Tear Gas: The Long and Short Term Dangers

As we look at the protests of today and the past, there is a striking similarity in many of them- the use of tear gas to disperse the crowds. While many know of the stinging sensation that comes with the use of tear gas, there is another more dangerous and less known effect of this substance.

When tear gas cannisters are burned, they start to produce a group of dangerous chemicals known as dioxins at certain temperatures. 

Dioxins themselves are quite common. Natural sources such as forest fires and volcanoes release low levels of dioxins, but in the 20th century, the industrialization that happened all over the world caused levels of dioxins to rise. Some industrial causes include burning trash, chlorine bleaching, and dismantling old electronics. Even cigarette smoke contains low levels of dioxins.

At low levels, dioxins are not much of a hazard. But at the levels that tear gas cannisters produce dioxins, people can develop severe health complications, despite the assumption of many that tear gas is relatively safe and only has short-term effects.

According to MedicalNewsToday, high exposure to dioxins can lead to rashes, skin discoloration, and in severe cases infertility and cancer.

High exposure to dioxins in a short timeframe, such as the exposure protesters are exposed to from tear gas cannisters, can lead to a condition known as chloracne. This severe skin disease causes acne-like spots on the face and upper body that are very painful.

This high exposure to dioxins in a short timeframe combined with the low level of medical visits from protestors from fear of being identified and arrested only makes the effects worse.

Even long after the tear gas has been deployed, these dioxins remain.

Dioxins decompose very slowly. They remain in sediments when transported by water and travel far by air. They can also be introduced into the food chain if fish swallow dioxins from the water. Dioxins are decomposed mainly by a special kind of ultraviolet light not found in nature. Seeing as During the Hong Kong protests, Chinese forces deployed close to 10,000 tear gas cannisters in the area, dioxins most likely traveled all over the area, meaning that even civilians who haven’t protested could be affected by these high levels of dioxins. The same thing may happen in America if these protests continue in the long term.

We all need to remain aware that while tear gas is seen as relatively harmless in the long-term, that may not be the case.

If you or someone around you has been in the vicinity of a tear gas attack, prevent rubbing of eyes or nose, as the chemicals will further irritate and harm if rubbed in. Use milk or a mixture of baking soda and water to neutralize the effects, and fully clean yourself and clothes with soap and water as soon as possible. For more detailed instructions click here.


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