Across the United States, as marches over police brutality and the murder of George Floyd have grown in size, protesters have encountered volleys of tear gas. It’s clear that all protests—peaceful and less so—might be met with chemical weapons. On Monday evening, after President Trump threatened to deploy the military against civilians—but even before Washington, D.C.'s, curfew—the police fired tear gas at the assembled crowd so Trump could walk to a nearby church for a photo-op. At this point, any protester should be prepared for at least the possibility of encountering tear gas.
Tear gas is part of a broad category of nonlethal weapons (more accurately called less lethal, since they can kill people), alongside rubber bullets and flash grenades. It's a toxic mix of chemicals engineered to blind you, choke you, and make you panic. Tear gas is especially dangerous for people with pre-existing cardiopulmonary illnesses, particularly asthma. And given the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, a chemical agent that causes large swaths of people to cough and want to rub their eyes presents other obvious risks.
If you are exposed to tear gas, there's no mixture of ingredients that can immediately relieve your symptoms. Which doesn't mean people haven't tried to find an elixir. Google "how to neutralize tear gas" and you'll find all sorts of methods that people swear worked for them, including milk and diluted baking soda. Actress Laura Dreyfuss recently tweeted that the lubricant from a condom actually does the trick.
According to Jason Odhner, a registered nurse in the Phoenix area who's been training volunteers to provide first aid at protests for more than a decade, such an antidote doesn't exist, and it never has. "Every time there's a wave of civil unrest, there's a new declaration that there's a new magical cure," he says. The best methods to prepare to be subjected to tear gas, or to help yourself or others after exposure, are actually fairly straightforward. (First and foremost, don’t wear contacts to a protest.)
These lessons are learned the hard way, because the government has, historically speaking, not been too keen on allowing people to study how to better resist tear gas. Those who can offer some of the best advice are trained medics who have also spent time in the thick of protests. Below, two of those nurses, Odhner and Saba M., who asked not to be identified by her full name, discuss what you can do to avoid the worst of a tear gas exposure—and how you can assist other protesters who have been subjected to it.
It's banned in war, but legal here.
Tear gas is sometimes used interchangeably with the term pepper spray, but they aren't the same thing; pepper spray was created in the 1970s and became popular with police in the '80s. It's an aerosol that contains capsaicin, found in chili peppers, and is more commonly used as a foamy spray at closer distances.
For simplicity's sake, the tear gas we’re talking about here are the grenades that spread a fog of irritating man-made chemicals that cause a painful reaction in the eyes, nose, mouth, and skin. The compounds in the tear gas have changed over the years, with some more toxic than others, but soldiers and civilians alike have been subjected to it for more than 100 years.
These days it’s almost always civilians. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned tear gas as a weapon of war, which nearly every country in the world subsequently claimed to respect and uphold. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, ratified by all but four UN member states, required nations to renew that promise with an enormous caveat: Tear gas could be used by police states as a nonlethal method of quelling "rioters." Police departments around the United States possess huge quantities of this stuff, and they toss it around liberally, as anyone following the news for the past few days has seen.
Wear goggles and sunscreen, not contacts.
Saba and Odhner agree on a few key items. A big one? Do not wear contacts to a protest. "Your eyes will reflexively shut as a reaction to the pain, and it'll be very hard to get the contacts out," Odhner says. As you're doing that, you'll have tear gas on your hands too.
To avoid taking the brunt of a chemical attack, wear goggles—even swimming goggles—no matter how dorky they look. They can make a huge difference. Tear gas burns the skin, so the more skin you can cover up, the better. Odhner recommends wearing a long-sleeve shirt you don't care about, one you're prepared to toss if it ends up in the path of tear gas. Tear gas also hits harder when you're sunburned, so wear sunscreen too (non-oil-based options are best). "There's nothing worse than tear gas on a sunburn, which I can certify from experience," he says. Pack tissues and, if you're asthmatic, bring your inhaler.
Finally, it’s good to have at least a few water bottles or saline solution, in case you need to flush your eyes or another person’s eyes. The goal is a gentle, constant stream of water, which is hard to achieve with a bottle that has a large opening—dedicated eye-flush bottles are available, but a sports bottle also works well, as does a water bottle with a small hole poked into the top.
Don't bother with milk.
There's little evidence proving that any substances beyond water and sterile saline can alleviate the body's response to tear gas. One study disproved baby shampoo's effectiveness. People have long assumed milk is useful, and Odhner says it's relatively harmless, but not any better than water. He says 10 years ago, protesters thought apple cider vinegar would protect them, but "the people we treated didn't seem subjectively any better off than those who didn't use apple cider vinegar." Occupy Wall Street protesters swore by antacids.
The ingredient of the moment is baking soda, a diluted version of which was used frequently during the Hong Kong protests of 2019. The thinking is that tear gas is acidic and baking soda is a base, so they offset. But Odhner cautions that's an oversimplification. "The ways tear gas causes irritation are not related to pH," he says. He feels strongly that you should avoid using baking soda, which could actually be harmful to your eyes, and that baking soda will fall out of favor just like apple cider vinegar did.
"I'm not here to criticize people who are out there helping in the field," he adds. "The reality is that people are feeling a sense of urgency to get good information as quickly as possible. There are a lot of things being said right now that are probably harmless but not evidence-based."
Approach with caution.
These methods may be risky and uncertain, but videos have circulated that show protesters extinguishing tear gas grenades before they're able to do more damage. In Hong Kong, a demonstrator used a leaf blower to divert tear gas.
Protesters successfully disabled a canister with a traffic cone.
They also used welding gloves to grab the grenades and neutralize them in sealed canisters.
But Odhner says that just like the cures people have been chasing, there's no perfect solution to deactivating tear gas grenades. The issue isn't so much that it's impossible to deal with a single grenade, as the videos show. (A simple bucket of water is almost certainly enough to neutralize one.) The problems are logistical: These videos show a single grenade being handled by swarms of people, but you're more likely to encounter many grenades at once. And anything that brings you closer is inherently risky. Odhner says simply kicking it away is a better idea.
One important thing: If you're at a protest without welding gloves, never, ever pick up a tear gas grenade. It's extremely hot and will burn you.
Flush your eyes and find somewhere to wash off.
There’s no way to simply neutralize the effects of tear gas, especially if you yourself are exposed to it. But you can give medical attention to another protester who’s been exposed.
Move them to a safe area. "You don't want to be down on the ground clearing out someone's eyes when they might get stepped on by the cops or the crowd," Odhner says.
Flush their eyes. Pull out your water bottle or saline solution, then tilt their head back and gently spray water or sterile saline away from the tear duct toward the side of the face. "You have tear ducts in the corner of your eyes, and your eyes are designed to flush from the tear ducts outwards," he says. "You don't want to be blasting chemicals into the tear ducts."
Repeat on the other side of the face.
Help them clean up with tissues. "They're going to have shit up their nose—more snot than you think possible," says Odhner. Then spray water in their mouth and have them spit it out.
Anyone exposed to tear gas will need to eventually thoroughly wash it off. But the eyes, nose, and mouth are the only parts of the body worth addressing in the moment. "It's very difficult to remove in the field," Odhner says. It's greasy and tenacious. At home, when you're safe, use a strong dish soap on all affected areas of the body. It'll hurt like hell, but you can get rid of it.
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Originally Appeared on GQ