Parents shouldn’t have to decide to protest peacefully or keep the family safe. But that’s our current reality. Across the country, police forces are using tear gas, a class of pain-inflicting chemical agents, to disperse crowds. Tear gas is dangerous enough that it’s banned on battlefields worldwide — but domestically, it’s perfectly legal as a riot-control agent.
While tear gas is rarely lethal, experts say that it has the potential to cause serious damage — especially during a pandemic, and especially to children who get caught in the crossfire. Here’s what you need to know about how this chemical weapon impacts kids.
What is Tear Gas?
Tear gas is a broad term for chemicals that specifically activate pain receptors in the eyes, respiratory system, and skin, said Satya Achanta, an anesthesiologist at Duke University. The name is a misnomer. It’s not actually a gas, but a solid fine enough to stay suspended in the air. Classified as irritants, these chemicals include CS gas (the most commonly used tear gas), mace, and pepper spray. The immediate effects are excruciating pain, coughing, and watering eyes — these tend to subside after 15-30 minutes. Usually, that’s it.
In rare cases, the effects of tear gas are much more serious. “They’re not designed to be lethal or have permanent effects,” said Daniel Brooks, a toxicologist at the Poison Control Center. But in many cases they have serious health impacts. Some people exposed to the chemicals develop severe burns. Irritation to eyes can cause lasting damage, including total loss of vision. Breathing in the gas can cause the lungs to become inflamed or even lead to pulmonary edema, a condition where the lungs fill with fluid.
Exploding canisters themselves can cause serious injuries. During last year’s anti-government protests in Baghdad, 10 people died of head injuries related to these explosions. During the first week of protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a student in Indiana lost an eye when a canister hit his head.
Most of these more lasting effects occur when tear gas is released in enclosed spaces or at close range, said Brooks. In some cases, however, that’s exactly what’s happening. There are reports that tear gas is seeping into underground tunnels and people’s homes.
During a pandemic, these effects are amplified, said Carl Baum, a pediatrician and medical toxicologist at Yale School of Medicine. Lung irritation caused by tear gas put people at greater risk of developing severe coronavirus symptoms. “We have a perfect storm, where we have crowds that may not be properly social distancing, a lot of people ot wearing masks, COVID-19 — then you throw in tear gas,” Baum said.
What’s the Risk of Tear Gas to Kids?
As a solid, tear gas is heavier than air. That means it settles close to the ground — right at kid height, Achanta said. Short stature isn’t the only thing that puts kids at risk. The surface area of their lungs is also much greater in relation to their body size, he added. Plus, kids take in twice as much air as adults when breathing normally, and are more likely to scream or cry when hit by tear gas, causing them to inhale even more of the chemical.
We know that kids are more likely than adults to be exposed to a lot of tear gas. What we don’t know is how the equivalent amount of tear gas impacts a small body differently than an adult. Much of the research on tear gas is conducted in military settings (And some of that information is kept secret.) The rest of our knowledge comes from case studies, which, again, tend to focus on adults. Just one case report from 1972 describes the effects of teargas on a 4-month old baby. The baby, who was inside a house that police gassed in order to subdue an adult, developed severe lung inflammation and had to be hospitalized for a month.
As far as the risk to kids’ developing brains, the research, again, doesn’t tell us much, Achanta said. In order to impact the brain, tear gas would have to cross the blood-brain barrier, a kind of filter that protects the brain from harmful substances. There are no studies to suggest it does so, either in animals or humans. “That’s a grey area,” Achanta said.
What About Tear Gas and Pregnant Women?
So far, scientists have conducted only one survey on the effects of tear gas on pregnancy. According to that 2004 report, published in the Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology, out of 30 women exposed to tear gas during pregnancy, only one baby had a low birthweight and another was born with a mild birth defect — and neither of these effects can be attributed to the tear gas exposure.
However, there is data to suggest that tear gas could lead to birth defects if mothers are exposed during pregnancy — not due to the active ingredients in tear gas, but to chemical additives known to alter the way DNA is expressed, Achanta said. There’s no research that directly demonstrates a connection between tear gas and birth defects. But it’s possible to extrapolate from research on the effects of cigarettes, which contain similar chemical additives, Achanta said.
The secondary effects to baby if a pregnant mom gets injured are also a serious concern, whether due to the tear gas itself or during the stampede away from the deployed area.
“If the woman gets ill and needs critical care in the intensive care unit, then the baby’s at risk,” Baum said.
Even the intended effects of tear gas – coughing heavily and running for fresh air alongside a stampeding crowd – pose their own hazard to pregnancy, Achanta said. Tear gas has been connected to upticks in miscarriages in Chile, Bahrain, and Palestinian territories. But again, no scientific research confirms a direct connection.
There’s a movement underway to ban tear gas. Seattle made it illegal to use during the coronavirus pandemic (still, police are using it.) Berkeley has banned it. A judge in Portland, Oregon is also considering a ban. At a federal level, democrats led by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are introducing a bill that would force law enforcement agencies to dispose of all chemical weapons within the next year.
As for what we’re going to see in the aftermath of widespread teargas use in coming weeks, amid a pandemic, experts are unsure. “In some ways, this is an ‘uncontrolled experiment,’” Baum said.