The Tear Gas Police Use To Suppress Riots Is Bad For Your Health And The Environment, And Here’s Where It’s Ending Up

The atmosphere of downtown Portland, electric with shouts for an end to police brutality and systematic racism, is just as suffuse with tear gas and other chemicals employed by the police in an effort to control the riots.

Police have been called up to control protests in Portland, for close to five straight months. October 6 marked the 121st night of those protests. Like many others, it eventually ended with citizens stinging, coughing, or hurrying to avoid the growing noxious cloud.

According to OPB, Portland has become the most tear-gassed city in the U.S. The goals of the protests aside, this is a concerning issue in the context of environmental pollution and human rights.

LAPD Metropolitan division officers train the 330th military police company of the California Army National Guard in the use of tear gas to control riots.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
LAPD Metropolitan division officers train the 330th military police company of the California Army National Guard in the use of tear gas to control riots.

Many studies showing the long-term dangers of tear gas exposure have been published since mustard gas was first used in World War I. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Prolonged exposure, especially in an enclosed area, may lead to long-term effects such as eye problems including scarring, glaucoma, and cataracts, and may possibly cause breathing problems such as asthma.”

Despite the dangers, tear gas is being used by police worldwide more often today than ever before. As reported in a study published in the “Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,” riots in Cairo, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Manama (Bahrain), and Hong Kong have been met with tear gas in the last year alone. They join a number of U.S. cities, including Portland, Seattle, New York and others in the U.S. where even greater volumes of gas are deployed.

A protester is surrounded by tear gas.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
A protester is surrounded by tear gas.

Tear gas triggers pain‐sensing peripheral sensory neurons on the skin and respiratory system. It has been linked to acute and chronic pain, cough, asthma, lung injury, dermatitis, itch, and neurodegeneration. The methods of deploying this gas have been thoroughly modernized, but the gas is still the same recipe.

“Whereas tear gas deployment systems have rapidly improved—with aerial drone systems tested and requested by law enforcement—epidemiological and mechanistic research have lagged behind and have received little attention,” study authors Craig Rothenberg, Satyanarayana Achanta, Erik R. Svendsen, and Sven‐Eric Jordt wrote. “Case studies and recent epidemiological studies revealed that tear gas agents can cause lung, cutaneous, and ocular injuries, with individuals affected by chronic morbidities at high risk for complications.”

In short, tear gas is bad for your health. It’s also bad for the environment.

A protester holds an umbrella in the midst of tear gas.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
A protester holds an umbrella in the midst of tear gas.

According to OPB, Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services tested samples of tear gas residue that were collected during riots in the city. The department took samples from street-level surfaces, as well as in storm drains in the areas where riots occurred. The BES’ conclusion was that the pollutants found in these samples posed little risk to people outside the initial dispersal of the chemical agents.

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion.

“I know from my background, a lot of the chemicals that are included in these chemical weapons munitions that law enforcement are using are detrimental to ecological systems, detrimental to other organisms as well as to humans,” Scientist Juniper Simonis told OBP. “So, what I am particularly interested in is understanding how what gets used up there impacts the organisms down here.”

Tear gas exposure can have damaging long-term effects.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Tear gas exposure can have damaging long-term effects.

Simonis has been looking at the Willamette River, into which the storm drains from downtown Portland empty. Her research was published in a statement by the Chemical Weapons Research Consortium. The scientist identified gaseous zinc chloride from hexachloroethane (HC), the same chemicals found in the smoke grenades used by federal officers to suppress riots July 2020.

These compounds amount to a much bigger threat to the environment once they are washed into the river, as they are introduced in such concentrated amounts. Rains expected in autumn and winter will only make it worse.

Tear gas smoke on Hennessy Road in Hong Kong.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Tear gas smoke on Hennessy Road in Hong Kong.

“These things that are being pumped down into the river right now are full of heavy metals that bioaccumulate,” Simonis said. “We’re talking about zinc, we’re talking about lead, we’re talking about aluminum, we’re talking about chromium. Really gnarly stuff that isn’t just going to move through the ecosystem and move on, it’s going to stay here and it’s going to impact the river and people for generations.”

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