1. How They Are Deployed:
Tear gas and pepper spray can be sprayed from small hand-held dispensers or large fire-extinguisher size tanks. Pepper spray also comes in plastic projectiles which are fired at the chest to knock the wind out of a person, who then takes a deep breath of pepper from the burst projectile. Tear gas is most commonly deployed via canisters, which are fired into crowds, sometimes directly at people. It’s important that you know not to pick up the canisters without gloves as they are extremely hot. Be aware that the time it takes you to throw it will allow you to be heavily exposed.
2. How They Affect Humans:
Both tear gas and pepper spray are skin irritants, causing burning pain and excess drainage from eyes, nose, mouth and breathing passages. Pepper spray is more popular with authorities as an agent of control because of its immediate pain-causing qualities. It is harder to remove from the skin and has the capacity to cause first degree burns.
If you are exposed to either tear gas or pepper spray, you may experience:
- Stinging, burning in your eyes, nose, mouth and skin
- Excessive tearing, causing your vision to blur
- Runny nose
- Increased salivation
- Coughing and difficulty breathing
- Disorientation, confusion and sometimes panic
- Intense anger from pepper spray exposure is a common response; this can be useful if you are prepared for it and are able to focus it towards recovery and returning to the action. Channel your anger, release it from your system, avoid holding it in.
The good news is that the above effects are temporary.
Discomfort from tear gas usually disappears after 5-30 minutes, while the worst pepper spray discomfort may take 20 minutes to 2 hours to subside. The effects of both diminish sooner with treatment. Because pepper spray penetrates to the nerve endings, its effects may last for hours after removal from the skin.
3. Who Should Avoid Exposure:
For most healthy people, the effects of tear gas and pepper spray are temporary. However, for some people the effects can be long-lasting and life-threatening.
People with the conditions listed below should be aware of these risks and may want to try and avoid exposure. Please be aware that in intense actions such as police behavior can be unpredictable, and avoidance is not always possible. Those with the following health conditions should avoid entering crowds where there is risk of exposure to these substances.
- Folks with respiratory diseases, such as asthma, emphysema, etc. risk exacerbation, or permanent damage if exposed.
- Vulnerable people such as infants, the elderly, and the immune compromised, risk intensified and possibly life-threatening responses.
- Anyone with chronic health conditions or those on medications that weaken the immune system, (ie: chemotherapy, Lupus, HIV, radiation, or long-term corticosteroids such as prednisone) risk exacerbation of illness, intensified response and possible delayed recovery.
- Women who are or could be pregnant, or who are trying to get pregnant, may be at risk of spontaneous abortion, or increased risk of birth defects.
- Nursing mothers risk passing toxins on to their infant.
- Folks with skin conditions (ie: severe acne, psoriasis, or eczema) and eye conditions (i.e.: conjunctivitis or uveitis) risk an intensified response.
- People wearing contact lenses may experience increased eye irritation and damage due to chemicals being trapped under the lenses.
- Avoid the use of oils, lotions and detergents because they can trap the chemicals and thereby prolong exposure. Wash your clothes, your hair and your skin beforehand in a detergent-free and unscented soap.
- We recommend using a water or alcohol-based sunscreen (rather than oil-based). If your choice is between oil-based or nothing, we advocate using the sunscreen. Getting pepper sprayed on top of a sunburn is not fun.
- We also recommend minimizing skin exposure by covering up as much as possible. This can also protect you from the sun, as can a big hat, baseball cap or bandana.
- Gas masks provide the best facial protection, if properly fitted and sealed. Alternatively, swimming goggles (with shatter-proof lenses), respirators, even a wet bandana soaked in vinegar over the nose and mouth will help.
5. What to Do When Exposed:
- STAY CALM. Panicking increases the irritation. Breathe slowly and remember it is only temporary. Educate yourself prior to going out, to know what to expect, and thereby reduce the likelihood of panicking.
- If you see it coming or get a warning, put on protective gear, if able, try to move away or get upwind.
- Blow your nose, rinse your mouth, cough and spit repeatedly. AVOID SWALLOWING.
- If you wear contacts, try to remove the lenses or get someone to remove them for you, with CLEAN, uncontaminated fingers. AVOID WEARING CONTACT LENSES BEFORE GOING OUT.
- DO NOT RUB IT IN.
For the eyes and mouth:
We recommend a solution of half liquid antacid (like Maalox) and half water (here is a useful infograph). A spray bottle is ideal but a bottle that has a squirt cap works as well. Always irrigate from the inside corner of the eye towards the outside, with head tilted back and slightly towards the side being rinsed. It needs to get into the eye to help. This means that if the sprayed person says it’s okay you should try to open their eye for them. They most likely won’t be able/willing to open it themselves, and opening will cause a temporary increase in pain, but the solution does help. It works great as a mouth rinse too.
