The Washington Post

Tear gas is a chemical weapon banned in war. But Ferguson police shoot it at protesters.

The first thing you hear is the bang. Then the clatter of something metallic hitting and rolling across the pavement. Then, out of the black of night, come the screams.

The location, according to video, is a darkened street somewhere in Ferguson, Mo. And the cops, marching inexorably down the street and flanked by bright lights and squad cars, just fired several rounds of tear gas.

“They bombing on us now,” a local musician named Haiku says as he videotapes another batch of gas. “They bombing on us now. And they got us blocked in from the other side. Are they shooting?”

“It’s tear gas!” another man answers.

“Keep moving!” Haiku yells. “Keep coming back this way!”

His fear of tear gas is appropriate. Despite its ubiquity across the globe and in United States, tear gas is a chemical agent banned in warfare per the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which set forth agreements signed by nearly every nation in the world — including the United States. The catch, however, is that while it’s illegal in war, it’s legal in domestic riot control. That means Turkey got to use it on its protesters last year. That meant Bahrain got to the do the same. And now, in Ferguson, cops are likewise blasting residents protesting the police for the killing of an unarmed teen named Michael Brown.

“I was just trying to get to my sister’s house,” one 23-year-old sobbed on his lawn, according to this harrowing report by The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, who was arrested by police Wednesday. The man said police had pelted him with rubber bullets and sprayed his face with tear gas.

Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson has defended the use of tear gas. “There are complaints about the response from some people,” he said, “but to me, nobody got hurt seriously, and I’m happy about that.”

While that appears to have held true as of Thursday morning, some scientists and international observers contend the tactic of spraying people with tear gas, which commonly uses the chemical agent 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (CS), can pose serious dangers. “Tear gas under the Geneva Convention is characterized as a chemical warfare agent, and so it is precluded for use in warfare, but it is used very frequently against civilians,” Sven-Eric Jordt, a nerve gas expert at Yale University School of Medicine, explained to National Geographic. “That’s very illogical.”

TOPSHOTS A protester reacts during clashes with police in Kadikoy, Anatolian side of Istanbul, on March 11, 2014. Turkish riot police fired tear gas on March 11 at protesters massed outside a hospital after the death of a teenage boy wounded during anti-government protests last year and left comatose. Berkin Elvan, 15, who has been in a coma since June 2013 after being struck in the head by a gas canister during a police crackdown on protesters, died on March 11, his family announced via Twitter. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images A protester reacts during clashes with police in Kadikoy, Anatolian side of Istanbul, on March 11, 2014. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Technically not a gas, Jordt said, tear gas is an aerosol. “Tear gases are nerve gases that specifically activate pain-sensing nerves,” Jordt told National Geographic. And when used properly, in lower doses and deployed in open spaces, its effects are more or less harmless. Those affected sneeze and cough and panic — and may even temporarily go blind — but those symptoms subside after several hours. A 2003 study found there “is no evidence that a healthy individual will experience long-term health effects from open-air exposures to CS or CR, although contamination with CR is less easy to remove.”

But sometimes things don’t go as planned. “The use of tear gas in … situations of civil unrest, however, demonstrates that exposure to the weapon is difficult to control and indiscriminate, and the weapon is often not used correctly,” wrote Howard Hu in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1989. “Severe traumatic injury from exploding tear gas bombs as well as lethal toxic injury have been documented.” Hu found that if exposed to “high levels of CS,” some victims experienced heart failure or even death. “An infant exposed to CS in a house into which police had fired CS canisters to subdue a mentally disturbed adult developed severe pneumonitis requiring therapy with steroids, oxygen, antibiotics, and 29 days of hospitalization.”

The Mount Carmel compound where armed Branch Davidian cultists had been surrounded by federal agents near Waco for 51 days is engulfed by flames April 19, 1993. The fire started shortly after noon on Monday. Agents earlier had pumped tear gas into the compound in efforts to end the standoff. REUTERS/Reed Schumann BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE - RTR2011H The Mount Carmel compound where armed Branch Davidian cultists had been surrounded by federal agents near Waco for 51 days is engulfed by flames April 19, 1993. (Reed Schumann/Reuters)

The levels of toxicity of the gas that most police departments deploy in the United States is lower than what’s found in places like the Middle East, according to Yale researcher Jordt, though some domestic uses have stirred controversy. On April 19, 1993, the FBI sprayed tear gas into a large compound in Waco, Tex., that housed a religious sect called the Branch Davidians. A fire eventually consumed the center and more than 75 people, including 28 children, died. Investigators wrote in a subsequent report that if the victims hadn’t been able to leave the compound, “there is a distinct possibility that this kind of CS exposure can significantly contribute to or even cause lethal effects.”

An Israeli border policeman fires tear gas at Palestinian protesters during a demonstration against the expansion of the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

More recently, in 2011, a Palestinian man named Mustafa Tamimi was killed when a tear gas canister hit him in the head at close range, according to Amnesty International. Later that year, another Palestinian died of inhaling tear gas. Earlier this year, in April, one Palestinian woman died of tear gas inhalation, Agence France-Presse reported.

In Egypt, policemen shot tear gas into the back of a vehicle carrying supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi to prison, asphyxiating and killing 37 inside. “Of all the ways to die,” Foreign Policy reported, “this was one of the most horrible.” The men’s lawyer would later say that the men’s faces were so distorted and blue that most thought they had been burned.

An Egyptian protester throws a tear gas canister back at riot police, not seen, during clashes near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. Clashes continued for the fourth successive day between protesters and police near Cairo’s central Tahrir square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising. Police used tear gas, while the protesters pelted them with rocks. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Burning is a common feeling when tear gas hits. It’s a refrain victims return to from Egypt to Gaza, from Istanbul to Ferguson.

That, and the suddenness of it. How quickly the gas chokes.

“These m———— came out of the cut and sprayed me in the face like this is a f—— video game or something,” one Ferguson man told The Post. His friends pleaded with him to get medical help. “I don’t need a hospital,” the man yelled. “This is my home.”

The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery and social media users captured video of protests and clashes with police in Ferguson, Mo., on Tuesday. It was the third day of rallies for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen fatally shot by a police officer on Saturday. (Sarah Parnass and Wesley Lowery/The Washington Post)
Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Be a man and cry
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
A flood of refugees from Syria but only a trickle to America
Chicago's tacos, four ways
Play Videos
What you need to know about filming the police
What you need to know about trans fats
Syrian refugee: 'I’m committed to the power of music'
Play Videos
Riding the X2 with D.C.'s most famous rapper
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
Europe's migrant crisis, explained
Next Story
Gail Sullivan · August 14, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.