Things to remember Edit
The first thing to remember about exposure to these chemical weapons is that it is not the worst thing that could happen to you. The hype and fear surrounding them is enormous, but in reality, if you are careful and smart, you should survive it with little problem. However, there is some evidence that pepper spray and tear gas can have long-term effects, but this is disputed - see Long Term Effects.
The second thing to remember is that the pain is only temporary.Edit
The third thing to remember about exposure to these chemical weapons is that there are many myths about treatment and prevention. Much of this misinformation is potentially dangerous. Some of it, if applied, could greatly increase or prolong a person's reaction to exposure, or at the very least provide a false sense of security.
What they are, and how they are deployed Edit
Tear gas (also called CS, CN, or CX) and pepper spray (OC, oleoresin capsicum) are chemical compounds that are weapons designed to be used by the military and police to disperse crowds and subdue individuals . These compounds irritate the mucous membranes (the inside of your mouth and nose, among other places, are lined with mucus membrane) and skin. They are mixed with solvents, and delivered through the use of propellants. Some people think the compounds, solvents, or propellants can cause cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations.
It should be noted that the Biological and Chemical Weapons Convention signed by almost all countries bans the use of tear gas and pepper spray in war.
In 1999 protests in Seattle, one batch of tear gas contained methylene chloride, a highly toxic solvent which can cause mental confusion, headache, tingling of the limbs, rapid heartbeat, visual and auditory hallucinations, menstruation cycle disruption, spontaneous abortion, and varying effects on lungs and the digestive system.
Tear gas and pepper spray can be sprayed from small hand-held dispensers or large fire-extinguisher size tanks. Tear gas is most commonly deployed via canisters, which are fired into crowds, sometimes directly at people. Don't pick up the canisters without gloves as they are extremely hot. Be aware that the time it takes you to throw it will allow you to be heavily exposed.
Pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum) can also be deployed by "paintball" or compressed gas guns -- often called "pepperballs". These are plastic spheres filled with concentrated pepper spray and often combined with a bright indelible dye; the theory behind these weapons is to both rapidly disable one or more targets and mark them for later arrest.
During the 2007 SPP protests in Montebello, Quebec, the Sûreté du Québec was seen to fire a pepper-spray foam considerable distances into the crowd (perhaps 10-15 metres), using a weapon very similar to a residential-grade power washer.
How they affect you Edit
Both tear gas and pepper spray are skin and mucous membrane irritants, causing burning pain and excess drainage from eyes, nose, mouth, and breathing passages. Pepper spray is more popular with authorities as an agent of control because of its immediate pain-causing qualities. It is harder to remove from the skin and has the capacity to cause first degree burns, that often look like a bad sunburn.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to riot control agents causes:
- Eyes: excessive tearing, burning, blurred vision, redness
- Nose: runny nose, burning, swelling
- Mouth: burning, irritation, difficulty swallowing, drooling
- Lungs: chest tightness, coughing, choking sensation, noisy breathing (wheezing), shortness of breath
- Skin: burns, rash
- Other: nausea and vomiting
Street medics have also observed the following:
- acute stress, fear causing trauma (potentially leading to acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder)
- disorientation, confusion, and sometimes panic
- Some people report feeling intense anger. In this case, do NOT become a patient by approaching someone who has been exposed without clearly communicating who you are.
The good news is that the effects are temporary for most people. Discomfort from tear gas usually disappears after 5-30 minutes, while the worst pepper spray discomfort may take 20 minutes to 2 hours to subside, although some people feel minor effects for up to 24 hours. The effects of both diminish sooner with treatment. Because pepper spray penetrates to the nerve endings, its effects may last for hours after removal from the skin.
There is ample documentation that there may cause secondary health problems beyond the initial coughing and irritation. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention webpage on Riot Control Agents (http://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/riotcontrol/factsheet.asp) says, "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." Since 1990, 61 deaths have been associated with police use of pepper spray (Los Angeles Times June 18, 1995). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported on 27 people who died after exposure to pepper spray (http://www.aclu-sc.org/attach/p/Pepper_Spray_New_Questions.pdf).
