Tear Gas and the Body
Use of tear gas has become increasingly common over the past several decades. Law enforcement agencies in the United States, Hong Kong, Greece, Brazil, Venezuela, Egypt, and other areas use it to control riots and disperse crowds.
A 2013 review of research found that clinically significant health complications from tear gas are uncommon. However, there’s still debate surrounding its acceptable use.
Some people feel more research is needed to better assess its safety. Children and people with respiratory complications may be at a heightened risk of developing complications when exposed to tear gas.
In this article, we’ll look at how tear gas affects human health and what you can do if you’re exposed to it.
Tear gas is a collection of chemicals that cause skin, respiratory, and eye irritation. It’s usually deployed from canisters, grenades, or pressurized sprays.
Despite the name, tear gas isn’t a gas. It’s a pressurized powder that creates a mist when deployed. The most commonly used form of tear gas is 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (CS gas). It was first discovered by two American scientists in 1928 and the U.S. Army adopted it for controlling riots in 1959.
Other common types of tear gases include oleoresin capsicum (pepper spray), dibenzoxazepine (CR gas), and chloroacetophenone (CN gas).
Tear gas was used as a chemical weapon in World War I. However, it’s currently illegal for wartime use. In 1993, many of the world’s countries came together in Geneva to sign an international treaty to prevent chemical warfare. Article I(5) of the treaty states, “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.”
Almost every country signed the treaty except for four U.N. member states: North Korea, South Sudan, Egypt, and Israel.
Contact with tear gas leads to irritation of the respiratory system, eyes, and skin. The pain occurs because the chemicals in tear gas bind with one of two pain receptors called TRPA1 and TRPV1.
TRPA1 is the same pain receptor that the oils in mustard, wasabi, and horseradish bind to give them their strong flavors. CS and CR gas are more than 10,000 times more potent than the oil found in these vegetables.
The severity of the symptoms you experience after exposure to tear gas can depend on:
- whether you’re in an enclosed space or an open space
- how much tear gas is used
- how close you are to the tear gas when it’s released
- whether you have a preexisting condition that may be exacerbated
Most people recover from tear gas exposure without any significant symptoms. A 10-year study performed at University of California San Francisco examined 4,544 cases of pepper spray. Researchers found a 1 in 15 chance of developing severe symptoms after exposure.