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What it is, how it is abused and why you should care

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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:

Potassium nitrate
Potassium chlorate
Magnesium carbonate
Health Consequences

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.

Here, we have highlighted some of the health concerns outlined by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention and by Physicians for Human Rights.

Health Consequences
Respiratory System
Cardiovascular System
Direct Impact

Amnesty International interviewed experts in health care, policing, trade, and business and human rights to understand the many ways tear gas is misused around the world. Taken together, these interviews show the gulf between portrayals of tear gas as a simple less lethal weapon used for crowd dispersal, and the harm its misuse can cause in reality.

Rohini Haar
Emergency Physician and Researcher
UC Berkeley
Graham Dossett
Policing and Human Rights Expert
Human Rights Centre University of Essex
Tara van Ho
Business and Human Rights Expert
University of Essex
Anna Feigenbaum
Associate Professor in Communication and Digital Media
Bournemouth University
Ara Marcen Naval
Former Deputy Director for Arms Control and Human Rights
Amnesty International

According to Amnesty International’s Use of Force Guidelines and position paper on Chemical Irritants in Law Enforcement, 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.

Confined Spaces
Direct Fire
Excessive Quantities
Peaceful Demonstrations
Susceptible People
Download Data


Amnesty International verified over 500 videos of tear gas misuse in 31 countries and territories, over 100 of which are included in this map to illustrate the various ways tear gas is abused. Please note that some of this content may be distressing to some people.

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