What Is Tear Gas, & What Does It Do To Your Body?

Photo: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images.
Across the country, protesters are marching following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, who was kneed in the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer. Although the majority of these protests are peaceful, the police are meeting marchers with riot gear, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. They're also using tear gas in an attempt to disperse crowds. That's a big deal.
Tear gas is a non-lethal chemical weapon that was previously used to force people out from behind barricades in warfare. It irritates the mucus membranes — the eyes, nose, and throat. According to a report from 2014 in The Atlantic, tear gas is designed for physical and psychological torture. One of the reasons police use it, according to the writer, is that it leaves behind no blood and no bruises, making it an image-friendlier way to disperse crowds than physical force.
The use of tear gas was prohibited in warfare during the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, under a law that was signed by almost every country in the world. That's right: The substance was banned on battlefields, yet domestic law enforcement can still use it when it comes to crowd control.
A study of 34 people who had been exposed both directly and indirectly to tear gas found that the substance caused a number of "distressing symptoms," reports the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. These included eye pain, eye twitching, eye tearing, a burning sensation in the throat and nose, chest tightness, increased nasal secretions, sneezing, coughing, and vomiting. Skin burns and rashes are also a side effect of the gas, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These can develop quickly — within 20 seconds of exposure — and will start to wear off within 15 minutes if exposure ceases.
As many people have noted over the past week, tear gas makes people cough, a symptom that has additional consequences now, given that coughing is a primary way coronavirus spreads.
There isn't enough research out there to determine the long-term effects of tear gas exposure. But the previous study checked in with the people who had been exposed, and found that a month later they were still experiencing symptoms like watering eyes and throat pain. The CDC says that possible long-term side effects may include blindness, glaucoma, severe chemical burns in the throat and lungs, respiratory failure, and in severe cases, death.
If you've been in an area where tear gas has been deployed, the CDC recommends getting as far away from the substance as possible — preferably to an area with high ground. If you are indoors, get out of the contaminated building as soon as possible.
For those exposed to tear gas, you'll want to remove your clothing, wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible. Although there have been reports of milk helping flush out tear gas from eyes, the CDC recommends rinsing out your eyes with plain water for around 10 to 15 minutes instead. If you're wearing contacts, remove them right away — they'll likely have to be thrown out entirely.
Medications that are used to treat asthma (such as bronchodilators and steroids) may also be used to help someone who has been contaminated breathe, according to the CDC. Currently, no antidote exists for poisoning from tear gas. If you're attending a protest, bring along eye protection, cover your skin as much as possible with clothing, and wear a face mask or a bandana to cover your eyes, nose, and mouth. And most importantly, stay aware. And stay safe.

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