The Quick and Dirty Tear Gas Primer

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Because tear gas is a commonly-used dispersal tactic all around the world, here is a primer containing all the basic information you need to deal with it before, during, and after exposure.

  • Tear gas is not actually a gas, but rather an aerosolized acidic particulate. Basically, it’s burn-dust and propellant. It is designed to stick to mucus membranes (eyes, nose, mouth, throat) and hurt.
  • A damp towel, bandanna, or other cloth over the nose and mouth can greatly reduce the effects of tear gas. The tighter the weave of fabric, the more effective it will be.
  • Because tear gas burns, a mixture of liquid antacid and water (commonly referred to as LAW) can be applied to affected areas to rinse off the dust and neutralize the burning. Maalox, milk of magnesia, and actual milk are all commonly-used remedies. Milk of magnesia contains the highest concentration of antacid, is typically the least expensive per application, and doesn’t spoil.
  • It is commonly believed that vinegar on cloth can help counteract tear gas. The reason this works is because of the previously-mentioned effectiveness of cloth+moisture for trapping dust before you inhale it. Vinegar is not necessary, and you can (and absolutely should) use the liquid antacid and water of your choice for this purpose. Using the liquid antacid mixture also reduces the chance of accidentally pouring the wrong liquid into people’s eyes, in low-visibility conditions.
  • Tear gas is classified as a “less lethal” munition. Tear gas is painful and unpleasant, but most people CAN breathe in conditions where tear gas has been deployed in outdoor settings. Short, slow, shallow breaths are best, when possible.
  • Tear gas is classified as “less lethal” in part because it absolutely can kill people with asthma. As you are leaving an area being gassed, look around you for people who are unable to walk, and try to help them to safety. If you are traveling with an asthmatic friend, it may be a good idea for you to carry a spare inhaler for them, in an easily-accessible place, so that they are at less risk of not having access to one.
  • Tear gas canisters are typically deployed using 40mm grenade launchers. A canister blow to the head may be fatal. If possible, wear head protection. Even a bicycle helmet could save your life.
  • Tear gas canisters are extremely hot. Do not touch them with bare skin, plastic, or other synthetic materials which may melt. If you may come into physical contact with a canister, welder’s gloves, leather baseball mitts, oven mitts, hockey sticks, etc. are be your best bet.
  • It is not necessary to touch canisters. Dumping water on an active canister, or covering it with a bucket, can help stop deployment of additional particulate.
  • Don’t run. Running causes you to breathe harder, and puts you and others around you at greater risk of falling, being tripped, being trampled, or other injury. Additionally, because tear gas clouds impair vision, this gives extra reason to move carefully and as calmly as possible.
  • Under most circumstances, the damp cloth over the mouth and nose, and swimming goggles over the eyes is sufficient for normal tear gas exposure. If you intend to spend prolonged amounts of time in tear gas, or if you have breathing conditions, you may want to look into a gas mask or respirator.
  • If you are going to purchase a gas mask, look for one that takes “NATO” (40mm) threaded canisters, as these are easiest to find replacement filters for.
  • If you are going to purchase a respirator, look for one rated N-95 or better. If pepper spray is also a risk factor, you may want to consider spending the extra money on a R- or P-95 or better-rated respirator, as these are (respectively) resistant to or “proofed” against oils as well as particulates.
  • If you do opt for a gas mask or respirator, make sure that it properly seals around your mouth, nose, and (in the case of a full gas mask) also around your eyes before relying on it to protect you. Practice wearing your respirator or gas mask, familiarize yourself with how it alters your breathing, and get used to the way it feels before wearing it outside.
  • Do not wear contact lenses. Contact lenses can trap tear gas particulates against your eye, potentially doing irreparable damage to your corneas.
  • Do not wear oil-based sunblock, lotions, moisturizers, or other skin products. Oil-based skin products can cause tear gas to better adhere to your body, intensifying its effects.
  • If possible, carry a change of clothes in a sealed ziplock bag, and a trash bag for contaminated clothing. You may want to change in front of your house, rather than bringing contaminated clothing into your home.
  • After exposure to tear gas, take a COOL shower to wash off remaining particulate. Keep in mind that taking a hot shower can reactivate remaining particles, making your shower experience very, very unpleasant. Please believe me when I tell you that teargassing yourself in the shower is significantly more unpleasant than taking a cold shower.
  • Seek medical care if you continue to have trouble breathing after exposure. Smoking dried mullein leaf is some hippie shit that can actually significantly alleviate the ill effects of tear gas exposure.

Remember that tear gas is, first and foremost, a tool for dispersal. Its intended use is to get you to leave and never come back, and it is extremely effective at achieving this. Tear gas is scary, and extremely unpleasant, and it’s okay to be afraid. If you can push through your fear, you are actively denying the police what they want, and that is a truly beautiful thing.