If you’re headed to a protest, read this first.

By Rachael Schultz
Jun 04, 2020 @ 3:22 pm
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As demonstrations against police brutality continue to grow nationwide, so does the reality that if you’re heading to a protest, you might be exposed to tear gas.

Despite denial from President Trump that the agent was used to disperse crowds in front of the White House on Monday, the U.S. Park Police acknowledged they did deploy a "pepper compound" which the CDC lists as a form of tear gas. And since that event, we've seen forms of tear gas used at other protests in Alabama, Iowa, New Orleans, and Atlanta, among other cities.

If you’re headed to a protest, here's what you need to know ahead of time about the symptoms of tear gas, how it can spread coronavirus — and the exact steps to take in case you are indeed exposed.  

What is tear gas — and what are the symptoms of exposure?

Along with rubber bullets, tear gas is classified (by police and their manufacturers) as a “less lethal” form of crowd control weapons. Note that’s “less,” not “non”— there is a chance the gas can do real damage. Per the CDC, if you are exposed for a long time or to a large dose, it can cause blindness, respiratory failure, or chemical burns to the lungs, which can be deadly. But for the most part, based on the way it's being used so far against protesters, permanent damage is less likely.

The most serious risk of tear gas actually comes from the deployment rather than the chemical itself — that is, the physical canister hitting someone in the face or head, points out Shannon Sovndal, M.D., a Boulder, CO-based emergency physician and medical director for numerous air and ground EMS agencies.

For most people, the risk of exposure to the gas is a lot of discomfort and pain. “Agents like tear gas cause you to lacrimate—that is, tear up — and your eyes to burn,” Dr. Sovndal explains. “It burns in the membranes of your eyes, nose, and mouth. And it hurts, a lot. You can’t see because your eyes are watering so much. It’s hard to breathe because of the burning sensation.”

If you want more details on exactly how tear gas works and what to do if you’re exposed, check out this super informative eight-minute run down from former Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Defense Specialist in the US Marine Corps, Danielle Guldin.

Can tear gas spread coronavirus?

Not only is it uncomfortable, but being exposed can seriously up your risk for catching the coronavirus. "The biggest risk with COVID-19 is simply being in a mass gathering — a large number of people in close space to one another," Dr. Sovndal says. But if tear gas hits and everyone around you starts tearing up, coughing, and sneezing, that will spread particles even faster. 

Also, anything that hurts your respiratory cells and the protective hairs in your airways — including smoking, vaping, and being exposed to tear gas — can lower your body's natural defense against contracting the virus.

The COVID-19 risk is rather unavoidable if you’re protesting and exposed to tear gas. But our knee-jerk reactions — to rub our eyes and run — can make the pain feel worse and last longer.

Here, the 6 most important things to do to stay safe if you’re headed to a protest:

Suit up properly.

For starters, wear glasses instead of contacts. You should already be wearing a mask, and potential goggles, to minimize COVID-19 exposure, but these can also double as a mild barrier if tear gas were to be deployed. Then, bring a backpack with multiple bottles of water, a change of clothes (ideally inside a ziplock), and baby wipes — these will all be needed if you do get teargassed. 

If you see or hear tear gas being deployed, move upwind.

Your instinct will be to run in whatever direction seems accessible. But your goal in this moment is to either avoid exposure altogether or minimize the amount of time you’re exposed to the particles and allow airflow to degrade the particles on your skin. Luckily, tear gas is visible, Dr. Sovndal points out. You can feel the effects beyond where you see smoke, but in general, the number one thing to help will be moving upwind and letting nature work in your favor.

Don't touch your face.

This is the first thing you’ll want to do. But it can rub the particles further into your skin and your membranes and make the pain a lot worse.

Remove goggles, glasses, and/or a mask as soon as you're in clean air.

"If you get the gas inside your goggles, glasses, or mask, you've isolated the particles to the places it's touching," Dr. Sovndal says. Just make sure you’re out of the exposure zone before removing.

Flush your eyes with water — just water.

Searches are up for 'milk for tear gas' or 'baking soda for tear gas', but the truth is that nothing will work as well as plain old water. “If you have been exposed there is no secret antidote,” Dr. Sovndal says. Turn your head to the side, hold your eye open, and pour a water bottle over your eye, he says. Yes, the whole thing. “If we were flushing you in the ER, we’d use a couple of liters of saline, so the more water the better,” he adds.

You should feel some level of relief in just a few minutes, though overall, the sensations from exposure are going to linger for a couple of hours.

Strip down.

“The particles will stay on your clothes as well. Anything that was exposed needs to come off after you flush,” Dr. Sovndal says. How many layers depends on how much you were exposed, but the gas can definitely permeate your top layer. Before you throw on that change of clothes in your backpack, rinse your skin with baby wipes if you packed them, or more water if you have it. Shower as soon as you can.

After all of the above, your symptoms should start to get better over 10 to 15 minutes. If they're getting worse or you're having difficulty breathing after that, get medical attention, Dr. Sovndal adds.