Protesters react to tear gas outside the Brooklyn Center police department. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Ever since police officers killed George Floyd last summer, Mona X has been out on the streets, regularly protesting against police brutality. 

At least 10 times since then she’s inhaled tear gas, most recently this week protesting against the killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, where police have used tear gas every night so far this week. She’s convinced the tear gas aggravated her asthma for the long term. Before last summer, Mona said it was well controlled, requiring use of a rescue inhaler as needed.

Today, she uses a daily steroid inhaler on top of her rescue inhaler. Throughout the last year, she’s gone to the hospital for nebulizer treatment multiple times after inhaling tear gas. She now frequently experiences chest tightness and shortness of breath. She attributes the worsening of her asthma to her frequent exposure to tear gas. 

“When you first get hit, you automatically feel your chest tighten,” Mona said. “Your vision is blurred and it sticks to your skin. You can almost taste it.” 

The long-term health impact of repeated exposure to chemical irritants like tear gas haven’t been studied much in professional medicine. Some of that is starting to change. One research article currently under peer review and co-authored by Asha Hassan, a public health doctorate student at the University of Minnesota, takes a look at the issue.

The researchers, done by the university and Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, asked more than 2,100 people living in and around Portland, Oregon, where law enforcement often use chemical irritants to disperse protesters, about the side effects they experienced from ongoing tear gas exposure. The study says 80 percent of respondents reported ongoing physical health problems, the most common being issues with their lungs and chest; and irregular menstrual cycles. Mona also said she’s had irregular menstrual cycles in the past year since her frequent exposure to the gas. 

So far, it’s not clear whether these health effects are directly linked to the chemicals or caused by stress comes with being in the situation, said Asha, who is also an associate research manager for Planned Parenthood North Central States. She is currently working on another study, national in scope, that will try to examine the direct cause of these health effects. 

“The question we’re asking is, are these two things related?” she said. 

Intense burning sensations and shortness of breath

While little is known about the long-term impact of tear gas, health experts know plenty about what happens in the short term. Dr. Thomas Wyatt, who practices emergency medicine at Hennepin Healthcare and treated many patients exposed to tear gas last year during protests, spoke at length with Sahan Journal about them.

Most law enforcement agencies use a chemical called oleoresin capsicum, or OC, which is commonly called tear gas, he said. The chemical is actually a powder, and is the main ingredient of pepper spray. 

People who are somewhere law enforcement is spraying OC should protect their eyes and mouth. If exposed in the eyes, the most common symptom is an “intense burning sensation,” Wyatt said, which can also cause people watery eyes, coughing, and a runny nose. Rubbing your eyes will only spread the chemical around the eyes and make the burning worse. 

Instead, people should be prepared by packing water to pour directly onto their eyes. Repeat many times if necessary, he adds. And, no need to use milk, as many people do. 

“Plain tap water works well,” Wyatt said.

Moderately serious reactions from OC can happen to people with breathing disorders like asthma or emphysema. The irritant can narrow the airway, Wyatt said, causing wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and a prolonged shortness of breath. 

The best way to treat these symptoms is to have your inhaler with you to the protest, he said. 

During last summer’s protests, Wyatt said several patients with these symptoms came to the hospital during and after protests. He often treated them with inhaled steroids. 

Apart from these symptoms, Wyatt added that he occasionally sees patients with minor skin burns from the irritants. OC affects children the same way it affects adults, he added. 

One factor drawing public attention in the Brooklyn Center protests is their proximity to nearby private homes and apartments. What should residents do when they find a giant plume of tear gas headed toward their home? Lock the doors and close the windows, Wyatt said.

Wyatt added that because OC is a powder, and not a gas, it should not seep through closed windows and doors. One Brooklyn Center resident who lives near the protest sites where police used tear gas, however, told Sahan Journal that tear gas did indeed seep into his home on Sunday night, prompting him to relocate his children elsewhere for the following nights.  

Erika Kaske, a third-year medical student at the University of Minnesota who led a recent New England Journal of Medicine report examining non-lethal weapons used in Minneapolis last summer during the Floyd protests, said such examples underscore the public health problems that come with police using tear gas. 

“The most concerning thing is the curfew being set at 7 p.m., and having folks not being able to leave their house while tear gas is surrounding it,” Kaske said. 

Kaske wants municipalities to ban such use of chemicals. Mona agrees. 

“Tear gas shouldn’t be considered a non-lethal force,” Mona said. “It should be considered a chemical weapon.” 

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...