From Facing Tear Gas
Although the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibits the use of tear gas and pepper spray in warfare, for domestic policing and related uses by state forces, these chemicals are allowed to be used on people and are labeled as “riot control agents.” The CWC stipulates that these chemical weapons must have effects that disappear shortly after exposure, meaning no long-term health effects; however, in a number of cases, researchers have linked the use of tear gas and pepper spray to possible serious illness and death. This research echoes people’s stories about tear gas and pepper spray.
In cases of the use of tear gas and pepper spray as the central element of a state offensive against people protesting in the streets and/or expressing their dissent to the conditions in which they live, people who have been assaulted with large amounts of tear gas and pepper spray, sometimes for a prolonged period of time, have reported acute and long-lasting health effects. During times like the 1987 government attack on the people of South Korea during a wave of protests where 351,000 tear gas canisters were used against demonstrators in multiple cities, or the massive use of tear gas in Quebec City in Canada in 2001 during the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests, or with the near-daily use of tear gas against people in struggle in Bahrain, Egypt, and Palestine, again in multiple cities/towns, people have reported severe health problems. In the case of Bahrain, Egypt, and Palestine, there have been many reported deaths (54 in Bahrain alone since 2011) due in some cases to tear gas canisters (the most common being CS gas) being fired at a high velocity as projectile weapons, though in other cases it is due to the exposure to the gas itself.
Experiences reported beyond the immediate effects of the tear gas include coughing, shortness of breath, and other lung-related problems (heighted in people who already have lung problems), delayed menstruation, and reports of miscarriages and stillbirths associated with the gas. These effects have also been reported in research studies, along with reports that tear gas can also cause damage to the heart and liver. In the case of pepper spray, deaths have similarly been reported (mostly in jails and prisons) due to exposure to pepper spray that is well over the “recommended” amount from the manufacturer and is used in an enclosed space and/or over prolonged periods of time. One infamous news story from 1995 reports the LA Police Department as admitting that, over a 5-year period, 61 people died while in police custody as the result of the use of pepper spray. Again, prior lung problems heighten the danger of this chemical weapon. There have been few research studies of the health effects of pepper spray, which means there is much less documentation of its longer-term effects beyond those cases of death which sometimes become public. Many continue to call for more clinical research studies about the health effects of pepper spray and tear gas. (more…)