Is tear gas harmful to your health?

On November 19, presidential aspirant Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine was arrested for violating Covid-19 guidelines as issued by the Electoral Commission. Following the arrest, a number of his supporters poured onto the streets to protest his arrest.

 In the running battles that ensued with police, tear gas was used to disperse crowds.

Joyce Nakanwagi, a businesswoman from Nakawuka, had just arrived in the city centre. “On my way to downtown Owino Market to buy clothes to restock my shop, chaos ensued.

 I saw people running and as I tried to find out what was happening, police started firing tear gas. I was immediately affected by its sting and could not stop rubbing my eyes. However, the more I rubbed, the more they hurt. Thankfully, I boarded a taxi back to Nakawuka. I managed to get some water and after washing my face, I felt better.

Paul Muwonge, a steel fabricator in Namuwongo, was attending to a client when the chaos started. “Police officers started throwing tear gas canisters into a nearby building. My only refuge was either at the nearby petrol station or the client’s car.

 Because I have suffered from sinus complications since childhood, I opted for the car but it was too hot since the windows were raised,” he says.

After 45 minutes of braving the heat, Muwonge stepped out of the car, only to be affected by the lingering teargas smell.

 “I developed a terrible headache and suffered a sinusitis attack later in the day. Thankfully, with medication, I was able to recover and can now breathe normally again.”
Joseph Kisakye, a spare parts vendor in downtown Kampala was directly affected when tear gas canisters were thrown into the building where his business is located. 

“To make matters worse, the gates leading outside the building had been closed so we could not escape. The burning sensation on the skin and eyes was unbearable even after using water as we had been advised. 

After some time, I felt so thirsty and this triggered a terrible headache that only calmed after taking painkillers. I am now feeling better and hope to return to work soon,” she says.

Wilson Kato, a baker, was on his way to deliver a client’s cake. However, he somehow found himself in the middle of the riots with tear gas canisters flying everywhere. “My glasses fell and the gas entered my eyes. 

Suddenly, they were itchy and when I scratched them, they became very painful and my sight blurry. Today, while Kato still struggles with painful headaches and eyes, he is thankful to be alive. “I hope that with the eye drops and replacement of the spectacles, all will return to normal,” he says.

Leila Mbaziira was lucky to have her sister besides her when the chaos started. “After listening to an LCV candidate’s speech, we stayed in the playground where the rally had been held, chatting.

 Shortly, youth with red berets started chanting people power slogans. We did not read much into it and just kept talking,” Joweria Kyambadde, Mbaziira’s sister, shares. 

However, we were suddenly brought to attention by the tear gas canisters being thrown to quell what we learned had turned into a riot. “Leila complained that her head was throbbing, and she was starting to feel dizzy. I tried to help her walk away from the commotion but she fainted,” she shares. 
Mbaziira was rushed to a nearby clinic by well-wishers. Here, her vitals were taken.

 “The doctors told us that her blood pressure was too high, which also explained the headache. Several interventions helped to normalise the pressure and while she is still weak, I am glad that she is out of danger,” she adds.
Doctor say
Tear gas chemically contains one or a mixture of the three active ingredients; 2-Chloroacetophenone (CN), o-chlorobenzylidene malonitrile (CS) and oleoresin capsicum (OC). 

Dr Franklin Wasswa, a general practitioner, says CS was invented by the British hundreds of years ago. “Another crowd control chemical substance is pepper spray, which contains a bit of CN and majorly OC with natural or synthetic pepper, which is commonly found in can sprays.” In order of irritation, Dr Wasswa says, CN wins followed by CS and OC respectively. 

Effect on eyes
These start in under 40 seconds of exposure and include your eyelids blinking uncontrollably, photophobia, and conjunctivitis that stimulates tearing and puffiness around the eye. «If you have contact lenses, the effect will be worse, mostly with pepper spray (OC),” he says.
Dr Wasswa adds that many people get a strong headache, which is referred pain from irritating of the olfactory nerve (nose/smell nerve).

On the chest
Dr Wasswa says this is characterised by coughing, stinging or burning sensation in the nose, tight chest, sore throat and difficulty breathing. “If this is experienced by one with an allergic respiratory disease such as asthma, the effects may be fatal.

 This is because the gas can irritate their airways much more than normal, causing them to block leading to suffocation,” he says.

A study done by the US army in 2014 on its recruits pointed out that those who were exposed to CN gas have a higher risk of getting a respiratory illness such as flu. 
On the skin
Effects common with CN include irritation, fluid filled swellings and a burning sensation. “The only mitigation for this is to leave the area with teargas and decontaminating by washing off the substance. If it has entered the eyes, you have to literally flash water in the eyes for a long time to wash out any molecule of the substance. A few face washes will not do,” he advises.
Children and people with respiratory complications may be at a heightened risk of developing complications when exposed to tear gas. Children are the worst hit persons because they are closer to the ground where the gas starts. 

“Also, their lungs are much smaller that they get over saturated with the substances. They must be given first attention in case they are exposed to tear gas,” Dr Wasswa says.
He adds that, usually no physical injuries are caused by the gas.

 “It is usually from things such as fractures, or body injuries from a thrown can that hits someone, or people getting injured or killed during a stampede.”
Dr Wasswa says there is no antidote to these chemicals. “The only solution is evacuation from the exposed area, while treatment consists of decontamination and symptom-directed supportive care such as oxygen support and eye examination and care,”  he concludes.
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