As the result of protests and riots in the United States during the spring of 2020, tear gas made headlines across the country. Indeed, a significant number of business owners and others were left having to deal with the aftermath of the use of tear gas in their neighborhoods. People certainly have heard the term “tear gas” and have a general idea of what it does. With that said, many people don’t have a full appreciation of all of the important aspects of tear gas, it’s use, and the consequences and aftermath of using this chemical agent. A comprehensive overview of tear gas can be helpful.

Brief History of Tear Gas

Tear gas has what fairly can be described as a somewhat bizarre and oftentimes controversial history. Tear gas was first used during World War I, an international conflict in which all of the participants were using chemical weapons of different types. 

Germany was the first country to use – attempt to use – tear gas during World War I. The tear gas initially dropped by Germany during the war was completely ineffective. It was so useless that the targeted British troops had no idea they were being attacked. 

Two years after Germany’s failed attempt at dispersing tear gas the country succeeded in its use of this agent. In 1916, Germany perfected a powerful tear gas that blinded French troops and gave Germany a notable tactical advantage on the battlefield.

In the aftermath of World War I, a number of countries took to using tear gas on their own populations as a means of quelling protests. Even to this day, countries that use tear gas are tasked with maneuvering around the provisions of international treaties to utilize this type of agent on people. Technically, tear gas is classified internationally as a gas that is not to be used on civilian populations. 

Understanding Tear Gas

Scientifically, what we know as tear gas isn’t a gas. There are different types of so-called tear gas and they are all either aerosolized solids or liquids. As a result of the composition of tear gas, when a person or property is exposed to this agent, a residue is left behind that continues to cause pain and discomfort until it is eliminated fully. 

Effects of Tear Gas

Exposure to tear gas can affect a person in a number of different ways. The primary ways in which tear gas impacts a person are:

  • Eye symptoms
  • Respiratory symptoms
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms 
  • Skin symptoms
  • Other symptoms

Permanent injury from exposure to tear gas is not common, but it can happen. Most possible permanent injuries are associated with the eyes and include:

  • Blindness
  • Hemorrhages
  • Nerve damage
  • Development of cataracts
  • Corneal erosion

Treating a Person for Tear Gas Exposure

Directly after someone is exposed to tear gas, the most important step to take is to get that individual away from the agent. If tear gas had been launched in an enclosed space like a business, the premises need to be evacuated. If tear gas is being dispersed outside, the agent can remain in the air for what can be a moderately extended period of time. In addition, if law enforcement is firing tear gas outside, they rarely stop with just one canister. 

Once a person exposed to tear gas is in fresh air, the next step is to ensure that the individual removes all of his or her clothing. No clothing can remain on, including undergarments of any type. Due to the nature of tear gas, it quickly seeps through any clothing a person is wearing and hits the skin. 

The clothing taken from a contaminated person needs to be placed in a bag or some other receptacle capable of being tightly sealed. The bag or container should not be opened until the moment the clothing is to be placed in a washing machine.

If a shower is immediately accessible, the best course for a person contaminated with tear gas is to take a shower. The water should be as cold as a person can stand. In addition, a contaminated person needs to scrub his or her skin as firmly as possible. Ideally, the contaminated person undertakes the washing process from head to toe three times. 

During the initial wash, the tear gas is likely to activate the tear gas residue on the skin, This can be painful for a bit, but any unpleasantness will subside during the subsequent washings. 

Tear Gas Cleanup at Businesses, Homes, and Other Locations

The tear gas cleanup process differs depending on what type of tear gas is used. Tear gas types that are used in the United States, including in California, are:

  • Chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS)
  • Chloroacetophenone (CN)
  • Dibenzoxazepine (CR)
  • Oleoresin Capsicum (OC or pepper spray)

The tear gas derivations most commonly used in California are CS, CN, OC, and a combination of CS with OC. When cleaning up a building contaminated with any of these different tear gas variations, the first step is to make sure people are restricted from entering the building. The next step is to thoroughly ventilate the building.

The cleaning steps begin to differ after the initial ventilation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, has essential information on tear gas cleanup. This includes the specific types of personal protective equipment you must wear to undertake tear gas cleanup. 

In addition, there are specific types of equipment that are needed to thoroughly remediate tear gas from a building. This equipment is vital to ensure that tear gas residue is thoroughly eliminated from areas in a business, home, or other type of building like the HVAC system. 

In theory, a homeowner or businessowner can embark on tear gas cleanup on his or her own. With that said, taking the do it yourself course isn’t recommended. The typical homeowner or business owner doesn’t have the expertise, necessary cleaning equipment, or the required personal protective equipment to safely and completely remediate tear gas contamination.