Congress to investigate health effects of tear gas after dozens of police departments fired on protesters

Two congressional committees have requested safety information and documents from tear gas manufacturers as part of an investigation into the health effects of chemical weapons used by dozens of police departments over months of racial justice uprisings across the US.

Four Democrats – US Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Jamie Raskin and Raja Krishnamoorthi – sent letters to three teargas manufacturers and several federal agencies as part of a probe under subcommittees on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“The United States has agreed not to use tear gas in war,” they wrote in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency and departments of Justice and Health and Human Services.

“However, tear gas is frequently used in this country by law enforcement as a ‘riot control agent,’” they wrote. “Given this domestic use, we would have expected an analysis demonstrating that tear gas products are safe to use on humans, but we have not seen this.”

“Tear gas” is grouped as riot-control agents that “temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin,” according to a fact sheet from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lawmakers said that “evidence suggests that tear gas may be connected to long-term adverse health impacts for those exposed,” and that the safety of tear gas “appears to be largely left to the discretion of manufacturers” rather than regulatory agencies.

Lawmakers also have “concerning unanswered questions” about whether tear gas – fired by at least 100 law enforcement agencies across the US within the last year, according to an analysis from The New York Times – may exacerbate coronavirus symptoms or cause long-term lung damage to people who have been exposed to it.

They cited reporting from the Associated Press that found military personnel exposed to tear gas in basic training were more than twice at risk of later being diagnosed with acute respiratory illness after their exposure to tear gas.

Lawmakers also pointed to reporting in ProPublica that found “the widespread, sometimes indiscriminate use of tear gas on American civilians in the midst of a respiratory pandemic threatens to worsen the coronavirus, along with racial disparities in its spread and who dies from it.”

“These products have routinely been deployed on nonviolent protesters exercising their First Amendment rights,” the lawmakers wrote. “People should not have to worry that if they attend a nonviolent protest, are in the vicinity of law enforcement action, or are medical workers assisting injured individuals, they may be exposed to poison with unknown effects.”

The committees have requested companies send them relevant information by 24 June.

In an open letter signed by 1,288 medical and public health professionals in 2020, they urged police departments to stop using tear gas “or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for Covid-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.”

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