The Unknown Environmental Legacy of Tear Gas

Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe/Flickr

 

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

We don’t fully understand how tear gas impacts the natural environment. That includes the waterways and winds of people’s communities.

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

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On Wednesday, hearts broke across the U.S. No one would be arresting the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, a beloved Black medical worker. Three Louisville police officers conducted a midnight raid on her apartment in March, shooting and killing her. A grand jury in Kentucky announced a ruling on that recklessness Wednesday. However, former officer Brett Hankison was found guilty of three counts of wanton endangerment—a felony equivalent to growing cannabis—not for the bullets that killed 26-year-old Taylor but for the bullets that missed.

 

These charges have left the public, to put it mildly, fucking pissed. Pissed doesn’t even begin to describe the pain Black Americans are feeling. Once the jury’s verdict was out, the streets flooded with protest. Everywhere. In Louisville, where two officers were shot. In New York City. In Los Angeles. In Atlanta. There, police responded with tear gas, a group of chemical compounds that’s become a pervasive tactic in the months since George Floyd’s killing in March. As advocates for Black lives have taken to the streets—often peacefully—police officers, state troopers, and federal agents have responded with tear gas, which is banned in war. In cities such as Portland, law enforcement have resorted to tear gas the way a toddler resorts to crying.

 

The health concerns of immediate exposure are clear: Your eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin can burn. You may vomit or become nauseous. This is all according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal government is aware of the negative health impacts of these chemicals yet continues to allow its use. With COVID-19 and its impact on those with compromised respiratory systems, public health officials have raised concerns around the use of tear gas during a pandemic.

 

What is not entirely clear, however, is how these chemical agents—which include chloroacetophenone and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile—affect our environment. How do they affect the trees and parks? How long do they linger in the air or soil? How will this exposure impact communities of color in the long-term? These are all questions that four Oregon congress members asked back in August in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They have yet to receive an answer, but the Portland Department of Environmental Quality has already found elevated levels of contaminants in stormwater and sediment samples taken in August that may indicate residuals of these chemical agents.

 

To learn more about these efforts and the environmental health concerns of these weapons, I got on the phone last week with Sen. Jeff Merkley, a junior senator in Oregon who co-signed that letter to the EPA. He had plenty to say on tear gas after we chatted briefly about the wildfire emergency his state has been facing.

 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

YESSENIA FUNES

I know that Oregon is dealing with quite a lot right now, so I really appreciate you making the time to speak with me on this important topic. How are you all doing? Staying safe?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY

Well, Oregon is such a complete disaster. Over the weekend, I drove 650 miles and never got out of the smoke. It’s really something you would never quite envision being possible, to see entire cities leveled.

YESSENIA

Yeah. The imagery coming out of Oregon is heartbreaking to say the least. I can’t imagine being on the ground and witnessing it firsthand. I’m sorry to hear what’s happening over there.

SEN. MERKLEY

We’ve all been very aware the fire season is getting longer and fires have been getting fiercer and larger, and it’s very much part of the many climate effects that Oregon is feeling. I was sorry to hear that the president went to California and just pled complete ignorance that possibly there could be anything other than forest management affecting the fires.

YESSENIA

Right. Within the realm of expectation for the president, unfortunately.

 

Well, Senator, I appreciate you talking with me about the tear gas issue, an important environmental issue and health issue that I know you, in particular, have been vocal about. So, firstly, Senator, what drove you and your colleagues to write that letter to the EPA in August?

SEN. MERKLEY

Well, the federal forces came into Portland at President Trump’s request and started a routine of attacking a largely peaceful crowd every night and doing so with military-grade tear gas. That repeated use of tear gas, which was also abused by the Portland police, resulted in many people having a lot of effects, as you can imagine. Some of those effects were the irritation of their lungs, damage to their lungs. It causes people to cough, which creates more expulsion of coronavirus. It irritates the lungs, which makes them more susceptible to getting coronavirus. The experts were telling us people will get sicker when their lungs have been compromised.

 

But this repeated use was also raising issues about the impact on the environment. This gas washing into the river, is it having some other effects that we don’t know? Does it stay as a residue when boiled? Does it have an impact in that fashion? So there were health concerns, and there were environmental concerns. We don’t have answers. We don’t know, so this letter to the EPA was specifically about the environmental side.

 

Can we get support from the EPA to test the soil and vegetation, the groundwater, the air to see how much residual presence there is of these chemicals? What do we know about the immediate and long-term effects on natural spaces, parks, trees, rivers, so on, and so forth? Does EPA plan to study environmental and human health impacts on stressed communities? Communities of color—BIPOC communities, if you will—Black, Indigenous, people of color? These are the types of questions we were hearing from our constituents. We don’t know the answers to them, and we wanted to work with our government on a study to provide some answers.

The gas didn’t just affect the protesters. The wind blew it into surrounding communities that also were affected.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY

YESSENIA

Has the environmental and health threat decreased since writing that letter? I’m curious if you’d say whether the threat remains to the environment and human health since that letter went out.

SEN. MERKLEY

We remain quite concerned given the multiple exposures that have occurred over the last few months and potentially the months to come. The gas didn’t just affect the protesters. The wind blew it into surrounding communities that also were affected. You need to recognize the very large quantity of gas used day after day after day.

YESSENIA

Why aren’t we studying this gas more closely? Do you have any indication of why these questions haven’t already been answered given how long these chemicals have been around?

SEN. MERKLEY

I suspect that there have been studies, but perhaps those studies exist in the archives somewhere. What we’re saying is come through and tell us what we know. If we’re using it without knowing the impact, that would be outrageous as well. We know the impact is bad in different ways. It should be part of the discussion over the use of this gas.

 

Given this direct impact on people during this pandemic and potential impact on the environment, there’s a lot of reasons to think twice, but let’s put science to work. What do we actually know? And if there hasn’t been much work on it, well, that work needs to happen now. It’s important to remember that tear gas is a form of chemical warfare. Those chemicals are going to have an impact, so let’s understand it well before its use continues anywhere.

YESSENIA

One last question that’s important. Sen. Merkley, where do we go from here? The country at large is in this state of chaos, right? With protests continuing, police continue to respond pretty violently across the U.S. by using this gas. What happens now?

SEN. MERKLEY

These conflicts in the street largely come from the divisive strategy of President Trump working to pit one group of Americans against other groups of Americans. We need to return to the understanding that peaceful public protest is part of that civil dialogue and that it’s unacceptable to essentially encourage division and racial hatred—racism, if you will, bigotry—that drives conflict.

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