An Aberdeen Proving Ground study demonstrated that pepper spray could cause "[m]utagenic effects, carcinogenic effects, sensitization, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity, as well as possible human fatalities. There is a risk in using this product on a large and varied population" (Salem, US Army, 1993). "Serious adverse health effects, even death, have followed the use of OC sprays. These sprays should be regarded as poisons or weapons" but are now in use in more than 2000 public safety agencies (http://web.archive.org/web/20000817004624/http://www.ncmedicaljournal.com/Smith-OK.htm). Conversely, police forces have ended the practice of exposing their members with the chemicals during trainings because of the ongoing health effects. (A comment added to the medic wiki on 1/27/2012: "The above statement is FALSE, I am going to be sprayed tomorrow, 1/28/2012, for police training."
Like cigarette smoke, many people become somewhat tolerant of tear gas and inhale more of the toxic properties without protection – falsely believing if they are not coughing, they are not getting harmed. In the 2000 Quebec City FTAA protests where several thousand rounds of tear gas were launched, street medics later documented that one quarter of all people exposed had further health problems - primarily respiratory illnesses and menstrual irregularities - regardless of their level of exposure.
Abstracts to studies on the effects of pepperspray on the eyes can be found here: http://www.greenmedinfo.com/toxic-ingredient/pepper-spray. The European Parliament STOA science committee documents some of the health hazards of tear gas and pepper spray exposure - some of it very serious and chronic.
Who should avoid exposure? Edit
Everyone without adequate protection. Anyone inside a closed room without adequate ventilation - intensifying the level and duration of the chemical exposure. For most healthy people, the effects of tear gas and pepper spray are temporary. However, for some people the effects can be long-lasting and life-threatening. People with the conditions listed below should be aware of these risks and may want to try to avoid exposure. Please be aware that in intense actions, police behavior can be unpredictable, and avoidance is not always possible.
- People with respiratory diseases, such as asthma, emphysema, etc. risk exacerbation, permanent damage if exposed. If someone experiences difficulty breathing, help them leave the area, if possible.
- Vulnerable people such as infants, the elderly, and the immune compromised, risk intensified and possibly life-threatening responses.
- Anyone with chronic health conditions or those on medications that weaken the immune system, (i.e., chemotherapy, Lupus, HIV, radiation, or long-term corticosteroids, such as prednisone) risk exacerbation of illness, intensified response and possible delayed recovery.
- Women who are or could be pregnant, or who are trying to get pregnant may be at risk of spontaneous abortion or increased risk of birth defects, but not enough is known about its effects.
- Nursing mothers risk passing toxins on to their infant.
- Folks with skin (i.e., severe acne, psoriasis, or eczema) and eye (i.e., conjunctivitis or uveitis) conditions risk an intensified response.
- People wearing contact lenses may experience increased eye irritation and damage due to chemicals being trapped under the lenses. They must be removed immediately with clean fingers and discarded.
- Be aware of positional asphyxia - almost all pepper spray related deaths occur when the victim has been hogtied and placed face-down.
Beforehand: Protecting Yourself Edit
- Avoid use of oils and lotions because they can trap the chemicals and thereby prolong exposure.
- We recommend using a water or alcohol-based sunscreen (rather than oil-based). If your choice is between oil-based or nothing, we advocate using the sunscreen. Pepper spray on top of sunburn is not good.
- We also recommend minimizing skin exposure by covering up as much as possible. This can also protect you from the sun. Don't forget a hat.
- The simplest rule of thumb is to cover up as much skin with impermeable gear like rain gear. Cheap plastic rain jackets and hoods work fine. Most cloth will absorb the chemicals further exposing you even when you are out of the toxic cloud. Some materials, like gore-tex or fuzzy synthetics, will be destroyed.
