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CDC says tear gassing protesters can spread coronavirus

Published Jun 5th, 2020 12:11PM EDT
Tear Gas Used on Protesters
Image: Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock

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  • Tear gas used on protesters might be a risk factor for the spread of the novel coronavirus, the CDC director warns.
  • Riot control agents like the ones used against protestors in various US cities can lead to coughing, which can spread pathogens like the coronavirus.
  • The chemical compounds used for tear gas can have adverse effects on the eyes, nose, skin, and lungs, regardless of whether there’s a viral pandemic to worry about.

Protesters marching against police brutality and racism have been met with an increasingly disproportionate response, and a quick look at social media is enough to give you a taste of everything wrong with the police response. This includes the widespread use of tear gas against crowds, which can be harmful on its own without a pandemic to worry about. But 2020 is the year of the coronavirus, a pathogen that spreads with ease. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a warning that tear gas can increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. That’s on top of the already increased risk of spreading COVID-19 that protesters and police already face.

A single coronavirus patient infected 52 others out of a group of 61 people during a choir practice that lasted less than 3 hours. A person who didn’t know he or she carried the virus spread it to three families seated several feet apart inside a restaurant. These are just a few of the examples that show gatherings of people are a considerable risk factor for spreading the coronavirus. Researchers have proven that just speaking is enough to spread the virus, especially in air-conditioned spaces. Coughing and sneezing can further increase the risk of transmission, and that’s why the use of face masks is advised during the pandemic.

The protesters and the police are all at risk of getting COVID-19. Some people are using masks at protests, and the police certainly make use of heavy protective equipment. But once the violence and gassing start, you can forget about social distancing, and masks might do little to protect against the transmission of the virus.

CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said during a House Appropriations hearing on Thursday that anyone who participated in these protests should “highly consider” getting tested.

“I do think there is a potential, unfortunately, for this to be a seeding event,” he said, adding that the risk of transmission is higher in the cities where there’s been significant transmission. He also said that people who attended the protests should consider getting tested within three to seven days, CNN reports.

Redfield also addressed the use of tear gas and pointed out it’s a risk factor. “Definitely, coughing can spread respiratory viruses, including Covid-19,” the director said in an exchange with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI). When questioned whether he advised Trump or law enforcement to discontinue the use of tear gas, he said “he’d pass this comment to the next Task Force meeting.

The Trump administration said that law enforcement did not use tear gas on protesters, including the events outside the White House.

“The Park Police said clearly that neither they, nor their law enforcement partners, used tear gas,” Trump campaign’s communications director Tim Murtaugh told Business Insider. “Pepper pellets and smoke are not tear gas. They acted in response to rising violence and protesters reaching for officers’ weapons.”

Whatever compounds the police use that involve the inhalation of smoke would still cause panic and plenty of coughing, which could increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The CDC does say that chloroacetophenone (CN), the compound used in pepper balls, qualifies as riot control agents that “make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.” The CDC also notes that riot control agents are “sometimes referred to as ‘tear gas.'” Whether you call it tear gas or not, the chemicals produce the same effect, and they can be an infection risk factor in present circumstances.

Even without the risk of spreading coronavirus, riot control agents can have plenty of unwanted side effects. Per the CDC, “prolonged exposure, especially in an enclosed area, may lead to long-term effects such as eye problems including scarring, glaucoma, and cataracts, and may possibly cause breathing problems such as asthma.”

The CDC also advises that people should remove all clothing and “rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible” after exposure to riot control agents. That’s obviously not possible during demonstrations, but it would include a face mask. But protestors might have a hard time keeping face masks on while they’re inhaling tear gas and trying to move away from it, and they can experience severe bouts of coughing.

The same goes for eyeglasses, which are also advised to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The CDC also recommends “rinsing the eyes with water until there is no evidence of riot control agents in the eyes.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.