Tear gas widely used by police despite ‘void’ of federal oversight and health studies

Tear gas widely used by police despite ‘void’ of federal oversight and health studies
Law enforcement agencies and companies ‘have willingly taken advantage’ of lack of oversight, according to probe from House lawmakers

The federal government does not regulate the use of tear gas, nor has it determined its health impacts, despite widespread use among at least 100 law enforcement agencies across the US, according to a report from US House lawmakers.

Tear gas manufacturers, meanwhile, “have willingly taken advantage of the lack of federal tear gas regulation” despite the “woefully understudied” use of such chemical weapons against people, lawmakers said in a statement on 14 October.

Two House committees opened a joint investigation into the use of tear gas earlier this summer, following months of racial justice uprisings across the US met with police firing tear gas canisters at protesters and journalists.

“Despite the frequent weaponization of tear gas against protestors, there are still insufficient studies on its long-term health effects,” according to committee chairs Raja Krishnamoorthi of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy and Jamie Raskin of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

“This investigation has revealed a complete void in the regulation of tear gas, a weapon that is banned in war yet commonly used against US citizens,” they said in a statement.

“Tear gas” is grouped as riot-control agents that “temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin,” according to a fact sheet from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The committees opened the probe following a request from US Rep Cori Bush – a Black Lives Matter activist who organised in Ferguson, Missouri before her election to Congress – who warned lawmakers about the long-term health impacts from exposure.

“Tear gas is not an inconvenience, it is a weapon of war,” she said in a statement.

“This unregulated, violent, and deadly chemical weapon can cause long-lasting health damage to activists, including asthma, respiratory failure, and even death,” she said.

A memo from the committees finds that limited studies have shown that exposure to tear gas heightens risk of acute respiratory illness and gastrointestinal and menstrual effects, despite manufacturers acknowledging that “injury and/or damage can be expected” when it is deployed.

Lawmakers also said that manufacturers “have earned significant revenue from selling tear gas products, despite the known serious risks tear gas poses to human health and safety,” according to the memo.

Without federal guidance from the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency about its use, “manufacturers and law enforcement have free rein to self-regulate,” lawmakers said.

In their letters to manufacturers in June, lawmakers pointed to reporting from The Associated Press that found military personnel exposed to tear gas in basic training were more than twice at risk of later being diagnosed with acute respiratory illness after their exposure to tear gas.

They also cited reporting in ProPublica that found “the widespread, sometimes indiscriminate use of tear gas on American civilians in the midst of a respiratory pandemic threatens to worsen the coronavirus, along with racial disparities in its spread and who dies from it.”

In an open letter signed by 1,288 medical and public health professionals in 2020, they urged police departments to stop using tear gas “or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for Covid-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.”