What It Feels Like to Be Tear-Gassed

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Demonstrators flee as police shoot tear gas into the crowd of several hundred after someone reportedly threw a bottle at the line of police on Aug. 13 in Ferguson, Mo.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Aug. 14, 2014, 8:44 a.m.

First comes the stac­cato pop, the sound of the can­is­ter be­ing launched in­to the air. Seconds later, the tear gas en­vel­ops you. A burn­ing sen­sa­tion hits the skin on your face, and then you’re cry­ing. It’s hard to breathe, and your nose is run­ning, and you’re strug­gling to see, look­ing for a way out of the cloud.

This has been the ex­per­i­ence of some people in Fer­guson, Mo., this week. The sub­urb of St. Louis has been the site of daily protests since a white po­lice of­ficer, whose name has been with­held, shot and killed un­armed black 18-year-old Mi­chael Brown on Sat­urday. Po­lice have em­ployed tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets to dis­perse the crowds, and the scene quickly began to re­semble a war zone.

Tear gas is a non­leth­al chem­ic­al weapon. Its use is banned in war­fare un­der the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion, a 1993 arms-con­trol treaty with 190 mem­ber na­tions, in­clud­ing the United States. But the agree­ment bans tear gas only in com­bat, not do­mest­ic ri­ot con­trol, which means it can be used in the U.S. to dis­perse crowds.

The main in­gredi­ent in the most widely used kind of tear gas, CS gas, is called 2-chloroben­za­l­malononi­trile. The chem­ic­al com­pound re­acts with mois­ture on the skin and in the eyes, caus­ing sear­ing pain, un­con­trol­lable tear­ing, re­flex­ive shut­ting of the eye­lids, over­pro­duc­tion of mu­cus and dif­fi­culty breath­ing.

Tear gas is meant to hurt. In an in­ter­view with Vox’s Sarah Kliff on Thursday morn­ing, Sven-Eric Jordt, a sci­ent­ist at Duke Uni­versity who re­searches the gas, de­scribed be­ing gassed in the 1980s as a stu­dent protest­ing nuc­le­ar-waste trans­port in Ger­many:

It’s ex­tremely pain­ful. Your face starts burn­ing very quickly, and your eyes start tear­ing. The eye­lids shut and you can’t do much. It’s like cut­ting an onion but maybe 100 times more severe. It ac­tu­ally is the same pain re­cept­ors be­ing ac­tiv­ated as what hap­pens with an onion, ex­cept you’re deal­ing with something that is about 100 or 1,000 times more po­tent.

What hap­pens next is you get severe pain in your nose and throat and you also get a lot of mu­cus and snot pro­duc­tion, and that ob­structs your breath­ing. It’s like a burn in­jury or a chem­ic­al burn that hap­pens.

The ef­fects of ex­pos­ure are tem­por­ary, and most of the symp­toms clear with­in a few hours. Af­fected people should rinse their eyes with wa­ter as the first meth­od of treat­ment. Some act­iv­ists have found that milk or ant­acid solu­tions, like Maalox mixed with wa­ter, also help. The long-term ef­fects of the gas, es­pe­cially on chil­dren, older people, and those with preex­ist­ing res­pir­at­ory con­di­tions, are un­clear.

The demon­stra­tions in Fer­guson are likely to con­tin­ue. If people gath­er, so will po­lice, bring­ing crowd-con­trol meth­ods like tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets with them. Dur­ing a press con­fer­ence by Fer­guson po­lice on Wed­nes­day, Mis­souri state Sen. Maria Chap­pelle-Nadal, who had been hit with tear gas dur­ing a rally, asked Po­lice Chief Thomas Jack­son if it would hap­pen again. “I just want to know if I’m go­ing to be gassed again,” she said.

“I hope not,” Jack­son replied. Po­lice used tear gas there Wed­nes­day night.

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