is especially important, Jordt says, as the technology used to deploy tear gas becomes more powerful.
“Some of these companies that are developing tear gas munitions are testing drones to deploy it and make it much easier for the police to do this and more impersonal,” Jordt says. “So I see this technology of deployment advancing, and the research is not really catching up.”