Medical management of the traumatic consequences of civil unrest incidents: causation, clinical approaches, needs and advanced planning criteria

Toxicol Rev. 2006;25(3):155-97. doi: 10.2165/00139709-200625030-00003.


In the context of this review, civil unrest is defined as disharmony, expressive dissatisfaction and/or disagreement between members of a community, which leads to a situation of competitive aggression that may find expression as disruption of organisation, conflicts, damage to property and injuries. Such a breakdown of harmonious relationships, which may result in property damage and human injuries that may be threatening to life, varies in magnitude from participation of a very few individuals up to the involvement of large crowds of people, which may evolve into a full-scale riot. It is the latter situation often involving demonstrators, opposing groups and law enforcement personnel that can result in multiple casualties and present a very significant challenge to the resources of local healthcare institutions. The causation of civil unrest incidents is multifactorial and has generic, specific and potentiating elements. With the current national and international societal, political and discriminatory problems, it is likely that civil unrest incidents on both small and large scales will continue to occur at a high and possibly increasing rate on a worldwide basis, and for these not infrequent incidents, the medical community should be in a state of informed preparation. The circumstances of civil unrest incidents are very variable with respect to causation, overall magnitude, frequency, timing, geographical location, numbers of persons involved, demographics of participants, influence of extremists, confrontation with opposing groups and control measures used by law enforcement agencies. Methods used by police and security forces for the control of civil unrest incidents, if advanced negotiations with organisers and verbal warnings have failed, fall basically into two categories: physical and chemical measures. Physical methods include restraint holds, truncheons, batons, mounted horses, projectiles (such as bean bags, plastic and rubber bullets), water cannons, tasers and (rarely) live ammunition. All of these physical measures are associated with pain and immobilisation, and there is a high potential for soft tissue and bone injuries. Some of the more severe physical methods, including plastic and rubber bullets, may cause lethal injuries. The basis for using chemicals in civil unrest incidents is that they cause distraction, transient harassment and incapacitation, temporary impairment of the conduct of coordinated tasks and cause a desire to vacate the area of unrest. Although screening smokes and malodors have sometimes been employed, the major group of chemicals used are peripheral chemosensory irritants (PCSIs), which reversibly interact with sensory nerve receptors in exposed skin and mucosal surfaces, resulting in the production of local uncomfortable sensations and associated reflexes. Major effects are on the eye, respiratory tract and (to a lesser degree) skin. Thus, the induced transient pain and discomfort in the eye, respiratory tract and skin, together with associated lacrimation, blepharospasm, rhinorrhoea, sialorrhoea, cough and breathing difficulties, produce temporary incapacitation and interference with the conduct of coordinated tasks, and form the basis for harassment of malefactors. Currently used peripheral chemosensory irritants are 1-chloroacetophenone, 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, dibenz(b.f)-1,4-oxazepine, oleoresin capsicum and pelargonic acid vanillylamide. Depending on operational circumstances, irritants may be dispersed as a smoke, powder cloud, aerosol, vapour, or in solution; the mode of generation and dispersion of irritant can influence hazard. Brief acute exposure to chemosensory irritants produces effects that generally resolve within an hour, leaving no long-term sequelae. However, sustained exposure to high concentrations may produce tissue injury, notably to the eye, respiratory tract and skin. With solutions of sensory irritants, other formulation constituents may enhance PCSI toxicity or introduce additional local and/or systemic toxicity. By the very circumstances of civil unrest incidents, injuries are inevitable, particularly when emotions are heightened and police and security forces have to resort to various chemical and/or physical means of control. Trauma may include slight to severe physical and/or chemical injuries, psychological problems and occasional deaths. Hospitals should be prepared for a wide range of casualties, and the fact that those seeking help will constitute a heterogeneous group, including wide age range, male, female, and individuals with pre-existing ill health. A major civil unrest incident necessitates that the local receiving hospital should be prepared and equipped for decontamination and triage processes. It is necessary to reassure patients who have been exposed to sensory irritants that the signs and symptoms are rapidly reversible, and do not result in long-term sequelae. With respect to chemical exposures, detailed evaluation should be given to possible ocular, cutaneous, respiratory and gastrointestinal effects. Also, exposure to chemosensory irritants results in transient increases in blood pressure, bradycardia and increased intraocular pressure. This indicates that those with cardiovascular diseases and glaucoma may be at increased risk for the development of complications. This article details the pharmacological, toxicological and clinical effects of chemicals used in civil disturbance control and discusses the management of contaminated individuals. Additionally, the potential for adverse effects from delivery systems and other physical restraint procedures is summarised. Due to the emergency and specialised circumstances and conditions of a civil unrest incident, there is a clear need for advanced planning by healthcare institutions in the event that such an incident occurs in their catchment area. This should include ensuring a good information base, preparations for medical and support staff readiness, and availability of required equipment and medications. Ideally, planning, administration and coordination should be undertaken at both local (regional) and central (governmental) centres. Regional centres should have responsibilities for education, training, ensuring facilities and staffing are appropriate, and that adequate equipment and medicines are available. There should be cooperative interactions and communications with local police and other emergency services. Centrally directed functions should include ensuring adequacy of the information base, coordinating activities and agreeing approaches between the regional centres, and periodic audits of regional centres with respect to the staffing, facility, equipment and training needs. Also, there is a need for most countries to introduce detailed guidelines and formal (regulatory) schemes for the assessment of the safety-in-use of chemicals and the delivery systems that are to be used against heterogeneous human populations for the control of civil unrest incidents. Such regulatory approval schemes should also cover advisory functions for safe use and any required restrictions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Civil Defense*
  • Global Health
  • Health Planning
  • Health Services Needs and Demand
  • Humans
  • Multiple Trauma / chemically induced*
  • Multiple Trauma / prevention & control*
  • Riot Control Agents, Chemical / toxicity*
  • Triage*


  • Riot Control Agents, Chemical