As protesters gather around the country to support the Black Lives Matter movement and respond to a long history of police brutality against Black people in the United States, law enforcement officers are using crowd control weapons like pepper spray and tear gas, risking the health of both protesters and bystanders.
Chemical irritants like tear gas and pepper spray are two of the most common ways law enforcement attempts to control crowds at protests. A 2016 systematic review of medical literature by Physicians for Human Rights demonstrates consistent evidence that chemical irritants can not only cause physical harm, they can even cause death. During the recent protests in Columbus, Ohio, an Ohio State University student named Sarah Grossman reportedly attended protests and died shortly after exposure to tear gas. As of time of publishing, the official cause is still currently being investigated by the coroner’s office, according to the Dayton Daily News.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chemical irritants from “riot control agents” can have many harmful effects on the body, including the eyes. Immediately after exposure to agents like pepper spray or tear gas, a person could experience excessive tearing, burning, blurred vision, and redness, with the potential for long-term effects from prolonged exposure, like blindness or glaucoma, an eye condition that can lead to blindness.
By preparing for the possibility of chemical irritants, you can help protect your eyes and your overall health. Here’s what experts want you to know if you’re planning to protest.
How Chemical Irritants Work
Riot control agents like tear gas are chemical compounds that temporarily make people confused and unable to function within seconds of exposure. One form of irritation from chemical gas occurs in the eyes. Sven Eric Jordt, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine, researches how nerve receptors in the eye respond to chemical irritants, and tells Allure the eyes contain nerve receptors that cause pain upon irritant exposure.
When irritants like tear gas reach the eye, these nerves send a message to the brain, which in turn induces pain and tears. According to Jordt, the eyelids also shut involuntarily as a defensive response to prevent more chemical exposure.
According to a statement sent to Allure by Rohini J. Haar, an emergency physician, medical expert and adviser at Physicians for Human Rights, and research fellow at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, these chemicals are indiscriminate, which means anyone in the targeted area — protesters, bystanders, or local residents — can be affected.
Because of their indiscriminate effect, Haar says law enforcement should avoid chemical irritants unless absolutely necessary. “Crowd-control weapons should be an absolute last resort, only used when dealing with genuine and imminent threats to the safety of those present, and after all other means have been exhausted,” she writes in an email to Allure.
How to Protect Your Eyes
“Swim goggles create a tight seal around the eyes, which will help prevent things from getting in, but the nose and mouth may still be irritated,” she says. “If you escalate to a scuba goggle or a gas mask, it’s more likely you’ll be protected, and a face shield is also helpful.”
Avoid contact lenses and opt for glasses instead — contacts can trap harmful particles from tear gas and pepper spray in your eye and make the effects worse. According to Gokoffski, the eye tears as a response to irritants. Contact lenses trap tears on the eye and prevent them from self-cleaning.