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Tear Gas

(Riot Control Agents)
What is tear gas?
"Tear gas" is a term commonly used for a group of chemicals known as riot control agents. Riot control agents temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin. The term "tear gas" comes from the immediate flow of tears that typically follows exposure.

Over a dozen chemicals are considered to be riot control agents. The three most common are CN (sold as Mace), CS, and CR. [The full names for these chemicals are chloroacetophenone (CN), chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS), and dibenzoxazepine (CR).] Pepper spray is another example.

How is tear gas used?
Tear gas is used by law enforcement officials for crowd control and by individuals for personal protection (pepper spray and Mace, for example). Some types of tear gas have been used during war and in military settings to test the speed and ability of military personnel to use their gas masks. It is possible that terrorists could use tear gas as part of an attack.
How might people be exposed to tear gas?
Riot control agents can be liquids or solids (a powder is a solid, for example). Tear gas could be released in the air as a mist of fine droplets or particles. If tear gas was released into the air, people could be exposed through skin contact, eye contact, or breathing it in.
How does tear gas hurt people?
Tear gas causes burning and irritation to the area of contact within seconds of exposure. The extent of harm caused by tear gas depends on the amount a person is exposed to, how the person was exposed (skin contact, eye contact, or breathing), and the length of time of the exposure.

The effects of exposure to tear gas are usually short-lived (30-60 minutes) after the person has been removed from the source and cleaned off (decontaminated).

What are the immediate signs and symptoms of tear gas exposure?
People exposed to tear gas may experience some or all of the following symptoms immediately after exposure:
  • Eyes: excessive tearing, burning, blurred vision, redness
  • Nose: runny nose, burning, swelling
  • Mouth: burning, irritation, difficulty swallowing, drooling
  • Lungs: chest tightness, coughing, choking sensation, wheezing, shortness of breath
  • Skin: burns, rash
  • Other: nausea, vomiting

Showing these signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to tear gas. Other conditions can cause similar symptoms.

Long-lasting exposure (over an hour) or exposure to a large dose of tear gas, especially in an enclosed setting, may cause severe effects such as:

  • Blindness
  • Glaucoma (a serious eye condition that can lead to blindness)
  • Death due to serious chemical burns to the throat and lungs
  • Respiratory (breathing) failure possibly resulting in death

The deadly effects of tear gas would only occur following exposure to a dosage several hundred times greater than the amount of tear gas typically used by law enforcement officials for crowd control.

Are there any long-term health effects of tear gas exposure?
The effects of tear gas are usually only temporary. Symptoms typically go away within an hour after exposure stops. Effects on skin may take longer to improve.

Prolonged exposure to tear gas or exposure to a particularly large amount, especially in an enclosed area, may lead to long-term eye problems (scarring, glaucoma, or cataracts) and may possibly cause breathing problems such as asthma.

What should I do if I'm exposed to tear gas?
The most likely route of exposure to tear gas is by breathing it in. The first thing to do is to quickly leave the area where the tear gas was released and get to fresh air. Simply moving to an area where fresh air is available is a highly effective way to protect yourself. If the release of tear gas is indoors, get out of the building. If the tear gas is released outdoors, move away from the release area. Keep in mind that tear gas will form a heavy vapor cloud that will settle close to the ground.

If you think the chemical has come in contact with your skin and clothing, you should remove your clothing as soon as possible and wash your entire body with soap and water. If possible, clothing that has to be pulled over the head should be cut off the body instead of pulled over the head. If you are helping other people remove their clothing, try to avoid touching any contaminated areas. (When washing your clothes later, wash them separately from the rest of your laundry.)

If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse your eyes with plain water for 10-15 minutes. If you wear contacts, remove them; do not put the contacts back in your eyes. If you wear eyeglasses, wash them with soap and water; you can put your eyeglasses back on after you wash them. If you are wearing jewelry, wash it with soap and water; you can put washed jewelry back on. If jewelry cannot be washed, it should be removed.

How is exposure to tear gas treated?
Eye symptoms are treated by rinsing the eyes with water until the stinging starts to go away. Treatment for breathing difficulties involves helping the affected person get more oxygen in his or her blood. Medications that are used to treat asthma (such as bronchodilators and steroids) may be used to help the person breathe. Burn injuries to the skin are treated with standard burn management techniques, such as medicated bandages.
Are there any special risks to children or the elderly?
Children and seniors exposed to tear gas are likely to experience the same harmful effects as those experienced by exposed adults. Both groups are generally more vulnerable than adults to the effects of any harmful chemical, so it may take longer for symptoms to clear up.
What are the effects of tear gas on pets?
Animals generally have lower sensitivity to tear gases (except in the case of pepper spray) than humans. Dogs and horses can therefore be used by law enforcement for riot control even when tear gas is used.

Last Updated: January 15, 2013