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Tear gas at protests: How to protect yourself and what to do if you are exposed

Using tear gas is a common tactic authorities use to control crowds at protests, and it can have lasting affects on your health. Before you head out to a protest, learn what to do if you encounter it.

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- 07:23
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Demonstrators in Portland, Oregon are enveloped in tear gas while protesting George Floyd's death.

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As protests against police brutality and racism in response to the death of George Floyd (and many other people of color) continue throughout the country, demonstrators -- even peaceful ones -- are facing violent force from authorities attempting to control crowds. One tactic that is often used is a riot control agent, also called tear gas -- a chemical weapon that is illegal to use in wars, but legal in the US if used to disperse crowds and de-escalate protests.

If you are involved in a protest -- or live in an area near an active protest --  it's very likely that you could be exposed to the gas. We've seen multiple protests that started peacefully where law enforcement used tear gas on the crowd. So if you are planning to take part in a protest, you should be prepared to encounter it just in case you do.

Here's what you should know about tear gas, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you are exposed.

Read moreKnow your protesting rights: Here's what you can and can't legally do

What is tear gas?

Tear gas is an aerosolized solid or liquid -- not an actual gas -- that contains chemicals that are intended to cause a painful reaction that make people "unable to function" as a result of the reaction, according to the CDC website. It's made up of different compounds, including chloroacetophenone (CN) and chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS).

The gas is not designed to kill people, but it can cause a lot of pain and potentially injure you. In some situations, people can die due to the chemical exposure. The CDC says that the more severe effects are more likely in a closed setting (inside a building or room), or due to long-lasting exposure or a large amount of exposure. The severe effects can include: blindness, glaucoma, immediate death due to severe chemical burns to the throat and lungs, or respiratory failure that can result in death.

In most cases, people will feel discomfort or pain for 15 to 30 minutes after getting away from and cleaning off the gas residue, though effects can last several hours. 

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Canisters of tear gas are often thrown into crowds of people to get them to disperse. Do not touch these canisters, as they are hot and can harm you.

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How tear gas affects the body, according to the CDC:

  • Eyes: Tearing, burning, redness or blurred vision 
  • Nose: Runny nose, burning, swelling
  • Mouth: Burning, irritation, difficulty swallowing, drooling
  • Lungs: Chest tightness, coughing, choking sensation, noisy breathing (wheezing), shortness of breath
  • Skin: Burns, rash
  • Other: Nausea and vomiting

If you have been exposed to tear gas, or expect you may be exposed in the future, here's what to do to remove the gas from your body and find relief from the symptoms as quickly as possible.

How to protect yourself from tear gas

The first line of defense against the negative effects of tear gas is to do everything you can to prevent it from coming into contact with your skin. If you suspect you may be exposed to tear gas at a demonstration or protest, you need to wear as much protective gear as possible. 

If you have a face shield, wear that to cover your eyes, nose and mouth. If not, wear a face mask and goggles to protect your face and eyes. Sunglasses or glasses may help some, but not as much as goggles or a shield. It's very important that you do not wear contact lenses if you may be exposed to the gas, since the particles can get trapped in your lenses and damage your eyes. 

Cover your skin with as much clothing as possible to keep yourself protected from direct contact with gas. If you are going to a protest, wear clothing that is easy to remove, and that you don't mind throwing away, since you will likely have to cut it, rip it, and dispose of it if you come into contact with gas, according to the CDC

Any oil-based substances you put on your skin -- such as sunscreen or makeup -- can also absorb tear gas, according to the International News Safety Institute. So you'll want to avoid using those products before going to a protest.

What to do if you've been exposed to tear gas

Leave the area, find a well-ventilated location and avoid touching your face

According to the CDC, the primary way your body will be exposed to the tear gas is most likely by inhaling it. So the most important first step is to get away from the area where the gas was released and find fresh air to help disperse it. Also, avoid touching the canisters as they are hot and can burn or injure you.

Danielle Guldin, a former US Marine nuclear, biological and chemical defense specialist who is trained in dealing with chemical agents like tear gas, shared a widely circulated video on TikTok and Instagram about how to stay safe during a tear gas attack. 

Even though a tear gas attack is a scary experience, know that panicking will not help and try to stay as calm as possible. "The reason why the Marine Corps teaches confidence in a gas chamber scenario is because when you panic, you lose control. I'm telling you this now because when you have the wherewithal of exactly what to do and you have that calm about you, you will get out of the situation in a much more effective way," Guldin says in the video.

She suggests to first avoid touching or wiping your face -- even though that will be a natural reaction once it starts burning. "It is not actually a gas, it is a very fine powder substance. So when you touch your skin you are essentially grinding these powder particles into your tear ducts, into your mucus membranes, and creating microabrasions. It will make the sensation last much longer," Guldin says. 

If you are sweating, know that water can activate the chemical agent, causing more burning. For this reason, Guldin recommends avoiding wiping sweat off of your face. If you can, find a cloth to wrap around your hairline and head to keep sweat from dripping into your eyes.

Once you move to an area with fresh air or more ventilation, Guldin also recommends flapping your arms around to help disperse the substance from your skin and clothes.

How to rinse tear gas off your body

Even though you may immediately want to hose off or shower, it's best to wait a few hours for the powder to dry, according to Guldin. Once it's dry, and you are safe and have access to a hose or shower, water can help remove the substance. Be careful when rinsing off though -- you do not want to simply shower as usual since water can activate the substance. You don't want to let it run into your face or onto other sensitive parts of your body.

Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly first before touching any other part of your body. Once you get in the shower, rinse your hair first with your head bent over and away from your body. "Bend over at the waist, rinse your head completely off and let the water run off of your head in a forward direction before you let the water run from the top of your body to the bottom of your body," Guldin says.

Be sure to thoroughly wash and scrub your hands before using the bathroom as well. 

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A protestor in St. Paul, Minnesota rinses tear gas off of his face with water.

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How to get tear gas off of your clothes 

To safely remove contaminated clothing, the CDC recommends cutting off your clothes to avoid further contamination on your body. If you pull a contaminated shirt over your head, you risk getting more of the tear gas on your skin. Once your clothes are off, place them in a plastic bag to avoid spreading the substance anywhere else. If you were wearing contact lenses when you were exposed, remove them and throw them away. The CDC recommends rinsing your eyes with water for 10 to 15 minutes if your eyes burn or if you have blurred vision. 

The CDC also recommends contacting the state health department or emergency personnel to help you figure out the best way to dispose of the clothing that's been contaminated. 

Does milk or baking soda help?

There are several different tear gas remedies floating around on the internet -- some have said that milk, baking soda or antacid solutions can help. None of these methods have much research behind them, so it's best to stick with water and the methods above to decontaminate as quickly as possible.

As Guldin mentions in the video, once the tear gas is on your skin and you've removed yourself from the area, it's best to let it run its course and let your body flush out the substance. The burning will stop, and the best thing you can do is safely remove the gas particles so you don't recontaminate yourself or others.

When to seek medical attention for tear gas

Most symptoms should resolve rather quickly on their own after you remove yourself from the gas and decontaminate. But, in some cases, you may need to seek medical attention. 

According to the CDC it's unlikely you will have long-term health effects if your symptoms do go away soon after exposure. But if symptoms do not resolve or get worse, you should seek medical attention immediately. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.