For the skin:
We recommend canola oil followed by alcohol. Carefully avoiding the eyes, vigorously wipe the skin that was exposed to the chemical with a rag or gauze sponge saturated with canola oil. Follow this immediately with a rubbing of alcohol. Remember that alcohol in the eyes hurts A LOT. Anyone whose eyes you get alcohol in will not be your friend.
Secondary treatments can include: spitting, blowing your nose, coughing up mucous (you don’t want to swallow these chemicals!), walking around with your arms outstretched, removing contaminated clothing and putting on new clothing, In fact, it is essential to shower and wash your clothes as soon as you are able.
WARNING: pepper spray can dry on your skin, and then get re-activated when you shower due to contact with moisture! See section below on how to get rid of pepper spray before you shower!
These chemicals are toxic, and will continually contaminate you and everyone around you until you get rid of it. Until then, try not to touch your eyes or your face, or other people, furniture, carpets etc. to avoid further contamination. Also rinse your washing machine in highest heat after you wash your clothes in them, to get rid of residue inside the machine.
7. Essential Protective Gear:
A bandanna soaked vinegar and tied tightly around the nose and mouth is a last resort. It is far better than nothing, but remember that it is merely a barrier and not a filter and so won’t do much for long-term protection. You can keep it soaking in a plastic bag until ready to use. Bring several, as multiple uses will render a bandanna as gassy as the air around you.
For protecting your eyes, swim goggles work well as they have a tight seal. Shatter-resistance is another nice quality for goggles to have. Most goggles have air holes to prevent fogging–fill these with epoxy (glue).
Covering these holes with duct tape can work in a pinch against an initial attack, though not for long term protection. Try them on with your respirator or bandana to ensure that they are compatible and that both will provide a tight seal.
You should be aware that whatever protection you choose will be visually quite powerful. Gas masks work the best; they also look quite scary and intimidating and can be alienating to others. They can however also make you a target of police violence. Think carefully about your impact on others when you decide how to protect yourself. Aim to wear the same kind of gear as a group, not just you as an individual. Strength in numbers.
We suggest that you trial your gear at home before you head out, to make sure you understand your protective mechanisms and are familiar with them, prior to entering the heat of action.
Here’s a tip from Palestinian demonstrators:
Smear lime fruit juice on the inside of any fabric which covers your mouth such as a scarf – anything you use to cover your mouth. This is claimed to remove all effects from the CS gas (tear gas) though it may be a myth.
8. How to Safely Get Rid of Pepper Spray – DO NOT APPLY WATER!
When dealing with OC sprays (Pepper Gas) you will find that they are activated and reactivated by water. In other words, even if you have let it dry on your skin you are still at risk to reactivation, if you were to get it wet again.
The safest way to remove contamination from the skin is to let the skin dry, dab with a dry cloth or fan the skin. Pending availability, products like baby shampoo can be applied to a contaminated area around eyes and face (it works even better if it is refrigerated prior to application) to provide temporary relief (also the drying of the shampoo will help remove a large amount of the loose capsaicin).
9. How to Safely Get Rid of Tear Gas – DO NOT APPLY WATER!
Do NOT wash your face with water if you suffer tear gas. You should not wet your skin: it increases the effect of the tear gas.
Instead, apply vinegar or lemon juice to the skin in order to get rid of the effect of the tear gas. Cloths with some apple vinegar or pure lemon juice are very useful in riots. You can press some lemon in a plastic bottle before going to the protest. So you can wet your mask with lemon juice (or vinegar), and it will decrease the effect of tear gas.
10. How to Handle Tear Gas Canisters
The thick gloves used by construction workers are good to throw the tear gas cans back to the police. Kitchen gloves will work as well. You can kick the canister away from the crowd if you do not have on gloves.
Warning: The tear gas cans are WAY TOO HOT to hold with bare hands!
11. What To Do Afterward
Wash your clothes as soon as possible because there are chemicals on those clothes!
For your skin, a couple of boxes of Baking Soda will help in addition to regular soap with skin conditioners. Remember, the pepper spray is going to really get to your mucous membranes. Under your armpits, crotch. The snot is going to pour out of your nose like someone turned on a fire hydrant and its going to burn the whole time. Your eye lids are going to swell up too. Use the Benadryl (Diphenhydramine hydrochloride ) for that.
Don’t use water to rinse your mouth – this will make it worse. Instead, use fresh lemon juice or vinegar.
12. Designed to Induce Panic – Stay Calm:
If you get hit by tear gas, or other chemical agents, it will feel like you are unable to breathe. This is how it is designed to work. You panic, and the protest/riot stops. The trick is to understand that while it feels like you are unable to breathe, you are actually breathing just fine. Tear gas doesn’t often kill people unless they have a severe allergic reaction to it, have a medical condition or the gas is extremely concentrated (example: tear gas deployed in a confined area like a room).
So try and remain calm. If you can, sit down away from the tear gas and relax. Getting rid of the panic eliminates a lot of the effectiveness of the anti-riot gas.
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