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The controversial use of tear gas during protests: How it affects people?

An anti-government protester is surrounded by tear gas fired by Iraqi security forces in an effort to disperse demonstrators, in central Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

In all social movements around the world, tear gas canisters are used by anti-riot forces to disperse protesters. France, Chile, Iraq, Hong Kong, Turkey, United States… The list of countries is long. This “non-lethal” weapon is frequently utilized to control protests all over the world. But, since 1993 the UN has banned the use of tear gas in wartime because it’s considerate as a chemical weapon. Civil life is not concerned with this interdiction. That’s why tear gases are still utilized by security forces. Many studies have found that the chemical agent used in tear gas largely affects people. To help understand the effects, I spoke with a few Iraqi activists who are in the frontline. For their own security, their identities have been kept anonymous.

A friend of mine has chronic bronchitis. He went on a protest in Tahrir [Baghdad, Iraq] and started bleeding from his lungs after he inhaled tear gas.” This case is not isolated. The use of tear gas is not regulated and has increased worldwide during the past decades. Several cases of abuse have been reported. And various studies revealed that “tear gas agents can cause lung, cutaneous, and ocular injuries, with individuals affected by chronic morbidities at high risk for complications.” But it’s still massively used. As an example, security forces in Iraq have fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters, causing the death of many of them. The exact number of activists who died because of tear gas directly threw on them is unknown but many videos have been shared on social media. The Iraqi government has forbidden medical staff from sharing information on the dead and injured with any sources outside the Health Ministry. But, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have tried to report the number of deaths. On November 5th, they revealed that at least 16 activists were killed by tear gas canisters fired directly on their head and chest. This number certainly increased by the time because “security forces use tear gas in an excessive way.” 

“The organization’s Digital Verification Corps geolocated and analyzed video evidence from near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square documenting the fatalities and injuries – including charred flesh and “smoking” head wounds. Its military expert identified the types of tear gas grenades being used as two variants from Iran and Serbia that are modelled on military grenades and are up to 10 times as heavy as standard tear gas canisters, resulting in horrific injuries and death when fired directly at protesters

Amnesty International

“Do not use this product indoors. Do not fire directly
at persons as serious injury or death could occur.”

Tear gas canisters, also known as “riot control agents”, have several different compounds. The most commonly used during its manufacture are chloroacetophenone (CN) and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS). These are not gases but solid. Grenades and canisters use a powdered form blended with a mixture that can be aerosolized as a cloud of smoke or fog. These chemical agents were often used during World-War II to disperse the enemies. Today it has not the same form, but it still causes several long term effects. In many countries, anti-riot forces use excessively tear gas. They fired it indoor, it supposed to be outdoor, and they used it as a lethal weapon, and it supposed to be non-lethal. The High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq denounced an “excessive use of tear gas canisters by security forces. They threw it in the middle of crowded areas, increasing casualties. Protesters suffered several burns on their skin. This is the result of exposure to gas.”

Tear gas canister manufactured in 2014. It was collected by Iraqi activists on the ground. They try to take them all to keep some proofs of anti-riot excessive use of tear gas. They also want to know what chemical agent is used.

“This was a tear gas bomb that exploded in front of a journalist. It was made in 2014. When it’s activated, it emits a white smoke for 20 secondes from those holes. People start to get effects of asthma within 20 secondes if they are near. But its impact can be worse until fainting and suffocation. People also suffer from chest pain and tense breathing during a few days. It also affects eyes and causes tearing, burning and itching.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the majority of the tear gas canisters used has expired. Those that had been collected by protesters after they had been fired had dates between 2009 and 2014. This corresponds to production dates. But, even if it’s not expiration dates, it’s written on it that after five years, tear gas should not be used “in any manner.”

“Do not use in any manner if this device has been subjected to poor storage conditions or stocked longer than five years from the date manufacture. Keep out of reach of children.”

The Omega Research Foundation shared its analysis with Human Rights Watch. They concluded that expired tear gas is dangerous for many reasons. Especially because the chemicals inside can break down into cyanide oxide, phosgenes and nitrogens. It also includes a higher risk of faulty fuse and explosion: “Expired equipment should not be in use on the street. It should be taken out of circulation and destroyed according to careful environmental protocols for waste disposal.” Cyanide oxide was also found in some tear gas in France. A yellow vest activist and biologist decided to study the composition of tear gas during the past six months. To do so, he went regularly on protest to analyze the blood and urine of protesters. After a few results, he concluded that cyanide was one of the components of tear gas because he found it in protesters blood. Many studies have found the same result. A 2003 analysis revealed that commonly used tear gases have irreversible toxic effects. Meanwhile, the manufacture and use of tear gas by anti-riot forces has increased during the past decades.

Each year, the non-lethal weapons market increased by 10%.
Infographics by Héloïse Vinale / Source: Le Monde

There are several testimonies of victims of tear gas exposure on social media and news report. Year after year, protest after protest, the result is the same: people saw that tear gas affects their body and health.

“I recognized the smell of ammonia when I was in Tahrir [Baghdad, Iraq]. It was very strong. I stayed just a few hours but since then I have a horrible headache, sinusitis, law sugar rate, irritated nose and eyes burning. I was there three days ago. I thought I have these symptoms because I already suffer from chronic sinusitis. People who already get health problems would be more affected than others”

The UNAMI report confirms that the tear gas fired on Iraqi protesters are unknown because the symptoms are different from all types of tear gas known (CS and CN). “On November 1st, two doctors told separately to Human Rights Watch that on the evening of October 31st, they received at least 10 protesters in their tent. They had different symptoms from those experienced by earlier victims of tear gas exposure. They said the most recent victim went into spasms, shock, breathing difficulty and paralysis for 10 minutes.”

“We know from a medical source that tear gas used on November 6th was new. When I inhaled it I was semi-paralysed (under the belt). Another activist can’t move his feet and was confused. On Monday, 80% of victims of tear gas exposure were vomiting blood. Something else is used!

On Thursday, the Iraqi Defence Minister, Najah al-Shammari said in a TV statement that the tear gas canisters used by security forces entered in Iraq “mysteriously.” After examinations, analyzes and autopsies, the Defence Minister concluded: “The projectiles discovered in the heads and bodies of demonstrators were not imported by the Iraqi government or any official Iraqi representant.”

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