MICHIGAN — Laurel Zwissler had never really experienced tear gas firsthand until she began working with political activists for 20 years.
“I was at a protest where we were exposed to tear gas over the course of about three days. And, when I caught up with some of my participants later, I happened to mention, ‘Oh, it’s weird; I’m having terrible periods and awful cramps,” Zwissler recalled during a Zoom interview on Wednesday. “And they just shook their heads like, ‘Yeah, no, it was tear gas, and we all have that right now.”
Zwissler said they were “bemused yet bummed” that she didn’t know about its effects. For them, it was common knowledge that women always talked about it. Since then, Zwissler has noticed over the years that there isn’t much research dedicated to how harmful tear gas is on women’s bodies or anyone’s.
“We have no idea what it does to women. We have no idea what it does to trans men,” said Zwissler, who also wrote the book Religious, Feminist, Activist. “Most worrying, given the last year in the ways that communities have come together to protest for Black Lives Matter, we have no idea what it does to children either. We know that across America so many children have been exposed this year.”
Zwissler said law enforcement tends to use tear gas because they see it as “less lethal” and as a better alternative to using live ammunition. However, when it’s deployed in neighborhoods, it seeps into people’s homes and can bother everyone inside, including pets.
According to the CDC, tear gas is known as a Riot Control Agent made up of chemical compounds that’s meant to irritate people's “eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.”
FOX 17 reporters and photographers who covered the civil unrest in Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020 felt its impact when GRPD used it. Their eyes and throats were burning for most of the night. The unrest was in response to the murder of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, that happened a few days prior.
“[Tear gas] was designed to cause pain and harm temporarily. So, by design, this is a painful and harmful thing that people are being exposed to. But, the idea is that it creates temporary harm instead of things that are more permanent,” Zwissler said. “And yet at the same time, we don’t actually have any scientific data on its long-term effects. We don’t have data on its effects on anyone other than healthy young men.”
Zwissler said there have been studies on how tear gas affects military recruits, examining how they respond to the burning sensation, their eyes tearing and how long it takes them to recover. However, there are none on women and children.
“I think there are a lot of reasons why people don’t want this documented because then it forces us as a society to stop being so optimistic about how short-term and not harmful tear gas must be,” Zwissler said. “If we can actually document that it’s deeply harmful, they can have lingering effects for people in communities, then it's much more difficult to argue that like, ‘Oh, it's no big deal. It’s just tear gas.’”
Tear gas has been banned from being used in wars due to the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Last year, cities like Philadelphia, PA, and Seattle, WA, also tried banning it.
Zwissler suggested that if anyone has felt the effects of teargas to please see a medical provider. She also recommended partaking in one of the studies so that more data is collected. She believes the more info is gathered, the more researchers can show how harmful tear gas is on everyone.
“The most important thing right now is just to help acknowledge that this is an issue that needs more attention and needs more resources directed towards it,” Zwissler said.