The Dangers of Using Tear Gas During a Viral Pandemic

Health + Wellness

Police officers wearing riot gear disperse demonstrators by shooting tear gas next to St. John's Episcopal Church outside of the White House on June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. JOSE LUIS MAGANA / AFP via Getty Images

Police across the U.S. have used tear gas to disperse crowds assembling to protest the death of George Floyd and to decry police brutality, and infectious disease experts are urging them to stop.

The chemical “riot agent,” they warn, could cause coronavirus to spread more quickly.

Agent CS (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile), or tear gas, was invented over a century ago and has been used for crowd control during civil unrest ever since, Insider reported. Tear gas has been banned during warfare by almost every country, but U.S. domestic law enforcement can still legally use it to control riots, USA Today reported.

The chemical, which is actually a solid, white powder, dissolves into a “painful, acidic liquid” when mixed with water, sweat and oils in our skin, Insider noted.

At a minimum, it’s an irritant to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin that can cause eyes to tear, runny nose, drooling, coughing, chest tightness and vomiting, effects that typically last 15 to 30 minutes, The State reported. If tear gas gets in the eyes, it can cause temporary blindness, and exposed skin can feel like it’s burning, Insider reported. Heat and humidity intensify the pain.

These “excessive” bodily secretions, along with shouting at protests, mean more respiratory droplets are emitted, which increases the chance of coronavirus transmission, said Dr. Payal Kohli, reported The State.

University of California at San Francisco infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong told KTVU Fox2, “The acute effects are particularly salient when we think of COVID-19.” When infected individuals are tear-gassed, they will cough more and increase risk of community-spread, he said. With healthy individuals, tear-gassing “makes it easier for virus to come and set up shop.”

Chin-Hong and other experts have circulated an online petition calling for the end of tear-gassing during the pandemic and report that people with repeat tear gas exposure can suffer lung illnesses like chronic bronchitis.

“I’m really concerned that this might catalyze a new wave of COVID-19,” Sven-Eric Jordt told The New York Times. The Duke University researcher studies the effects of tear gas agents and said he was “shocked” at how widespread police use of the control agent had become.

Ayesha Appa, an infectious disease doctor at the University of California San Francisco, said tear gas “seems like a particularly cruel intervention at this time in which the country is facing a respiratory virus that is sweeping the country with unprecedented rates of disease,” reported The State.

Many experts noted that the gas affects anyone in the area it is deployed in, including peaceful individuals and sometimes police officers, Insider reported.

In a letter to the city of Oakland, councilmembers urged the immediate halt of tear gas use for crowd control, reported KLTV Fox 2. Residents complained of tear gas “reaching the 14th floor of their building and creeping into their apartment, as well as a tear gas canister landing on their rooftop and catching grass on fire,” the letter stated. Another resident, whose car had been gassed, was sprayed in his face when he turned on the engine the following day because the chemical got trapped in his air vents.

Insider reported how “many black Americans disproportionately have pre-existing conditions like asthma that could make tear gas lethal.” Additionally, crowd-control weapons expert and emergency physician Dr. Rohini Haar warned Insider that tear gas may be “especially hard” on children, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory conditions.

Sarah Grossman, a 22-year-old young woman died days after being tear-gassed at a Columbus rally, reported NY Daily News. Initial media speculation suggested that tear gas may have triggered an underlying respiratory issue, but her death remains under investigation, Dayton Daily News reported.

Harr also warned that tear gas canisters themselves often cause the most permanent disabilities and harm, “especially when they hit the head or the neck, the eyes, the delicate bones of the face,” Insider reported. 21-year-old student Balin Brake lost his right eye after a tear gas canister hit his head during demonstrations, reported Journal Gazette.

Even without tear gas concerns, protests during a pandemic already caused alarm.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti warned that protests could become “super-spreader events,” leading to an explosion of secondary infections, reported The New York Times. Doctors cautioned that protesters should not be held in enclosed, tight police vans and jails, which have some of the highest risk areas for coronavirus transmission, reported KTVU Fox 2.

Human rights experts say that tear gas should be used on civilians as a “weapon of last resort, not an everyday occurrence,” reported Insider.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter