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Tear gas is more dangerous than police admit, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic

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PHOTO BY CARLY KEDRIERSKI, JUSTICE FOR GEORGE PROTEST, DOWNTOWN ORLANDO 2020
  • Photo by Carly Kedrierski, Justice for George protest, downtown Orlando 2020

Jordt said he was surprised by the sheer quantity of tear gas used by police in recent days, based on what he's seen in online videos and news clips. Instead of reserving it for the most extreme situations, "it's more like fumigating and flushing people out," he said. "Tear gas has become a 1st line response, not a last resort," he added in an email.

Because many protests are occurring in residential neighborhoods, tear gas is now seeping into homes. Parikh compared it to secondhand smoke. "It's a terrible situation," she said. "To be honest there's not much you can do."

Chowdhury, the UPenn student who participated in the Philadelphia protest, said she couldn't keep out the gas, even when she stuffed T-shirts and towels under the doors and windows. She could still smell it the next morning.

If the gas gets indoors, people should wipe down their countertops and other surfaces with large amounts of water and soap, Jordt said. Any food that wasn't in a closed container could be contaminated and should be thrown out, and in extreme cases with large amounts of tear gas, residents and business owners may need to contact fire departments for recommendations of professional cleaning services, he added.

Companies like Aftermath offer services for biohazard and infection control. Its website's section on "tear gas removal" says the chemical "leaves behind residue that can present serious health hazards if not properly treated. ... Tear gas residue can seep into porous materials like furniture, mattresses, clothing, carpet and even hardwood floors, and continue to irritate the mucous membranes of anyone residing in or visiting the property long after the incident."

Police tactics and tools can make matters worse.

There are many different forms of tear gas and many ways to use it, said Anna Feigenbaum, the author of a recent book on the history of tear gas and an associate professor of communication and digital media at Bournemouth University in England.

Police can spray it from cans, shoot canisters or throw grenades. Manufacturers sell grenades that produce light and noise as they expel tear gas and "triple-chaser" canisters that break into multiple pieces when they land so the gas can cover a larger area.

The technology for deploying tear gas is advancing far more quickly than scientists' understanding of the impacts, Jordt said. "While use of these [compounds] is escalating, there is a vacuum of research to back up the safety of high-level use."

Feigenbaum said the current situation is dangerous because law enforcement has used tear gas "at close range, in enclosed spaces, in large quantities, fired directly at people, used [it] offensively as a weapon and in conjunction with rubber-coated bullets as a force multiplier."

Last weekend, a college student in Indiana lost his eye when a tear gas canister hit his face.

Tear gas is banned in international warfare, but it is classified as a "riot control agent" that law enforcement can use for crowd control. Yet instead of calming the situation, tear gas can sometimes "cause counter aggression," Jordt said. "It just doesn't work well, and it hits the weakest people the most, and causes the most complications in them."

One of the most controversial events occurred on Monday, when law enforcement in Washington, D.C., used tear gas on peaceful demonstrators to clear the way so President Donald Trump could walk to a nearby church for a photo op. A statement from the U.S. Park Police said they used "pepper balls" with an unspecified irritant powder and "smoke canisters." (A reporter with WUSA9 tweeted photos on Thursday of CS containers that he and his team said they found at the site.) The CDC uses "tear gas" as the catch-all term for many "riot control" compounds with similar effects.

Monica Sanders, who lives across the river in Alexandria, Virginia, said she could see the smoke from her house, like something from a "dystopian reality."

A University of Delaware professor who specializes in disaster management, Sanders said she'd thought about attending that protest but decided against it because her lungs were still weak from an earlier infection that might have been the coronavirus. Although she never got tested, Sanders said she came down with a respiratory illness in mid-February that almost sent her to the emergency room. She is a triathlete with no history of asthma. Last October, she swam a 5K race. Today, she can't even swim a mile.

She said, "There are other ways to do crowd control that don't involve creating respiratory ailments during a pandemic, in a city that doesn't have enough [medical] supplies."

Maya Eliahou and Caroline Chen contributed reporting.

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