How to Rinse Your Eyes With Tear Gas

In protests against police brutality this week, police in many cities have opted for escalating violence. One of the tools they commonly use is chemical weapons, colloquially known as tear gas. Here’s what to do if you are confronted with tear gas at a protest. (First step: Flush your eyes with water.)

The term “tear gas” can mean any riot control agent , but in this post we are talking about CS gas that is spewed out from canisters that the police throw to the ground. If instead you’d like to know what to do if you’ve been sprayed with pepper spray, we’ve got a guide on that .

What is tear gas and why do the police use it?

Under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, tear gas is prohibited in combat, but the police can use it against civilians . According to police departments, their intended use is to detonate canisters of tear gas at ground level at the edges of the crowd, forcing people to flee the gas and disperse the crowd.

CS gas is the type of gas commonly used when talking about “tear gas”. It is actually a solid powder that is released into the air by reacting with the heat and solvent inside this little canister. (If you are about to touch or kick the canister, remember that it will be hot.)

Tear gas begins to cause severe pain, watery eyes, and coughing within 20-60 seconds. After you stop exposure to the gas, symptoms are expected to resolve within 10-30 minutes, or at most an hour.

What does tear gas do to you?

The chemical in tear gas (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) is an irritant that affects the pain receptors in your body after it reacts with moisture.

This moisture can be tears in the eyes, saliva in the mouth, mucus in the nose, or sweat on the skin. Your body reacts by producing excessive amounts of tears or mucus, which makes it difficult to see or breathe. According to an expert who spoke with USA Today, the pain and confusion in the experience can be “psychologically terrifying.”

Although symptoms are temporary, the gas can cause irritation, burns, and other serious complications in some people. Children are especially at risk, in part because their lungs are smaller and because gas tends to be more concentrated below the ground. Older people with asthma are also particularly vulnerable. Gas is also more dangerous when used indoors.

What if you get hit by tear gas?

Popular Science has an excellent and complete guide to preparing for tear gas and responding in the moment to protect yourself and help others. I recommend reading it if you think you might find yourself in a situation where you might be exposed.

Most importantly, step away from the gas and rinse your eyes with fresh water . If you have contacts, delete them.

Milk may work, but there is no evidence that it is better than water. It can also get pretty frustrating on a summer protest afternoon. A solution of water and baking soda can help inactivate the chemical, but the solution can also contain tiny particles of powder that can scratch or further irritate your eyes. The US Army and CS gas manufacturers recommend flushing the eyes with water or saline. (Saline is smaller, but both are effective.)

If you think you might be exposed to tear gas, bring water in a syringe bottle. Keith Ng, a journalist who was exposed to tear gas during the Hong Kong protests, recommends carrying saline (or tap water if you don’t have saline) in a syringe bottle with a small, pointed tip:

Goggles, masks, and full-body clothing will primarily help prevent tear gas from entering your body, but chemical particles can enter, penetrate, and potentially penetrate under your protective layers – so keep that in mind.

After exposure to tear gas, remember that particles are likely still on your clothes, belongings, and hair. Remove and wash clothing carefully and shower to rinse off any chemical residues.

Updated 06/02/2020 09:47 AM, which mentions that you should remove your contact lenses, if you are wearing them, as part of the disinfection process.

Updated on 6/4/2020 at 12:24 pm to note that “tear gas” can also mean pepper spray, and a link to our post on what to do if you get shot at with pepper spray.

Looking for ways to protect black lives? Check out this list of resources .


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