Remember the “pepper spray” cop from UC Davis, who assaulted peaceful students holding a sit-in, spraying their faces as if they were cockroaches, as they sat peacefully?
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It’s worse now, with the use of tear gas.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration denied having used tear gas to clear protesters at Lafayette Square so he could walk to the iconic St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo op. Park Police said they used “smoke canisters and pepper balls”—a distinction without a difference for riot control dispersants, including pepper spray, tear gas, and related chemicals, per the CDC.
I’ve been interested in the health effects of “chemical dispersants,” as they are euphemistically called, since 2011, when, having found almost no research on the effects of pepper spray, I wrote “Should pepper spray be put on (clinical) trial?” In 2014, such chemicals were again widely used during the response to Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Mo. and then in Occupy Wall Street protests.
At the time, police described pepper spray as noxious, but it was not considered lethal. They were wrong. As I looked for medical studies, I learned that pepper spray is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, as a pesticide, and not by the FDA. Also, the concentration in sprays for “personal defense” are ten-fold higher than the amount of capsaicin in bear spray.
Other chemicals include chloroacetophenone (CN), chloropicrin (PS), also used as a fumigant, and 2-chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS). Police have increasingly been using CS, which activates specific nerve receptors as a kind of pain-inducing nerve gas.
What else do these chemicals do to people?
Previously, pepper spray was most commonly used. It’s made from capsaicin, or Oleoresin Capsicum (OC), which gives the heat a fierce burning sensation. The jalapeño peppers are 5,000 Scoville heat units. Himalayan ghost pepper clock in at ~1 million. Pepper spray is five times as strong. Previously, the ACLU found one death per 600 times police used spray, with 26 deaths in only a two year period. A 35 year-old prisoner with asthma died in New York City jail this week after being pepper sprayed. The Department of Justice previously acknowledged that pepper spray contributed to deaths.
Studies of CS showed that high concentrations can cause pulmonary edema (dangerous buildup of fluid in lungs with bleeding) and apnea (breathing stops), leading to death. This is from the CS killing tissue in the lung; it can do the same in the GI tract causing internal bleeding.
CS has also been used in basic training in the Army and, unlike earlier experience with pepper spray, there have actually been some studies of problems. Among 6,723 U.S. Army recruits at Ft. Jackson in 2012, after exposure to CS there was an almost a two and a half fold increased risk of respiratory tract infection compared to earlier in training. Also, the rate of infection correlated to the concentration of the exposure.
That’s what happened to healthy young men exposed to tear gas. What are the other risks?
Asthma might be triggered, resulting in hospitalization or death. Repeated exposures have led to chronic bronchitis, prolonged coughing, and chest pain or tightness that may last for weeks. There can also be a prolonged reactive airways disease, causing shortness of breath and chest tightness, especially in women. Besides itching and stinging, CS can cause blistering of the skin (which risks secondary infection). CS does much of its nasty work by binding to a pain receptor named TRPA1, located all over our bodies—in our respiratory, GI tracts and skin.
Of special additional concern is that the effects aren’t limited to specific people being targeted—people living nearby may also be affected. CS entering buildings contaminates furniture, especially seeping into porous surfaces, resulting in prolonged contact and irritation. Children, with developing lungs and immune systems, are at special risk from exposure to these toxic chemicals.
Tear gas and pepper spray, besides blinding someone, can cause disorientation, making it more difficult for protestors to leave the area and find safety. It’s caused stampedes, leading to deaths, as occurred in Venezuela, killing seventeen people celebrating high school graduation.
Less commonly publicized are that tear gas and pepper spray can cause a spike in blood pressure and problems from inhaling these chemical particles from the sprays or propellants, leading to heart attacks.
Blunt force trauma
It’s not just the dangerous chemicals that protestors need to be concerned about—it is also the projectiles used to deliver them.
Marine veteran Scott Olson survived two tours in Iraq before sustaining skull and neck fractures and permanent brain injury from a lead-filled bean bag fired by police at an Occupy Oakland protest. While people were trying to provide him first aid, another police officer fired tear gas into the group assisting him. A pepper spray ball killed a 21 year-old woman in Boston celebrating a World Series win.
Multiple journalists have been sprayed with tear gas or pepper spray and injured with rubber bullets despite (or perhaps because of) identifying themselves as press. Freelance photographer Linda Tirado was permanently blinded after being struck directly in her eye by a rubber bullet. Similarly, Balin Brake, a 21-year-old, was blinded after a tear gas canister struck him. A literature review showed that 3% of people struck by these “kinetic impact projectiles” died and 15.5% ended up with permanent injuries (vision loss, splenectomies, colostomies).
Again, the UN report recommends use of these projectiles only when someone is facing imminent threat, and that the aim be towards the lower half of the body, where it is less likely to be lethal or permanently disabling. The UN also says that “chemical irritants” should only be used where “information is available to confirm that it will not cause any unwarranted health problems.”
The administration and Attorney General Barr may claim these “dispersants” and crowd control agents are non-chemical and non-lethal, but that is far from the truth. Dr. Victoria Forster explains why Barr’s claim is patently incorrect.” CDC and numerous physicians also beg to differ. In fact, tear gas has been banned for use in warfare by The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, but surprisingly is still allowed domestically for “riot control.” It has been used by border agents against peaceful women and children, prompting significant condemnation as being a human rights violation, but not stopping the practice.
Dispersal agents: Chemical weapons and Covid-19
There is justifiable concern that the massive protests in the past week since George Floyd’s murder will cause an increase in coronavirus infections.
Many people feel compelled, despite the risk of Covid-19 infection, to attend memorial vigils and protests against racism. Most of these are peaceful, and many protesters have been careful to wear masks and try to maintain social distancing.
The risk of infection is fueled more by the response of the police. They have been kettling people closely together, surrounding them in closely packed quarters, then sometimes attacking them physically or with tear gas. This is generally followed by mass arrests. In New York City, there has been additional concern because people have been detained in cramped cells for more than a day, “without water, medical attention, soap, or face masks,” according to some. A number of these incidents followed peaceful protests and were a greatly disproportionate response.
The use of tear gas or pepper spray will also make people more susceptible to Covid-19, as has been seen with other respiratory infections, including influenza. The chemicals destroy tissue, making them more susceptible to infection. Also, if someone already has an infection, the violent coughing that is caused by these noxious agents will undoubtedly cause them to spew secretions and may well cause super-spreading events—where one person infects many more than would usually be seen.
Asked about tear gas, Dr. Sven Eric Jordt, an expert in its effects, told NPR, “Using it in the current situation with COVID-19 around is completely irresponsible,” he adds. “There are sufficient data proving that tear gas can increase the susceptibility to pathogens, to viruses.”
In an open letter this week regarding an appropriate public health response, 1,288 public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders, recommended that tear gas, smoke, and other respiratory irritants not be used due to the risk of worsening Covid-19.
What will it take to get the administration, big-city police departments and mayors to act as responsible human beings?
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