Riot control agents, collectively called tear gas, incapacitate people by causing eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation. The most common chemicals used as tear gas include chloroacetophenone (CN), chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS), and chloropicrin (PS). According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you can expect relief from most tear gas symptoms within 15 to 30 minutes. Here is a look at ways to defend against tear gas exposure and treatment options.
Symptoms of Tear Gas Exposure
Unlike pepper spray symptoms, tear gas symptoms typically aren’t immediate, but begin 20 seconds to a minute after exposure. Symptoms include:
- Stinging and burning of the eyes, nose, mouth, and skin
- Light sensitivity
- Excessive tearing
- Blurred vision
- Red, swollen eyes
- Runny nose
- Salivation (drooling)
- Rash or chemical burn
- Choking sensation and difficulty breathing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Disorientation and confusion, which may lead to panic
- Intense anger
The disorientation and confusion may not be totally psychological. In some cases, the solvent used to prepare the tear gas may contribute to the reaction and may be more toxic than the lachrymatory agent.
Severe and potentially permanent or lethal effects may also occur:
- Respiratory failure
- Severe chemical burns to eyes, skin, and lungs
What to Do
Usually, tear gas is fired as a grenade from a gas gun. You may hear shots being fired when tear gas is used. If you hear this sound, look up so you can avoid being in the path of the grenade. Some tear gas grenades split open in the air, delivering a metal container which will spew gas. This container will be hot, so do not touch it. Do not pick up the tear gas canister, since it could explode and cause injury.
The best defense against tear gas is a gas mask, but if you don’t have a mask there are still steps you can take to minimize damage from tear gas. If you think you might encounter tear gas you can soak a bandanna or paper towel in lemon juice, milk, or cider vinegar and store it in a plastic baggie. These kitchen ingredients are weak acids that can neutralize the active ingredients in the gas. You can breathe through the acidified cloth for several minutes, which should give you sufficient time to get upwind or reach higher ground.
Goggles are a great thing to have. You can use tight-fitting swim goggles if chemical safety goggles aren’t available. Don’t wear contacts anywhere you might encounter tear gas. If you are wearing contact lenses, immediately remove them. Your contacts are a loss as is anything else you can’t wash.
You can wear your clothes again after you wash them but wash them separately from other items that first time. If you don’t have goggles or any sort of mask, you can breathe the air inside your shirt, since there is less air circulation and therefore a lower concentration of the gas, but that is counterproductive once the fabric becomes saturated.
Tear Gas Treatment and First Aid
Immediately remove a tear gas victim to fresh air. There isn’t an antidote for tear gas, so treatment mainly consists of decontamination, pain management, and injury treatment. First aid for eyes is flushing with sterile saline solution or water until the stinging starts to abate. Exposed skin should be washed with soap and water. Breathing difficulties are treated by administering oxygen and in some cases using medication that are used to treat asthma. Medicated bandages can be used on burns. Over-the-counter analgesics help with pain.
Home remedies include milk, petroleum jelly, vinegar, baking soda, toothpaste, and baby shampoo. However, a study of the use of baby shampoo to rinse exposed eyes showed no benefit. Vinegar isn’t recommended as a treatment because it irritates eyes and skin. The effectiveness of other home remedies hasn’t been studied in-depth. While home remedies exist, it’s best to seek emergency medical attention. In the U.S., call regional poison control at 1-800-222-1222. Serious and delayed complications are possible.
- Centers for Disease Control (2018). Facts About Riot Control Agents.
- Hu, H.; et al. (August 1989). “Tear gas—harassing agent or toxic chemical weapon?”. JAMA. 262 (5): 660–3. doi:10.1001/jama.1989.03430050076030
- Rothenberg, C.; et al. (August 2016). “Tear gas: an epidemiological and mechanistic reassessment”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1378 (1): 96–107. doi:10.1111/nyas.13141
- Schep, L.J.; Slaughter, R.J.; McBride, D.I. (June 2015). “Riot control agents: the tear gases CN, CS and OC-a medical review”. Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps. 161 (2): 94–9. doi:10.1136/jramc-2013-000165