I grew up thinking tear gas was non-lethal. My army father told me about troops being sent into a room in basic training, dressed in full gear, and after the door was shut, just sitting and waiting as tear gas was pumped into the enclosure. After the room was filled, they were instructed to take off their gas masks so that they would learn not to panic. A classmate in my undergrad classes told me what it was like to be tear gassed as a child in South Korea — this came up because many of my classmates had attended the WTO riots and came back with smoke filled portraits of the chaos. She said it’s important to let your eyes tear up and not try to wipe them, and don’t sniffle because you’re just trapping the toxins in instead of letting them out.
When I was exposed to tear gas, I wasn’t protesting, and I wasn’t in the military. I was walking through a parking lot on a Wednesday night with a group of students I was co-chaperoning for work, on the way to a soccer match. I was happy: I was in Athens, and I had just seen my baby’s heartbeat on the ultrasound less than a week before, strong though tiny. As we neared the stadium, we started to notice something like the smell of burning rubber, or maybe someone was smoking something. It was seconds between the time my boss said, “I think it’s tear gas,” and we rounded the corner to see a line of police in full riot gear, faces covered, and our eyes and throats began burning. Students began coughing and sputtering, and I just repeated the advice I heard. I stayed calm. Instead of physically separating the AEK inspired scuffles that broke out through the night, police would continue to release multiple canisters of tear gas.
When I got home, my clothes reeked of the gas. I called my fiancé and told him what happened. We started trying to get in touch with all the medical professionals we knew. Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center connected us to US Poison Control: the answer was that if I wasn’t right on top of a canister I was probably ok. I called my Greek doctor in the morning, and he said I was probably ok. We went on a class field trip over the weekend. On the way back, my boss noted he was surprised to see me actually eating food (my morning sickness had kept me from eating much up to that point). The next day, I began experiencing intense cramping. I went to work briefly the day after (a Monday) and was put on bed rest and medicine to control bleeding until my doctor could see me on Thursday. There was no heartbeat on the ultrasound. I called my fiancé and begged/ ordered him to get on a plane in time for the follow up ultrasound a week later. I was still on medicine and bed rest, meaning until he came out, I didn’t have an assured means of even getting groceries. The second ultrasound confirmed the worst, and after a physically and emotionally painful weekend, I had surgery and decided to return to the States.
Why am I writing this? It’s humiliating, depressing to talk about it. In part, I write this for solace of and as a resource for others who have experienced the same. Over a year later, I still think about it. I admit that even after the birth of my daughter, I still cry for the loss of my first pregnancy. They say tear gas is a temporary irritant, but that has not been my experience. Some may even state that because I was in Greece I should have expected this, but Americans need to pay attention. Greece, like many other nations, is supplied with their military weapons by the US (since the end of WWII). Tear gas is an American export: an American company profited off the loss of my pregnancy and countless injuries to others. So then I also admit I write out of anger: anger at the thought that other women have gone through this, and I’ll be damned if I allow my daughter’s generation to be harmed by her government’s practices in the same way I was. The American government has the responsibility of protecting its citizens from irresponsible corporate practices and the use of unnecessary force.
The sad fact is that activists and soldiers alike almost claim it as a badge of honor, “Yeah, I’ve been tear gassed.” If you’re a healthy young male, you probably won’t notice any long lasting effects- maybe more of a desire to protect yourself against it next time, or maybe you build up a tolerance to it. But tear gas does not only target healthy young males. When it is deployed, it hits whoever is in the area. The elderly, young children, and pregnant women are just as likely targets for an uncontrollable chemical weapon. Due to the nature of laboratory studies, it is not ethical to test the effects of tear gas on humans or human pregnancy, yet governments have no qualms about actually using the substance on pregnant women. Articles have been published on the rise in miscarriages due to tear gas exposure (see “Relevant Articles” at http://www.banteargasnow.com), but many medical professionals are still citing the lack of “laboratory testing” to prove a link. We see tear gas’s brutal effects in the real world, but it doesn’t count because the dispenser of the tear gas wasn’t taking notes or wearing a lab coat.
This is my plea to you: write your local representatives, your federal government officials, and your police departments. Send them articles and information about the dangers of tear gas. (I will do my best to continue making material available through this website. If you have resources you would like to add, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.) Tell the “authorities” you will not stand for the deployment of chemical weapons on citizens.
In the meantime: When you protest, do so non-violently – for the safety of those who are not as strong, do not give the police justification for dispensing this “crowd control method”. If you are exposed, seek medical attention and help others do the same.
Do not just brush it off as a temporary nuisance. Tear gas is a Chemical Weapon. Any nation that uses chemical weapons on its own citizenry is not free, and any country that exports it for the abuse of other countries’ citizens is not just.