In nationwide demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody, protesters have been frequently pepper-sprayed or enveloped in clouds of tear gas. These crowd-control weapons are rarely lethal, but in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, there are strong calls for police to stop using these chemical irritants because they can damage the body in ways that can spread the coronavirus and increase the severity of Covid-19.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, some experts said additional research was needed on the risks of tear gas — an umbrella term for several chemical “riot-control agents” used by law enforcement. It’s known that the chemicals can have both immediate and long-term health effects.
Their widespread use in recent weeks while an infectious disease — for which there is no vaccine — continues to spread across the U.S., has stunned experts and physicians. The coronavirus that causes the disease Covid-19 is highly contagious, spreads easily through the air via droplets, and can lead to severe or fatal respiratory illness. Deploying these corrosive, inhalable chemicals could harm people in several ways: exposing more people to the virus, compromising the body’s ability to fight off the infection and even causing mild infections to become more severe illnesses.
“This is a recipe for disaster,” said associate professor Sven Eric Jordt, a researcher at the Duke University School of Medicine who studies the effects of tear gas.
Jordt refers to these chemicals as “pain gases” because they activate certain pain-sensing nerves on the skin and in the mucous membranes of the eyes, mouth and nose.
“You have this excruciating pain, sneezing, coughing, the production of a lot of mucus that obstructs breathing,” Jordt said.
People who have been exposed describe a burning and stinging sensation, even a sense of asphyxiation and drowning. Sometimes the chemicals cause vomiting or allergic reactions. In law enforcement, officers generally use two types of chemicals for crowd control: CS gas and pepper spray.
The active ingredient in pepper spray, called capsaicin, is derived from chiles. It is often sprayed from cans at close quarters or lobbed into crowds in the form of “pepper balls.”
CS gas (o‐chlorobenzylidene malononitrile) is a chlorinated, organic chemical that can induce “very strong inflammation” and “chemical injury” by burning the skin and airways when inhaled, Jordt said.
“Using it in the current situation with Covid-19 around is completely irresponsible,” he added. “There are sufficient data proving that tear gas can increase the susceptibility to pathogens, to viruses.”
Jordt said research on the harms of tear gas has not kept up with its escalating use in the U.S and around the world in recent years. Many of the safety studies that law enforcement officials rely on date to the 1950s and ’60s, he said.
But a 2014 study from the U.S. Army offers an alarming glimpse into how the chemical could escalate the pandemic. The study found that recruits who were exposed to tear gas as part of a training exercise were more likely to get sick with respiratory illnesses like the common cold and the flu.
“We have a lot of antiviral defenses that can inactivate viruses and prevent them from entering cells,” he said. “These are depleted by inhalation of tear gas and also compromised.”
The findings of the Army study led the U.S. military to significantly reduce how much recruits were being exposed to the chemical.
“Even the Army realized they had done something wrong and that this was more toxic than they thought before,” Jordt said.
Even though there is a limited amount of research on this new coronavirus, there are studies from China and Italy about how other irritants, such as smoking and air pollution, affect Covid-19. These studies indicate that tear gas could also make people more likely to develop severe illness, said Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist at the University of California-San Francisco and an expert with the American Thoracic Society.
“I actually think we could be promoting Covid-19 by tear-gassing protesters,” said Balmes. “It causes injury and inflammation to the lining of the airways.”
Balmes said this period of inflammation sets back the body’s defenses, and makes it more likely that someone who already harbors the virus will become sick.
“It’s adding fuel to the fire,” said Balmes. “These exposures to tear gas would increase the risk of progression from the asymptomatic infection, to a symptomatic disease.”
Growing evidence shows many people who have the coronavirus are asymptomatic and don’t know they are infected, or are “presymptomatic” — infected with the virus and able to infect others, but not yet showing symptoms.
With thousands of people jammed together at mass protests, the demonstrations are already primed to be “superspreading events,” which can lead to an explosion of new cases. Outdoor gatherings typically decrease the chance of spreading the coronavirus. But activities like singing and yelling can increase the risk.
Tear gas and pepper spray can also sow confusion and panic in a crowd. People may rip off their masks and touch their faces, leading to more contamination.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, with Johns Hopkins University, said the body’s reaction to the chemicals causes people to shed more of the virus.
“If they’re coughing, the particles actually emanate and are projectiles that travel about 6 feet or so and could land on other people,” said Adalja, who is also a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
“This is a way to almost induce the virus to be expelled from people when they are exposed to these agents.”
Adalja anticipates the protests will inevitably lead to a spike in infections.
“We know that any kind of social unrest, especially in the midst of an outbreak, is only going to make things worse,” he said.
