Frequently Asked Questions
What is tear gas?
Tear gas is a term used to refer to several different riot control agents that temporarily constrain people by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin. Tear gas effects usually last 15-30 minutes after a person has left the exposure area and cleaned off. Examples of tear gas chemicals include chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS) and oleoresin capsicum (OC; pepper spray). To learn more about the properties of common tear gas chemicals, refer to this Chemical and Engineering News article.
Does Oregon Health Authority have regulatory authority over the use of tear gas?
Oregon Health Authority does not have regulatory authority over the use of tear gas. However, we are able to advise other agencies in Oregon on the health impacts of chemical exposures. We have and will continue to provide information on the health effects of tear gas exposure to Oregonians and to any decision-makers who make this request.
How could someone be exposed to tear gas?
If tear gas is released into the air, a person can be exposed to these chemicals through skin contact, eye contact, and breathing.
What are the health effects of exposure to tear gas?
The extent of health effects from tear gas exposure depends on many factors. These factors include the amount of tear gas a person was exposed to, the amount of time the exposure occurred for, the location of exposure (open or closed space), the weather (temperature and humidity), the area of the body exposed, and a person’s preexisting medical conditions. When tear gas is used in extended, repeated, or highly concentrated exposures, there is increased risk of health effects.
Short Term Health Effects – Within seconds of exposure (20-60 seconds), tear gases irritate the area of contact. Irritation primarily occurs in the eyes, respiratory system, and skin. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), examples of tear gas exposure symptoms include:
- 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, panic, and agitation
If a person can leave the exposure area and clean off, most symptoms of tear gas usually resolve within 30 minutes.
Long Term Health Effects – According to the CDC, prolonged exposure to tear gas chemicals may lead to long-term eye problems and breathing problems. If symptoms go away soon after a person is removed from exposure, long-term health effects are unlikely to occur.
Need for Additional Studies – There is more to learn about health effects from tear gas exposure. For example, a 2016 review article from the New York Academy of Sciences states that there is lack of data available on the range of health effects from tear gas exposure. This review also highlights that existing research on tear gas exposure is often based on controlled exposures to animals or healthy male volunteers, without considering effects on children, women, the elderly, or subjects affected by preexisting conditions. Evidence from limited studies indicates that individuals with respiratory, skin, and cardiovascular diseases may be at increased risk of health effects from tear gas exposure.
We understand that there has been unprecedented use of tear gas in Portland in 2020, and studies on the health effects of tear gas might not accurately reflect the patterns of exposure being experienced in Portland. Some research groups are beginning to record information related to the health impacts of tear gas on people exposed in Portland. For example, Kaiser Permanente launched a research survey that people exposed to tear gas can fill out.
What to do after tear gas exposure?
If you have been exposed to tear gas and are experiencing health effects, please contact your healthcare provider. You can also contact the poison control center (1-800-222-1222) for free, expert guidance about your tear gas exposure.
If you have been exposed to tear gas, you should quickly find fresh air. You should also remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care. This CDC fact sheet includes information on what to do if you have been exposed to tear gas. The CDC has additional information on personal cleaning after tear gas exposure and how to dispose of contaminated clothing, as well as information on riot control agent poisoning.
According to the CDC, it is not known if agents used in tear gas can be found in breast milk. Mothers exposed to riot control agents are advised to thoroughly decontaminate (remove clothes and wash their bodies well) before breastfeeding or expressing milk/pumping.
What to do if you have concerns about how tear gas is impacting the environment in Oregon?
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is the state agency that has regulatory authority over chemicals in the environment. You can submit environmental-related concerns to this DEQ website.