A firestorm of protests has swept the United States. In their wake, government leaders have implemented curfews and law enforcement has carried out riot control efforts. The widespread use of tear gas as a crowd-control tactic has raised significant health and safety concerns–not only for those protesting but for the environment as well.

Effects on Individuals

Tear gas quells riots by temporarily making people unable to function by irritating their eyes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns that those exposed to tear gas may experience excessive tearing, burning sensations, blurred vision, a runny nose, difficulty swallowing, coughing, rashes, vomiting and redness in the eyes. These symptoms will usually disappear within a short time if the exposure to tear gas ceases. Long-lasting exposure or exposure to a large dose, especially in a closed setting, may result in more severe health effects, such as blindness, glaucoma, chemical burns to the throat and lungs or respiratory failure.

Using tear gas during the COVID-19 pandemic is especially worrisome because it increases a person’s susceptibility to the virus. A study conducted in 2014 found that US military recruits who were exposed to tear gas as part of a training exercise were more likely to develop respiratory illnesses such as the common cold and the flu. One of the immediate health effects of exposure to tear gas is coughing, which facilitates the spread of COVID by increasing the number of infectious droplets in the air. Moreover, tear gas can compromise the body’s ability to fight off the infection by causing injury and inflammation to the lining of the airways.

Effects on the Environment

Tear gas is actually not a gas. It is a chemical powder that is mixed with liquid in order to be dispersed as a spray. Because of its powdered nature, chemical residue is left behind after every spray. In addition tear gas may contain silicon, which allows it to last longer in the environment and not disintegrate as quickly.

Studies about tear gas tend to focus on its health effects on humans, so the environmental impact on wildlife, plants and water, is not well known. However, because its residue settles on surfaces and stays there for days before breaking down, tear gas can contaminate agriculture, local wildlife and groundwater. This puts Black and Latinx communities who live in urban or poor areas especially at risk since they face disproportionately high rates of asthma and respiratory illnesses because of their proximity to factories and industrial sites. The air quality in these communities is often low; therefore, there is a legitimate concern about the potential of tear gas as a harmful contaminant. 

The question, then, is how do we ensure a more discriminate use of tear gas and other chemical weapons, especially during a respiratory illness pandemic? Other cities such as Seattle have temporarily halted its use, but many have yet to reconsider. 
To accelerate reform, individual actions can be taken, such as calling local police departments and demanding a review of their rules and norms regarding tear gas usage or attending city council meetings and raising community awareness of the issue. House Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Takano and Chuy Garcia have announced that they will be introducing a bill that forces local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to dispose of all chemical weapons. We must call our local elected officials to amass support for bans on tear gas at the city level. Banning chemical weapons is one of the many steps we must take in this moment to prevent a new wave of COVID-19 and any unforeseen environmental impacts that may disproportionately affect communities of color.

Written by Maria Reyes, Programs Intern