TEAR GAS: AN INVESTIGATION
What it is, how it is abused and why you should care
We are led to believe tear gas is a safe method of dispersing participants of violent protests. Today, it is a part of many security forces’ arsenal of less-lethal equipment – weapons that are alternatives to firearms. These weapons are called less-lethal rather than non-lethal as, although they are not designed to kill, there is still the possibility of lethal effect. The availability of tear gas can mean police avoid having to resort to the use of more harmful weapons. But in practice police forces use tear gas in ways that it was never intended to be used, often in large quantities against largely peaceful protesters or by firing projectiles directly at people.
Its widespread abuse raises questions about the lack of regulations of appropriate use or standardised formulations of toxicity, the questionable decision-making of those in control of police operations, and the lack of training of many police officers deploying it. Despite serious human rights concerns and guidance issued recently by the United Nations, the design, manufacture of, and trade in tear gas remain poorly regulated. In this report, we investigate why tear gas use is harmful and what we can do about it.
Here, we look at some of the components known to be present in some tear gas canisters:
CS gas, short for 2 – Chlorobenzalmalononitrile, is a cyanocarbon and the most common ingredient in tear gas. When heated, it produces the agent that causes irritation to the eyes, nose, skin and mouth.
CN, short Chloroacetophenone, is commonly known as Mace©, a form of tear gas sold in some countries for personal protection.
CR is short for dibenzoxazepine. CR gas is slightly soluble in water, allowing it to be used in water cannons, smoke grenades, handheld spray cans, and tear gas canisters. CR gas is the least common, but often most potent, lachrymator agent.
PAVA is the abbreviation for pelargonic acid vanillylamide (nonivamide), the standardized synthetic variant of oleoresin capsicum.
Formula: KNO ₃
Exposure to tear gas causes a burning sensation and induces streaming eyes, coughing, tightening of the chest and difficulty breathing, and skin irritation. In most cases, effects wear off in 10 to 20 minutes. However, tear gas affects people differently, with children, pregnant women and the elderly particularly susceptible to its effects. Toxicity levels can vary according to the product specifications, the quantity used, and the environment it is used in. Prolonged contact can pose severe health risks. Due to limited published research on the effects of these gases, we are yet to discover the full scope of its impact, and further systematic studies are urgently needed.
According to Amnesty International’s Use of Force Guidelines, tear gas may only be used in situations of more generalized violence for the purpose of dispersing a crowd, and only when all other means have failed to contain the violence. It may only be used when people have the opportunity to disperse and not when they are in a confined space or where roads or other routes of escape are blocked. People must be warned that these means will be used, and they must be allowed to disperse. Cartridges with chemical irritants may never be fired directly at any person. If used, repeated or prolonged exposure should be avoided and decontamination procedures should be followed immediately.
In this example from Santiago de Chile from the 6 November 2019, police fire tear gas at the entrance to the Duoc UC private University campus.
In this example from protests in Caracas, Venezuela on 26 April, 2017, a protester is hit directly by a tear gas canister in his stomach.
In protests in Hong Kong on 21 July 2019, police fired numerous rounds of tear gas at crowds on Connaught Rd, engulfing protesters in clouds of tear gas.
In the example here from 9 October 2019, police in the city of Guyaquil in Ecuador launch tear gas canisters towards peaceful protesters forcing them to disperse.
In this example from Sudan on 9 January 2019, Sudanese security forces enter a hospital and fire live bullets and teargas affecting patients in the medical facility.