Tradecraft: Dealing with Tear Gas

Washington, DC With protests and riots occurring daily and law enforcement commonly using chemical weapons against protesters, activists might want to take the time to better prepare themselves for the almost inevitable tear gas attack.

What is “tear gas?”

The term “tear gas” is applied to several different chemical weapons, and each weapon is slightly different in use, effect, and treatment. In the United States you are most likely to come across one of the following:

OC (oleoresin capsicum): This is a liquid until it is rendered aerosol. This is commonly known as pepper spray. The main danger is posed to those with asthma or those being restrained by police. One time exposure, though painful, is typically harmless and produces no lasting effects. Repeated exposure can damage the eyes.

CS (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile): Until it’s rendered aerosol, it’s a powdery solid. This is probably the most common. It is a persistent chemical agent, meaning that it will stick to your clothes and can cause distress to those around you hours later. It has a low toxicity, the odds of dying from brief exposure to the chemical is slim to none. Prolonged exposure can cause heart and liver damage and possibly be fatal. One study has link the chemical to miscarriages.

CN (Phenacyl chloride): This is the active ingredient in “Mace” brand defense spray. It can cause permanent damage to the eyes. It is persistent. In addition to the normal coughing and mucus buildup, CN will often cause the victim to become dizzy. This is also rarely used and is being phased out in favor of CS and OC.

CR (dibenzoxazepine): Until it’s rendered aerosol, it’s a crystalline solid.This is rarely used in the United States, however activists might still run across it in other parts of the world. It was very common in the United Kingdom at one point. This one can cause temporary blindness and is lethal in just a few large breaths in unventilated areas. It typically smells like pepper.

All four of the above chemical agents have been banned for use in war, but cops can indiscriminately fire them into civilian crowds.

Gas Masks:

Your best protection against any of these agents is a gas mask. A military gas mask is basically an airtight rubber hood with a filter. However, before you run out to the local surplus store and pick one up there are some things you should know:

"Tear gas grenade returned to soldiers using sling" by Yaron Ben-haim

“Tear gas grenade returned to soldiers using sling” by Yaron Ben-haim

Your gas mask is only as good as your filter, and while activated charcoal has an almost indefinite shelf life, filters made prior to 1991 may contain asbestos. That will make the gas mask more dangerous than any agent security services may spray at you. They may also contain chromium, another dangerous substance. An old mask may suit your purposes, but order new post-1991 filters.

Your filter is only good for so long. Most filters will last about eight hours providing peak protection, after that they start to degrade. In testing, militaries focused on deadly agents and most didn’t publish tests on the length of time a filter will remain effective against tear gas. Theoretically, the activated charcoal will work for an extremely long time. However, it’s probably better to spend the $40 on a new filter.

Adjust your mask’s straps properly and understand that it is for your use only. A mask properly adjusted to fit you will not effectively fit your friend in most cases. If you encounter someone who has succumbed to the weapons, it is probably better to carry them to high ground (chemical agents sink close to the ground) than to attempt to share your mask with them. Remember the first rule of combat rescue: do not create another casualty.

For those with beards, it is important to remember the effectiveness of your mask is based on its ability to maintain an airtight seal. Your beard inhibits this. The only workaround I have found is to place globs of Vaseline around the edge of the mask. It’s gross, but it works.

A commercial respirator can be used in lieu of a military gas mask if you also wear air tight goggles. A respirator without goggles is worthless. The agents above can penetrate the membranes of your eyes and begin to cause symptoms. Swimming goggles are goofy looking, but they work.

“Escape hoods” designed for fleeing a burning building can provide protection from chemical weapons used by law enforcement in most countries. They have a very limited time frame in which they are effective, but 60 minutes is better than nothing.

Most homemade masks provide limited, if any, protection.

What to do and not do if exposed without a mask:

Do cover your face with the inside of your coat or shirt. The outside of your clothing, including your sleeve is probably already contaminated. Remember these chemicals are not actually gases, and will stick to you.

Do cover your face with a bandanna or handkerchief that was inside a pocket when the attack came.

Do not crouch. These chemicals are heavier than air and are thicker the lower you get. If rubber bullets are also being fired, I would personally crouch and take my chances with the gas.

Do wash your hands or other exposed skin with soapy cold water. Then wash your skin with soapy warm water. While experts disagree on the effectiveness of Maalox or milk, anecdotal evidence (including my own with Maalox) suggests that it does seem to lessen the effects on the face. A rinse with one of the home remedies probably wouldn’t hurt prior to using soap and water.

Do remember that your equipment and clothing was exposed. For example, pressing your eye to a camera hours later can cause irritation to reoccur. Wash your equipment or allow the wind to carry the gas away. The chemicals can remain in clothing for months.

This article was originally publish by Justin King on The Anti-Media (An outlet you should probably be reading).