Tear gas: What is the real impact on health?

Tear gas What is the real impact on health

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    in collaboration with

    Dr Gérald Kierzek (Medical Director)

    Medical validation:
    May 02, 2023

    To disperse or deter demonstrators during protests, the security forces regularly use tear gas. But beyond being irritating, are these harmful to health? We asked the question to Dr Gérald Kierzek, emergency doctor and medical director of Doctissimo.

    Not a day of protest goes by without the use of tear gas. So much so that the images of people trapped by these clouds, their eyes red, their throats on fire, appear usual today. But what do we really know about this exposure to the gases of these non-lethal weapons? Can they impact the health of exposed French people?

    Used for decades, the effects of tear gas have since been widely documented. Being exposed to it causes irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, accompanied by tears, and respiratory effects such as sneezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Tear gas has also been associated with adverse effects on the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, and digestive system.

    In extreme cases, without any ventilation and means of escaping the gas for an extended period of time (which is rare), this exposure can cause burns, lung damage, and even death.

    Little-studied long-term effects

    Despite everything, the long-term health impact of tear gas remains to this day less well studied. And this is where the concerns of people in contact with these clouds can lie. We now know that these gases contain CS, the main molecule of which is ortho-chlorobenzydène malonitrile, but the composition of the devices has not yet been made public.

    According to an article in Liberation of April 29, the excipients used to guarantee the stability of CS, which could include flame retardants, are not particularly known. A report by the Association toxicologie-chimie de Paris published in June 2020, also already assumed dangers for the human body “more or less long term”, in particular because of the “CS” molecules which, after having been absorbed by the body through the respiratory or cutaneous route, would mutate into cyanide molecules which would affect the thyroid.

    Finally, the effects of tear gas on populations at risk, such as children, asthmatics and the elderly, are not sufficiently studied to know the risks.

    In France, tear gas has been, and still is, widely used by law enforcement against various social movements, such as protests against pension reform. A phenomenon witnessed by Dr Gérald Kierzek, medical director of Doctissimo and emergency doctor, who treats eye irritations and asthma attacks caused by gas. Regarding the inhalation of tear gas, he evokes a particular context which should not necessarily worry us:

    “As always with a story of inhalation, the danger comes from the contact time and the atmosphere which would allow a concentration of gas. However, in the context of demonstrations, the contact time with tear gas remains quite short, goes outside, therefore in a ventilated space which avoids too much concentration, and it is not an exposure that is repeated, a priori every day or every week” he reassures.

    However, the doctor still recalls that the risk is also based on the use made of it by the police. “There is a doctrine for the use of these (non-lethal) weapons by the police that should be respected: not in the eyes, not in the face, not on fragile populations…”.

    A respect for doctrine that can be questioned. In the video relayed by Liberation, victims, researchers, representatives of associations and even police officers take the floor to ask for better supervision of the use of tear gas by the French police. Even its ban.