- Certainly wear vinyl or nitrile gloves when treating someone exposed. Do not use latex: latex allergies are prevalent and serious.
- Gas masks provide the best facial protection, if properly fitted and sealed. Alternatively, goggles (with shatter-proof lenses and no foam), respirators, or even a wet bandana over the nose and mouth will help. Some protesters wear bandanas wet with vinegar (preferably apple cider because it is less irritating), lemon juice, or water with Emergen-C, because it is believed that will counter the tear gas effects better than water, however the use of acidic coatings on the bandana may actually be harmful when exposed.
- Palestinians rub onions under their eyes for eye tolerance during exposure. The mechanism of may be that when your eyes and nose are already watering that the tear gas dust will be less irritating.
More information on gas masks and goggles.
During: How to deal Edit
- STAY CALM. Panicking increases the irritation. Breathe slowly and remember it is only temporary.
- If you see it coming or get a warning (e.g. police are putting gasmasks on), put on protective gear.
- If possible, move away, get upwind, or get to higher ground above tear gas clouds.
- Blow your nose, rinse your mouth, cough and spit. Try not to swallow.
- If you wear contacts, you must remove the lenses or get someone to remove them for you, with CLEAN, uncontaminated fingers. Destroy the lenses after exposure, they are not cleanable.
- DO NOT RUB IT IN.
The most important intervention we provide is rehumanizing, calm, and compassionate care. Our bodies actually do a remarkable job of decontaminating our eyes/nose/mouth. When we show people that they're cared for, regardless of the remedy used, that's what helps them actually heal from the attack in the long run and supports their ongoing political activism. Emotional first aid and emotional aftercare can be more important to recovery from the trauma of an assault by chemical weapons.
First Aid Edit
Many medics have conducted trials with pepper spray to find good remedies. There are some definite things that you can do after being sprayed to help minimize the discomfort. None of these are miracle cures: using these remedies will help people to feel better faster, but the best medicine is still time.
- Eye Flush - this is the primary treatment recommended for chemical exposure
- Remedy for the eyes, nose, and mouth: L.A.W. (liquid antacid and water)
- Remedies for the skin: For pepper spray on the skin
- Secondary treatments can include walking around with your arms outstretched, removing contaminated clothing, and taking a cool shower.
The CDC recommendations for treatment: 
- Treatment consists of helping the affected person get more oxygen in his or her blood and of stopping agent-caused chemical burns from getting worse. Medications that are used to treat asthma (such as bronchodilators and steroids) may also be used to help the person breathe.
- Eye exposures are treated by rinsing the eyes with water until there is no evidence of riot control agents in the eyes.
- No antidote exists for poisoning from riot control agents.
- Burn injuries to the skin are treated with standard burn management techniques, including use of medicated bandages.
It is essential to shower and wash or discard your clothes as soon as you are able. Pepper spray is toxic, and will continually contaminate you and everyone around you until you get rid of it. Until then, DON'T touch your eyes, nose, mouth, face, other people, furniture, carpets, pets, etc. to avoid further contamination.
Shower using the coldest water you can stand (to keep your pores from opening) for 20 minutes. Remember to put all of your clothing, bags, hats, etc. into a plastic bag until they can be decontaminated. Keep contaminated clothing in the bag as evidence until you have talked with a legal support person from the American Civil Liberties Union ([www.aclu.org/]) or the National Lawyer's Guild ([www.nlg.org/]). Protect your mucus membranes when transferring clothing from the bag into a washing machine. Tear gas and pepperspray will gas-off out of the bag when you open it. Decontaminate clothing by washing two or three times with a harsh detergent.
If you are at a mass mobilization, and medics are available, ask them if there is a decontamination station set up. Often the convergence space, medic space, first aid station, or wellness center will have a decontamination station where you can wash your skin and get a clean set of clothing.