Los Angeles Times

Senators decry lack of safety regulation­s for tear gas

Federal watchdog has no answers on health effects of chemicals deployed at protests.

- By Andrew Selsky Selsky writes for the Associated Press.

SALEM, Ore. — In 2020, Black Lives Matter protesters were doused with tear gas, making them gasp for breath, their eyes feeling as if they were on fire. Bystanders, including children and pregnant women, were also exposed.

As police responded to mass protests two years ago across the nation with what’s known as “lesslethal” force, more than a dozen U.S. senators asked the congressio­nal watchdog to find out whether federal agencies have assessed the safety of chemical munitions.

But the report by the Government Accountabi­lity Office skipped that question, dedicating only three paragraphs to the effects of “chemical irritants” and flash-bangs. Both U.S. senators from Oregon — where the Trump administra­tion deployed militarize­d federal agents — believe the report leaves too many questions unanswered and are calling for regulation of the tear gas industry.

The Government Accountabi­lity Office report noted that there were incidents in which less-lethal force may have been used by federal agents in violation of policy but provided no details.

“This report is completely inadequate,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), said through spokeswoma­n Molly Prescott. “Congress and the American people deserve to know the details to better understand the significan­t issues and damage done by inappropri­ate use of less-lethal force.”

Portland, Oregon’s largest city, was a hotbed of protests, with months of nightly, often violent demonstrat­ions and vandalism after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapoli­s. Portland police used tear gas and pepper balls against protesters, and the Trump administra­tion sent militarize­d federal agents to the city starting in July 2020.

At least 1,315 federal officers were deployed to the state, according to a redacted document obtained by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) from the Department of Homeland Security. They used more than a dozen types of crowd-control devices, including canisters loaded with tear gas or an oily extract of pepper plants, 40-millimeter “direct impact rounds” loaded with tear gas or pepper compounds, smoke grenades and foggers that emit chemical irritants, the document showed.

Law enforcemen­t officials say tear gas, if used properly, is an effective tool for crowd control. On Sunday, police in Akron, Ohio, used tear gas against people protesting the shooting of Jayland Walker, a Black man who was killed by police June 27 in a hail of gunfire.

Wyden isn’t satisfied with the Government Accountabi­lity Office report and will keep pressing for answers, spokesman Hank Stern said.

Gretta Goodwin, a director of the office and lead author of the report, said the watchdog was unable to answer the senators’ question as to whether federal agencies have assessed the safety and effectiven­ess of tear gas and other chemical munitions, or their effects on underlying health conditions.

“We start out by looking to see what informatio­n is out there,” Goodwin said over the phone. “We weren’t really able to find anything.”

Instead of government oversight, the multibilli­ondollar industry regulates itself, a situation Wyden believes must be remedied.

“He will push ... for the appropriat­e federal agencies to oversee the manufactur­e of tear gas in our country, as well as to undertake an urgently needed nonindustr­y and neutral study into the impact of these weapons on human health and the environmen­t,” Stern said.

The Associated Press previously found that few studies exist on the health effects of tear gas; many are outdated and focus on military personnel, who tend to be healthier and in better physical condition than the general public.

The Government Accountabi­lity Office found that three federal agencies — the Marshals Service, Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t and the Secret Service — don’t document when officers violate policies while using these weapons.

“That needs to be known. That needs to be more transparen­t,” Goodwin said.

Among controvers­ial tactics and actions taken by law enforcemen­t during Black Lives Matter protests were “kettling,” in which police seal off escape routes while blanketing people in tear gas and firing pepper balls, and firing projectile­s at people point-blank. Donavan LaBella suffered severe injuries while peacefully protesting in Portland when he was hit in the face by a projectile fired by a federal officer.

Samira Green found herself enveloped by tear gas fired by Portland police on June 2, 2020, when she was pregnant.

“Literally, you cannot breathe anything. It is clenched,” Green said, describing how her lungs seemed to seize up.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that “long-lasting exposure or exposure to a large dose of riot control agent, especially in a closed setting” may cause blindness, glaucoma, severe chemical burns to the throat and lungs, respirator­y failure and death.

The Government Accountabi­lity Office report footnoted a 2016 study by Physicians for Human Rights and the Internatio­nal Network of Civil Liberties Organizati­ons on health consequenc­es of crowd-control weapons.

But the congressio­nal watchdog agency should have noted that “our data is quite limited, because there is no transparen­cy about the weapons,” said Rohini Haar, co-author of the 2016 study.

Tear gas, which is banned in warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention, is getting more powerful, she said. Silicon is sometimes added to make the gas last longer in the air and on surfaces, even though its health effects are unknown, said Haar, an emergency room physician and researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Haar said it’s time for the U.S. government to either do its own research on riot-control agents or support others to conduct it.

 ?? Paula Bronstein Associated Press ?? TEAR GAS fills the air at 2020 protests in Portland, Ore. The Government Accountabi­lity Office could not say if the safety of such chemicals has been assessed.
Paula Bronstein Associated Press TEAR GAS fills the air at 2020 protests in Portland, Ore. The Government Accountabi­lity Office could not say if the safety of such chemicals has been assessed.

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