Tear gas (riot control agent)
What is it, who has it, and what do they use it for?
Tear gas finds use in three main areas: law enforcement, as a crowd control device; individual, as personal protection (in the form of Mace or pepper spray); and military, as a training tool (a non-lethal agent to test how fast military personnel can don their gas masks). Wherever its use, tear gas is usually found as one of two chemical compounds: chloroacetophenone (CN), or chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS). Chloropicrin (PS, a fumigant), bromobenzylcyanide (CA), dibenzoxazepine (CR), and mixtures of any of the above are also found, but CN and CS are the most common.
How do I get exposed, and what happens if I do?
Exposure will most often come from skin, eye, or respiratory contact with the liquid or solid (i.e., powder) medium. In practice, this probably means one of two things: you either got Maced, or you were in the area when a canister of tear gas was set off. The severity of your symptoms will vary with the amount of tear gas, how you were exposed to it, and what your physical condition was prior to exposure. Being Maced in the face will probably have worse results than catching a whiff of gas from over the next hill.
Presented here are the common symptoms of being exposed to tear gas, though different reactions are possible. It’s a good idea to note that just because a victim doesn’t display all of the symptoms on this list doesn’t necessarily mean that their case is less severe than someone who does.
Skin and mucous membranes
- Respiratory signs and symptoms
- Redness, pain, and blistering of exposed skin
Burn injury to exposed skin
- Eye: lacrimation (crying), ocular irritation and redness, blurred vision, corneal burns
- Oropharynx: oral burns and irritation, sore throat, hoarseness, dysphagia (trouble swallowing), salivation
- Nose: rhinorrhea (runny nose), burning, irritation, edema
Extended exposure, especially in an enclosed area, has decidedly worse effects, including blindness, glaucoma, death due to severe chemical burns in the throat and lungs, and respiratory failure (which can lead to death); naturally, tear gas is not the only cause of these symptoms.
Aghh! It burns! Get it off! Getitoffgetitoff! (What to do if you are exposed)
First and foremost, try to get out of the area where the riot control agents were released and into fresh air. This is very effective in limiting exposure to tear gas. If the tear gas was released outside, get away from the area, avoiding any heavier-than-air clouds that may be hanging around. If you’re indoors at the time of exposure, get outside.
If you think you’ve been exposed, take off any clothing that could possibly have tear gas on it. This may mean that you strip to your skivvies and do the naked dance. If you have to pull an article of clothing over your head to get it off, you should cut it off instead (otherwise what’s on the shirt or sweater may transfer to your face). If you’re helping someone else, avoid touching areas contaminated with tear gas. All of this should be done as quickly as possible.
Still moving as fast as possible, wash any riot control agent off of yourself with lots of soap and water. If you think you may have gotten tear gas in your eyes (if your vision is blurred or if your eyes are burning), rinse with water for about ten to fifteen minutes. If you’re wearing contacts, get rid of them and do not put them back in, even if they’re not the disposable kind. If you’re wearing glasses or jewelry that can be cleaned with soap and water, you can put those back on after you’ve cleaned them.
After washing yourself, stick all your contaminated clothing, including contacts if you wear them, into a plastic bag or similar storage device. Don’t touch the clothes with your bare skin, since you’ve already washed up and don’t want to go through that again. Then, seal the bag up. When health department or emergency personnel arrive, tell them what you did with the clothes, and they’ll deal with them from there. You shouldn’t dispose of them yourself.
Then, call 911 or whatever number you happen to call when bad things happen. You just got exposed to tear gas, and need to seek medical attention. The doctors will make sure that you’re all right. Treatment that you can expect includes getting victims more oxygen, stopping and treating any chemical burns that may have been caused, and possibly the use of asthma medications to help breathing.