Teargas and pepper spray will accelerate spread of Covid-19, doctors warn

Maanvi Singh
Photograph: Dave Killen/AP

Doctors, nurses and disease experts have warned that dousing crowds with teargas and pepper spray will accelerate the spread of coronavirus as mass demonstrations against police brutality rage on, raising concerns that police tactics could worsen a pandemic that has already taken a disproportionate toll on black and brown Americans.

Nearly 1,300 medical providers and public health experts have signed a petition this week calling for police to stop using the chemical agents, amid scenes of law enforcement officers launching plumes of chemical irritants and smoke to subdue demonstrators in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York and many other American cities.

“In addressing demonstrations against white supremacy, our first statement must be one of unwavering support for those who would dismantle, uproot, or reform racist institutions,” the open letter reads. “Therefore, we propose the following guidelines to support public health.” 

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Public health experts and civil rights advocates have long advocated against the use of teargas, a chemical weapon that can be lethal, especially to the elderly and those with underlying conditions including asthma. Various international treaties and the Geneva Convention have banned its use in international warfare. 

Officials in some cities have agreed to curb its use. On Friday, Seattle’s mayor announced a 30-day moratorium on the use of teargas during protests after an outcry. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, called for new statewide standards for law enforcement crowd control. And late on Friday night, a federal judge in Denver issued an order limiting the police department’s use of chemical weapons against peaceful protesters.

Because coronavirus spreads through droplets of mucus and spit that people launch into the air when they cough, sneeze, breathe and talk, teargas and other irritants that cause people to choke, hack and rip off their face masks will help the virus proliferate, according to Dr Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease physician who helped draft the petition. 

Gas and pepper sprays also cause tears, saliva and mucus to stream from demonstrators’ eyes and noses, said Chin-Hong. “And it’ll cause people to shout and scream, propelling droplets of these fluids – which could be carrying coronavirus – and giving them superpowers, to spread much farther than six feet.” 

Moreover, these chemical agents can irritate the nose, mouth and lungs, causing inflammation that could weaken the body’s ability to resist infection, he said. 

A protester has her eyes washed after being exposed to teargas in Minneapolis. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

Experts warn that the liberal use of chemical agents against protesters across the country is deeply concerning. “The escalation of teargas use we’re seeing now really seems unprecedented,” said Sven-Eric Jordt, a professor of anesthesiology at Duke University. “It was used liberally during the Ferguson protests, and now it’s escalating – and it’s really concerning.” 

In Washington DC, park police acknowledged firing “pepper balls”, projectiles that launch irritant powder into the air, at peaceful protesters to clear the path for Donald Trump to pose for photos in front of a church near the White House. Reporters uncovered a spent canister of oleoresin capsicum (OC) gas – which harnesses oils from chili peppers to make the air sting and burn. In many other incidents across the country, police departments used the teargas compound CS – short for 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile. Most studies of these chemicals, according to Jordt, have looked at how they affect police and military personnel – most of whom are young men in peak physical health. Little is known about how they affect most other people, including those with underlying health conditions. 

Although CS, pepper balls and OC gas are all intended as non-lethal munitions, they’re designed to be used sparingly, in wide open spaces, “and only if protesters have a way to escape”, Jordt said. In Philadelphia, New York and Washington this week, officers boxed in, or “kettled”, demonstrators before spraying them with chemical agents. “They are exposing people to much higherlevels of these chemicals than was ever intended, and it’s unclear what the health consequences are,” Jordt said. 

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During the Arab Spring uprising of 2010, demonstrators reported lung injuries after being exposed to high concentrations of teargas. And small studies in Chile and Bahrain connected teargas exposure to miscarriages.

Although scientists have yet to study how teargas affects the body’s ability to resist Covid-19, “it’s concerning, and plausible that exposure could make people more vulnerable to the new coronavirus,” Chin-Hong told the Guardian. 

A 2014 study found that military recruits exposed to CS teargas were at a higher risk of contracting respiratory illnesses such as the flu and pneumonia. “Having teargas sprayed on to you is like someone smoking into your lungs,” he said. “It’s like any other pollution – and like pollution it can increase the risks of respiratory illnesses.” 

In the open letter, experts urged police to refrain from arresting and detaining demonstrators in confined spaces like jails and police vans, where the risk of coronavirus transmission is higher. 

Antagonizing and brutalizing protestors could also further erode a community’s trust, posing challenges for health officials seeking to track and trace those who are infected with coronavirus, and warn those who may have been exposed. “After these protests, people may be mistrustful of giving names and addresses of people they were with to health officials, if they’re worried about their friends getting arrested,” Chin-Hong said. 

Although medical experts worry about the spread of coronavirus during large demonstrations, the letter asks officials to “not disband protests under the guise of maintaining public health”.

As an infectious disease specialist, Chin-Hong and his colleagues are acutely aware that coronavirus disproportionately kills black and brown Americans, he said. The same communities that are at increased risk of dying from the virus are also most at risk from dying at the hands of police officers. 

“As much as coronavirus is a risk, racism is an infectious disease. Racism is a public health threat,” he said. “It’s really important to affirm people’s right to be heard right now.”