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Tear gas unregulated by U.S. government, safety studies lacking despite widespread use: House panels

The investigation found that the use of tear gas is "woefully understudied."
Image: Tear Gas
Protesters carry shields through clouds of tear gas while clashing with federal officers near the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 24, 2020 in Portland, Ore.Nathan Howard / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The federal government does not regulate the safety of tear gas and has not conducted an epidemiological study of its health effects despite its widespread use by law enforcement agencies for riot control, House lawmakers said in a memo released Thursday.

Manufacturers of tear gas, meanwhile, acknowledge that their product is dangerous and “injury and/or damage can be expected” when it is used, the memo said. It added that limited studies have shown the risks from exposure include "acute respiratory illness and gastrointestinal and menstrual effects."

Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., who chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, opened the joint probe with the committee's civil rights subcommittee after hearing from Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., that women had suffered long-term health consequences after tear gas exposure, the memo said.

The probe, which comes after violent clashes during the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 and in the months leading up to and after the 2020 election, found that the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency do not regulate the chemical products and "in the absence of federal guidance, manufacturers and law enforcement have free rein to self-regulate."

The panels found "only tangential" oversight of tear gas unrelated to its use in riot control; that includes Department of Transportation regulations on shipping, Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules on worker safety during manufacture, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regulations on sales of tear gas products containing explosives.

"People should not have to worry that if they attend a non-violent 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," members of the subcommittees said in a news release in June.

That month, lawmakers sent letters to three leading tear gas manufacturers and several federal agencies requesting documents and information regarding the safety of the products.

"Tear gas use is woefully understudied given recent increases in its use," the memo concludes.

The chemical product was used in at least 100 U.S. cities in the first six months of 2020 alone, the lawmakers said in their memo, noting that the "widespread domestic use stands in stark contrast to the lack of U.S. use of tear gas against our enemies in war — tear gas is banned from use in war as a chemical weapon by international treaty."

Domestic incidents have included law enforcement agencies' use of pepper spray, tear gas and what appeared to be rubber bullets against people protesting unprovoked police violence against African Americans near the White House following the death of George Floyd in May 2020.

Since then, lawmakers have been adamant about getting information on the safety of tear gas and the health outcomes.