He said the most recent example would be bombings in Yemen that exacerbated a cholera outbreak.
Dr. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician in Oakland, California, has studied the use of riot-control agents around the world.
“These weapons don’t actually deescalate tensions in peaceful community policing,” said Haar who is a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley.
Haar has also been treating Covid-19 patients. She recognizes there is a danger of spreading the virus at these gatherings, but she would not discourage people from attending the protests and exercising their right to free speech.
“It’s a really tough situation,” said Haar. “I think the irony is that people are rightfully and justifiably protesting police violence and are being met with violence that is worsening the pandemic conditions we’re living under right now.”
This week, more than a thousand physicians and health care professionals signed an open letter in support of the demonstrations.
Dr. Jade Pagkas-Bather, an infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago, is one of them. She said it will be difficult to determine whether any spike in cases was a direct result of the protests, because they’re happening at a time when many states are also allowing businesses to reopen.
“In everyday life, we weigh the risks and benefits of our actions. People who are going out to protests are clearly at a critical juncture where they are saying this state-sanctioned violence is unacceptable, and I am willing to put myself and others potentially at risk,” she said.
The open letter she signed recommends ways that protesters, police and local officials can reduce the transmission of the virus. Among the major recommendations: Police should not use tear gas or pepper spray.
—Will Stone, NPR/Kaiser Health News
If the protests are peaceful, there is no reason for tear gas to be deployed. If they can’t behave themselves they should stay home! Problem solved.
Here’s a thought, Don’t act a fool, you wont get gassed…
The protesters are spreading it themselves using zero social distancing!
PTC TRADER says
Prevention is the best solution… STAY YOUR ASS HOME FROM PROTESTS.
One can only hope !!!!
What should you do when the protest get out of hand ? How do you disperse the people.
Defund the police! Dissolve the police, they are not needed in our community to keep us safe. Give them little or no money and give the funds to help the south side of bunnell and espanola
Is like my friend of 40 years in Sweden tells me “What is going on in the US? Completely crazy…” after I copied him this display of bullies (WTS) against peaceful demonstrators in Indiana, glad cops were present: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEK_FeTXR4c. Look at the 5th bully ignoring gun safety …can accidentally shoot his buddies lined up to harass along that wall. OMG what could happen if those peaceful protesters will start carrying assault weapons as well? As will be as well their right correct..? Such a concern instigated and inflamed from the WH.
You are for these protests, but you were against the lockdown protest. Telling.
Gathering in large crowds is supposedly dangerous to your health. Breathing in tear gas is bad for your health. The solution should be obvious.
Gathering in masses is probably a bad idea during a pandemic
How about strong calls for people to stop looting, breaking innocent people’s belongings and burning buildings down. For every action there’s a reaction!! Don’t act like criminals and you won’t be treated as such! Have any of these people with “strong calls” looked at any of the PEACEFUL protests, weird there’s no tear gas or pepper spray being used there! They aren’t telling you not to express your feelings on the situation, they are asking you to do it in a CONSTRUCTIVE way!
(Insert Face Palm Emoji here) Please step back, change the title to ” Protesting During An Infectious Outbreak ‘A Recipe For Disaster’ and re-write this. You can insert all the CDC social distancing advise. You know, the ones that discuss social gatherings, kept businesses closed, had us locked in our homes…….If they would be followed you would not have to worry about tear gas.
Concerned Citizen says
Here’s a thought.
If you don’t want to get gassed then don’t riot and loot. I don’t care how loudly you claim you’ve been oppressed. All of that going on was non sense. And quite laughable since a lot of it was African American on African American crime. Like burning down the future housing development.Or destroying that older gentlemans busniess that worked hard to make it. Sadly African American lives were lost and it was other African Americans who took them. And for what reason? And I’m still trying to figure out why the protesters felt the need to attack the father and child coming out of the childrens hopital. What did you intend to resolve by that?
I’m all for racial equality. Discrimination has no place in today’s society. Being in an inter racial relationship I’ve seen it first hand and have called people and busniesses out myself. I’ve worked in Public Safety myself and condone any abuse or misuse of force. If you want reform great. But violence is not the answer to it.
Finally Antifa and any other organizations who committ terrorist acts should be labled a terrorist organization. And dealt with as such. That includes all these white suppremicsts running around. They are no different than the ones I spent time in the Middle East looking for.
David Jennings says
Editor: Your concern for the very small percentage of protesters that might be exposed to tear gas is justified. However, my concern is for the thousands of protesters that are not social distancing. Their lack of consideration for themselves and everyone they come in contact with is appalling. Thousands can spread the virus to thousands more. The fact is that 4% to 5% of those that contract the disease will die. I guess no lives matter to the protesters.