News about police officers clashing with protesters in the US has been quite common the past few weeks. These demonstrations started peacefully as people decried police brutality and systemic racism after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Hundreds of people have already been arrested since the protests started as police claimed that protesters are being violent towards them.
However, that’s not what evidence is showing. Footage of police firing tear gas and rubber bullets was shown recently. Some videos showed officers pushing protesters to the ground. While police leaders said that violence in the streets leaves them with no other choice, protesters and police critics argue that some officers are escalating tensions with their actions.
"They're making the argument for the demonstrators, that American policing remains unreformed and out of control," Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, said.
One of the ways US police officers are controlling protesters or asserting their authority is by using tear gas. Video footage and photos from protests across the country show law enforcement firing tear gas into crowds of people. In some instances, the tear gas is used in response to violence and looting.
Tear Gas as a “Riot Control Agent”
The debate of using tear gas in law enforcement has been reignited as US police officers hit protesters with it. It is considered a “less lethal” weapon because while it’s not intended to be fatal, it can inflict injury. The severity often depends on how, when, and where it's used. The use of tear gas in protests is not new. It’s been repeatedly used against many protests across the world. All of them have the same aftermath: crowds coughing and choking as they flee with water being poured over their stinging eyes.
According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers, tear gas has toxic chemicals like chloroacetophenone (CN) and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS) that produce a rapid sensory irritation or disabling physical effect. Victims of tear gas can experience a range of symptoms, including nose and throat irritation, vomiting, crying, uncontrollable blinking, a feeling of suffocation, and sometimes temporary blindness.
Writer Theo Knappen described the suffering caused by fear in a profile of the head of the US Chemical Warfare Service in the 1920s, saying: “The tear gases appear to be admirably suited to the purpose of isolating the individual from the mob spirit … he is thrown into a condition in which he can think of nothing but relieving his own distress. Under such conditions, an army disintegrates and a mob ceases to be; it becomes a blind stampede to get away from the source of torture.”
The use of tear gas during warfare is prohibited under international law. The 1993 Chemical Convention specifically banned the use of riot control agents in warfare as well as the development, production, or stockpiling of this kind of weapon. However, it made an important exception: the use of tear gas was still permitted for law enforcement purposes. Thus, explaining why police officers continue to use despite growing debates about it.
Using Tear Gas May Increase the Risk of Coronavirus
Recently, public health experts called on police to stop using tear gas on people protesting across the US. An online petition led by Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco (UCSF), suggests that it could “increase the risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.”
Experts and physicians fear that deploying a weapon that has dangerous chemicals could expose more people to the virus, compromise the body's ability to fight off the infection, and even cause mild infections to become more severe illnesses. According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, tear-gassing "makes it easier for viruses to come and set up shop."
Associate professor Sven Eric Jordt, a researcher at Duke University School of Medicine who studies the effects of tear gas, said that CS gas alone induces "very strong inflammation" and "chemical injury" by burning the skin and airways when inhaled. "Using it in the current situation with COVID-19 around is completely irresponsible. There are sufficient data proving that tear gas can increase the susceptibility to pathogens, to viruses,” he said.
A 2014 study from the US Army offers an alarming glimpse into how the chemical could escalate the pandemic. According to The New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership, the findings of the study revealed that recruits who were exposed to tear gas as part of a training exercise were more likely to get sick with respiratory illnesses like the common cold and the flu.
"We have a lot of antiviral defenses that can inactivate viruses and prevent them from entering cells. These are depleted by inhalation of tear gas and also compromised,” Jordt said.
Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist at the UCSF, said that several studies from China and Italy about how other irritants indicate that tear gas could also make people more likely to develop severe illness. "It's adding fuel to the fire. These exposures to tear gas would increase the risk of progression from the asymptomatic infection, to symptomatic disease,” Balmes said.
While several health officials are worried that crowded demonstrations could spread COVID-19, the online petition still acknowledges the importance of these recent protests “to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.” It encourages protesters to wear face coverings and stay six feet apart if possible. Also, it calls on police to avoid arresting and holding protestors in confined spaces like jails and police vans, “which are some of the highest-risk areas for COVID-19 transmission.”
“Racism is a medical problem and has to be faced. You just can’t face those questions without thinking about root causes. And then when facing root causes, structural racism rises to the top,” Ayesha Appa, an infectious disease doctor at UCSF, said.