As daily demonstrations against police brutality spread worldwide, police in the United States continue to respond with violence, using rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas on crowds of peaceful protesters. In Seattle, a police officer allegedly pepper sprayed a child in the face, prompting social media outcry and an investigation by the Seattle office of police accountability.
Tear gas is a chemical weapon usually deployed via canisters, grenades, or sprays. Currently, it’s illegal in wartime use. Nevertheless, police officers sometimes employ it as a form of crowd control, as seen this week, when police shot tear gas to clear a crowd to make room for President Trump to take a photo at a church. Tear gas and pepper spray are used similarly, but pepper spray is made up of natural chemicals, while tear gas is man-made. Pepper spray is usually deployed via hoselike stream, spray, fogger, or foam.
If you plan to join a police brutality protest, there’s a chance you’ll be exposed to tear gas (and to the coronavirus: bring sanitizer and keep as much distance as possible). Here, physicians explain what to do — and what not to do.
Wear eye protection if possible.
Tear gas is an unpleasant and potentially harmful experience, so the best treatment is prevention, says Natasha Bhuyan, an internal medicine provider at OneMedical. “We tell people to wear face coverings, and if they have goggles or face shields, those are even more ideal.” Wearing a face mask does double duty here: you’re helping protect yourself and others from COVID-19, and you’re also protecting at least part of your face from chemicals used by police. This is especially important when one can exacerbate the other; tear gas and pepper spray make you cough, which could further increase the risk of transmitting coronavirus.
Don’t wear contacts or makeup.
If you’re normally a contacts-wearer, it’s best to switch to glasses for any protesting activity, says Dr. Ian Wittman, chief of emergency medicine at NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn. “If you do happen to have contact lenses in when you’re exposed, please immediately use saline solution to flush your eyes out and remove the contact lenses,” he says. “Leaving the contact lenses in with an irritant is dangerous and can lead to corneal ulcers, breaking down the thin layer of tissue that overlies your eye.”
Additionally, it’s best to be as bare-faced as possible. The chemicals in tear gas and pepper spray aren’t easy to remove from your skin, so “it’s better to not wear makeup, because the tear gas can cling to things like mascara or lipstick,” adds Bhuyan.
If you are exposed, get away from the source.
The single biggest health risk posed by tear gas isn’t the gas itself, but the canisters they’re shot in, says Wittman. “It’s essentially a missile, like a bullet or shrapnel,” he says. “If it hits your eye, it can cause severe eye damage. It also can cause damage to the skin and fractures to the bones.”
The second biggest risk, says Wittman, is being exposed to tear gas while indoors. “The few unfortunate deaths associated with these agents that aren’t associated with the projectile injury are associated with patients that were exposed to them in closed areas,” he explains. If you’re indoors and tear gas is shot off at or near you, it’s important to get outside as quickly as possible before flushing your eyes.
If you’re in a crowd outdoors when tear gas is shot off, it’s probably going to hurt, but there’s no need to panic, says Julie Schallhorn, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at UC San Francisco. “If you’re in a crowd and you get tear gas shot into the air and the vapors waft into your eyes, it stings, and it’s really uncomfortable, but there aren’t long-term effects, which is good,” she says.
Milk helps with pepper spray, but not tear gas.
While milk might provide some cooling relief to irritation, it doesn’t do much to help people exposed to tear gas. “With pepper spray, milk helps break down those oils,” says Bhuyan. “Diluted baby shampoo is another option. Milk for tear gas isn’t doing a lot except potentially providing some comfort.”
Wittman agrees. “If you have milk around and you don’t have water, and you’re in severe pain, it’s probably safe to use milk,” he says. “But the studies have not shown milk to be more effective than water.” Wittman also adds that the perception that milk helps more than water may have to do with temperature; cooler liquids will provide more instantaneous relief than lukewarm ones. Cold milk might feel good in the moment, but the most important thing to do if you get tear gas in your eyes is to flush them out with water.
Plain, cool water is best.
Tear gas is a chemical that needs to be flushed from the eyes, and the only thing that really does that well without introducing additional risks is water, says Wittman. “There have been studies on water vs. milk vs. baby shampoo, vs. other household items,” he says. “There has never been a study that shows that anything is better than water.”
As for the baking soda recipe popularized by the Hong Kong protests, Bhuyan urges caution. “Using three teaspoons of baking soda mixed with 8 ounces of water does work, and the reason it works is that it’s able to neutralize the tear gas chemical,” she says. “But when people are using baking soda, now they’re using an irritant, and anytime you’re using an irritant, it could potentially scratch the surface of your eyes.”
Wittman is even more emphatic. “The reason why I would be somewhat hesitant to use baking soda or any other compound other than water is that you don’t actually know what reaction the chemical you were sprayed with is going to have with the basic solution,” he says. “You’re essentially doing a chemistry experiment in your own eye, which I would recommend against.”
In this case, the simplest solution is the best and the safest. Just be sure to use clean, drinkable water and rinse your eyes as needed. “When it comes to tear gas, rinse til you feel better,” says Schallhorn. Protestors may also want to keep artificial tears on hand, she says — in cases of indirect exposure especially, that may be enough to provide relief.
Seek medical attention if symptoms don’t subside.
The effects of tear gas and pepper spray can be painful, and can last a few hours. Visual symptoms, though, should pass much more quickly. If after 15–30 minutes you’re still experiencing blurred vision, or your vision is otherwise off, you should see a doctor, says Wittman. And while some coughing and respiratory irritation are normal, Bhuyan says that if you’re struggling to breathe after you’re outside the area of exposure, that’s also a sign you should see a doctor.
For visual irritation, a doctor is likely to flush your eyes with saline, and may provide you with eye drops that temporarily numb the pain receptors in the eye, says Wittman. However, this is not something you should attempt at home without talking to a doctor.