- Tear gas and pepper spray can create serious, even life threatening complications in people with underlying heart or lung conditions, like asthma or COPD.
- If inhaled, tear gas can irritate and inflame the lining of the lungs and upper airway, causing wheezing, coughing, and choking.
- The effects typically begin within seconds of exposure and can last up to an hour.
- Pepper spray is a lachrymatory agent. It’s known to create a burning sensation in the eyes and skin.
There have been numerous accounts of law enforcement using tear gas and pepper spray on protesters participating in demonstrations against the murder of George Floyd.
In Washington, D.C., a crowd of protesters was exposed to tear gas outside the White House.
Both of these chemical agents have long been used by police officers to disperse demonstrators and suppress protests.
They’re less lethal than live bullets, but they’re not harmless.
Tear gas and pepper spray can create serious, even life threatening complications in people who are more vulnerable to the chemicals — particularly those with underlying heart or lung conditions, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Here’s what to know about the health effects of tear gas and pepper spray if you’re planning on attending a protest this week.
Tear gas — a mix of chemicals that cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation — was first developed in the late 1920s and used as a chemical weapon during World War I.
It’s since been banned from wartime use, and is now predominantly used by law enforcement to control crowds and riots.
Tear gas causes the eyes to burn and water. It can also create a burning sensation in the nose and acute mucosal swelling.
If inhaled, tear gas can irritate and inflame the lining of the lungs and upper airway, causing wheezing, coughing, and choking. It can be hard to catch your breath.
Ingestion of the gas may cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
The effects typically begin within seconds of exposure and can last up to an hour.
The severity of one’s symptoms depends on the amount of gas a person is exposed to along with the location — indoors or outdoors — and the duration of exposure.
“The respiratory symptoms correlate with concentration and extent of exposure. High concentrations and prolonged exposure can cause prolonged symptoms,” said Dr. Naftali Kaminski, the chief of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at Yale School of Medicine.
Additionally, people who have asthma are more at risk.
“Tear gas activates pathways in the body that relate to pain sensation, cough, and airway function. Some of these pathways are active in asthma. This is why the most severe complications happen in asthmatics,” Kaminski said.
People with asthma may experience severe bronchospasm, making it difficult to breathe.
Tear gas may also trigger an asthma attack and lead to respiratory failure and death, according to Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician based in New York.
People with heart conditions — like high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease, or people who take neuroleptic medications — may have a greater risk, too.
Pepper spray is a chemical irritant made up of an oil called oleoresin capsicum — the same stuff that gives chili peppers that heat sensation, says Glatter.
It’s also a lachrymatory agent, and is known to create a burning sensation in the eyes and skin.
It may also cause temporary blindness.
The health effects of pepper spray are typically mild and will clear on their own within an hour.
The effects could be dangerous among people who have chronic lung conditions, like asthma or COPD.
A report from 2003 published by the U.S. Department of Justice found that pepper spray contributed to the death of multiple people (2 out of the 63 analyzed) who had asthma.
Past research also shows that inhalation of pepper spray can cause a sudden spike in blood pressure, increasing a person’s risk for stroke or heart attack.
If exposed to either chemical, you’ll first want to get away from the affected area. Symptoms worsen the longer you’re exposed to the chemicals.
“Quick avoidance is key,” Kaminski said.
Tear gas is heavier than air, so it sinks to the ground. The higher up you are, the more protected you’ll be.
Avoid touching your eyes. If you’re wearing contact lenses, remove them safely. (Try to avoid wearing contacts altogether at protests, and opt for glasses or goggles, if you can. Contacts increase your risk for corneal ulcers and infection, says Glatter.)
Wash your hands with soap and water, and flush any irritated areas with water. Remove any clothes that may be contaminated. Instead of pulling the clothing over your head, cut it off, Glatter advises.
For pepper spray, blinking a lot will produce tears that’ll help flush away the irritating oils.
You can also use baby shampoo and
It’s important to listen to your body.
Take note of any eye pain, tearing, blurring, or vision issues, and difficulty breathing.
Symptoms should clear in about 45 minutes. If they persist or worsen, go to a hospital and have them checked out immediately.
“If your symptoms continue, or worsen beyond this time frame, then it’s important to seek medical attention in the emergency department,” Glatter said.
Across the nation, law enforcement has deployed tear gas and pepper spray on people protesting against the murder of George Floyd.
These chemical agents — though less lethal than other weapons — can inflict serious injury and harm on some people, especially those who have underlying lung and heart conditions.
Quick avoidance of tear gas and pepper spray is key, health experts say. If you’re exposed to either, get out of the affected area, flush any irritated body parts with water, and monitor symptoms.
Symptoms should clear within an hour. Get persistent symptoms evaluated by a doctor.