Tear gas during the COVID-19 crisis can be deadly — ban it

Tear gas during the COVID-19 crisis can be deadly — ban it
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In at least 100 cities, people protesting racial injustice and police brutality have encountered clouds of tear gas, which has potentially deadly consequences in the midst of a pandemic known to attack the respiratory system. 

In Portland, Ore., tear gas at the nightly protests since May has been so ubiquitous that a group of Dads with Leaf Blowers was created to try to repel the gas and protect protesters. 

Tear gas is already banned in war and it should not be used on American soil, especially since it can increase the spread of respiratory illnesses, like COVID-19.

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We’re in the middle of a national conversation on police use of force and many cities, states and Congress are debating new restrictions on things like the use of chokeholds and rubber bullets. A handful of states and cities have proposed limits to the use of tear gas, but they are facing stiff opposition. 

In June, Oregon passed a law limiting the use of tear gas to disperse crowds, but since it can be used if police declare a riot, tear gas has still been a constant at the Portland protests. California missed the chance to regulate tear gas use during protests when the State Senate failed to vote on AB66, which passed the assembly floor unanimously and would have banned the use of tear gas and other chemical agents to disperse protests.

Police and others have argued that banning tear gas will eliminate an effective and non-lethal option for crowd control, but, again, tear gas use can have deadly consequences during a respiratory pandemic. Exposure to tear gas likely causes people to take off their masks and cough, which forcefully expels larger respiratory droplets further and increases the risk that viral particles will reach and infect another person. 

Tear gas can also damage the lungs and increases the likelihood of contracting respiratory illnesses like influenza. It is reasonable to assume that tear gas will similarly increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 well after exposure. For these reasons, many health experts, including the American Thoracic Society, have called for a ban on tear gas use during the pandemic. 

The mass deployment of tear gas doesn’t just increase the risk of COVID-19 for individual protesters, it has far reaching potential effects in the community. Everyone in the vicinity, including people in their homes, can be exposed when tear gas is released. We have seen plenty of inappropriate uses of tear gas this year, including when Park Police and the National Guard used it on peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters to clear the area around St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., for a presidential photo-op. 

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Even though the U.S. Crisis Monitor found that 93 percent of racial justice protests this summer were peaceful, police were five times more likely to respond with force to those protests than the anti-lockdown protests. Black communities and other communities of color are already disproportionately killed by COVID-19. Using tear gas on protests for racial equality also disproportionately exposes these communities to another risk factor and increases the chance for COVID-19 spread. 

Anything that increases the spread of COVID-19 threatens us all. Police should focus on using de-escalation strategies and other non-lethal measures to facilitate people’s rights to protest safely. Our legislators should protect us by banning the use of tear gas on protesters, just like it is banned in war.

Katherine Wilkinson is an associate professor of Biological Sciences at San José State University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.