Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Tear Gas Is Dangerous, Experts Say

And may increase risk of getting COVID-19. Mayor, others have urged police to stop its use.

By - Jun 9th, 2020 02:33 pm
N. 6th and W. Juneau Ave on June 2nd, 2020. Photo by Maddy Day.

N. 6th and W. Juneau Ave on June 2nd, 2020. Photo by Maddy Day.

Tear gas has long been banned on the battlefield as a dangerous chemical weapon. 

“In 1918, the International Committee of the Red Cross referred to chemical weapons like tear gas as ‘barbaric’ and ‘criminal.’ In 1925, the Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical weapons in warfare. Again, in 1997, the international community reinforced its commitment to ban the use of dangerous chemical weapons,” the ACLU recounts.

But there has always been an exception for law enforcement officers using it for riot control. And police across the nation, including in Milwaukee, have been using tear gas against marches protesting the killing of George Floyd. It was even used in Seattle after the mayor there banned its use for 30 days.

“The escalation of tear gas use we’re seeing now really seems unprecedented,” Sven-Eric Jordt, a professor of anesthesiology at Duke University, told The Guardian.

Last week, Assistant Milwaukee Police Chief Michael Brunson, told the Milwaukee Common Council the use of rubber bullets and tear gas is a change from police practices in the 1960s that resulted in deaths in many encounters, as Urban Milwaukee reported. “Law enforcement options at those times [the 1960s] were a handgun and a billy club,” said Brunson. The change to rubber bullets and tear gas was done “to use the minimal amount of force to get the situation under control,” Brunson said.

But the use of “less lethal” weapons, as rubber bullets and tear gas have been described, has been questioned by many. Last week an open letter signed by nearly 1,300 medical and public health professionals called on the police to stop using “tear gas, smoke or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation and inducing coughing.”

“Tear gas is the generic term for a class of compounds that cause a burning sensation,” as Pro Publica has reported, and most police departments and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. use a chemical called CS, short for 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile.

“They are really pain nerve gases. They are designed to induce pain,” Jordt told the publication. 

“When inhaled, the pain induces people to cough. The compound degrades the mucus membranes in your eyes, nose, mouth and lungs — the layers of cells that help protect people from viruses and bacteria,” the story noted

A 2014 study by the U.S. military on thousands of recruits who were exposed to tear gas during training exercises found it later left them at higher risk for contracting influenza, pneumonia, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses.

Similarly, it might weaken the body’s ability to stave off COVID-19, leaving demonstrators at higher risk, as Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergy and immunology doctor at NYU Langone Health told the publication: “If your lungs are already wheezing and coughing, working hard to expel this tear gas or this irritant, it’s unable to have that reserve to fight off any infection, whether a virus or bacteria.”

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease physician who helped draft the open letter on tear gas, told The Guardian it can cause tears, saliva and mucus to stream from demonstrators’ eyes and noses, which will help spread COVID-19 from anyone who has it. “It’ll cause people to shout and scream, propelling droplets of these fluids – which could be carrying coronavirus – and giving them superpowers, to spread much farther than six feet,” he said.   

The use of tear gas “would increase the risk of progression from asymptomatic infection to symptomatic disease,” Dr. John Balmes of the University of California, San Francisco told Pro Publica

Using tear gas “in the current situation with COVID-19 around is completely irresponsible,” Jordt told National Public Radio.

Parikh told Pro Publica its use could be particularly dangerous for any children at protests. “Their lungs and immune system are still developing, and tear gas could lead to neurological problems or permanent skin or eye damage if it’s not washed off quickly,” the story noted. 

In dense city neighborhoods, tear gas can also seep into nearly homes and apartments and leave behind a residue that can present serious health hazards,” the story noted. It can “seep into porous materials like furniture, mattresses, clothing, carpet and even hardwood floors, and continue to irritate the mucous membranes of anyone” living there.  

The ACLU of Wisconsin has called on Milwaukee police to stop using tear gas, charging that “The use of it in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a respiratory virus, is inexcusable.” 

Mayor Tom Barrett has called for a drastic limitation on its use. “I don’t think we should be using tear gas unless it’s a very, very, very serious situation,” he said. 

Urban Milwaukee contacted the Milwaukee Police Department to ask how often tear gas has been used during the 11 days of protest, and will update this story should we hear a reply. 

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