Foggy Over Tear Gas Safety

Rating: NNNNNcs, or chlorobenzylidene malonitrile, is billed by manufacturers and police alike as a "less lethal" crowd-control alternative. But more.


Rating: NNNNN


cs, or chlorobenzylidene malonitrile, is billed by manufacturers and police alike as a “less lethal” crowd-control alternative. But more than a month after the last tear gas canister hit the pavement, many exposed to the gas are reporting adverse health effects.

There’s good evidence that these are not merely psychological complaints. A growing body of info in the U.S. as well as a special report of the European Parliament says CS has caused heart failure, liver damage and death from exposure in close quarters. More recent findings also link exposure to abnormal chromosome growth.

NDP MP Joe Comartin, who was himself overcome by fumes in Quebec, has formally asked the feds to release “an exact chemical composition of all chemicals” used at the summit. The government’s response has been a stony silence.

So intense was the chemical fallout that residents of neighbourhoods around the Summit site reported finding a white residue on their lawn furniture. The Quebec City public health office issued a warning to residents to wear rubber gloves and protective eyewear when handling the residue. The department also warned residents to throw out exposed food, replace air conditioning filters and wash down the outside of their homes.

Jacques Perron, a spokesperson for Quebec City mayor Jean-Paul L’Allier, says some residents are considering pursuing legal action.

Some protestors are still experiencing respiratory problems four weeks later. Winnie Ng, a Canadian Labour Congress rep, is still coughing and wheezing. “I was in bed for days,” she says. Others NOW spoke to report suffering from flu-like symptoms and being disoriented for several days. Maggie MacDonald of Science for Peace says she’s received close to 100 e-mails from women reporting premature menstruation. What’s particularly unnerving for her is that premature menstruation is usually associated with exposure to organo-chlorides.

“There’s a whole debate about whether these chemicals are hormone disruptors,” MacDonald says. “There’s a very good chance that they are.”

A 1989 study printed in the Journal Of The American Medical Association pointed out that “absorbed CS is metabolized to cyanide (a known carcinogen) in peripheral tissues.”

One of the authors, Bailus Walker, a professor of environmental toxicology at Howard University, studied pulmonary distress when he visited hospitals in South Korea in 87 after tear gas was used by the government against citizens. “The worst I have seen is respiratory damage in children,” he says. “I’ve seen cases of chromosomal damage — the wrong dose can make it poison. CS can be very, very toxic.”

Indeed, the United Nations has documented dozens of deaths from exposure to CS in Northern Ireland and the West Bank. The European Parliament was worried enough about the potential effects of CS to recommend a ban on its use in 99.

“All chemical irritants used for riot control should be considered as toxic chemicals,” says the EU study.

Yet CS remains a favourite of law enforcers the world over. Madness, says Kirk Murphy, a Los Angeles-based clinician who was among a team of doctors to treat protestors at the WTO battle in Seattle in 1999. He co-authored a study to be released next month by the Los Angeles-based Physicians for Social Responsibility detailing the chronic health effects experienced by about 200 gas-exposed protestors.

Murphy says the neurological symptoms he documented — forgetfulness, dizziness and tremors — are more consistent with exposure to cholinesterase inhibitors, or nerve agents. He’s not suggesting that manufacturers are using nerve agents in their tear gas. But Murphy argues that too little is known about its synergistic effects to warrant any use of CS at all.

“There’s an enormous gap in the regulation of these agents, and as we saw in Seattle and in Quebec, they are often used in a manner in which thousands of people who are not part of the conflict are exposed involuntarily to very high doses.’

There are very few safeguards in Canada when it comes to the contents of tear gas canisters. Most bought by police forces in Canada are manufactured in the U.S. Their importation is covered under the prohibited weapons section of the Criminal Code.

But what’s actually in the canisters is regulated by the manufacturers themselves. There is no requirement for Health Canada, for example, to carry out spot checks of munitions at the border. “It stands to reason that there would be some kind of (check), but (there’s) none that I’m aware of,” says Health Canada rep Andrew Swift.

And in these matters, it turns out, citizens have no right to know.

Take the WTO battle in Seattle. There, methylene chloride, a solvent considered a possible carcinogen by both the U.S.-based National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, was present in tear gas used by police.

The Washington Toxics Coalition made the discovery after filing a Freedom of Information request. Methylene chloride has its own toxic properties, but it’s used in tear gas canisters as the propellent. Its presence in tear gas lobbed in Seattle heightened the adverse health effects experienced by protestors, says Linda Galke of the Washington Coalition. “Essentially, those exposed to tear gas were being damaged more by the methylene chloride than by the gas.”

Some of the symptoms listed by the National Library of Medicine for exposure to methylene chloride — lethargy, mental confusion, headache, tingling of the limbs — mirror those experienced by protestors in Quebec. It’s not known, however, if methylene chloride was in any of the canisters used in Quebec City.

The cops say they don’t know. “We don’t have that kind of technical information,” says RCMP spokesperson Julie Brongel. She says the police don’t concern themselves with safety issues when it comes to tear gas. “We only do testing in terms of how effective the gas is on people,” she says.

Armor Holdings, the parent of Federal Laboratories,the Pennsylvania-based outfit that supplied tear gas to police in Quebec, would not respond to NOW’s inquiries about what was in the CS canisters in Quebec. And they wouldn’t tell Brongel either. She’s just put down the phone after trying to get info from them for me. They’re not in the habit of releasing info on what’s in their CS, she reports, “because they don’t want to compromise or minimize its effectiveness.”

And what of the health concerns worrying Quebec City protestors? Brongel is unapologetic. “The protestors who decided to be close to the front lines are taking a chance,” she says, with no comment on the thousands gassed who were far from the fence or merely living nearby.

It may add to the unease of Quebec City protestors to learn that the company that supplied the methylene chloride-laced tear gas to the Seattle police, Defense Technology Corporation of Wyoming, recently joined forces with Federal Laboratories Inc.

In 92, Federal Laboratories, along with TransTechnology Corp., was the subject of a civil suit brought by the families of nine Palestinians killed by exposure to CS, according to a legal synopsis by the international office of the ACLU. At last report, an out-of-court settlement was being discussed.

enzom@nowtoronto.com

With research assistance by Greg Konstantinidis

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