Background: Repeated use of chemical irritants for crowd-control by local and federal law enforcement during sustained racial justice protests in the U.S. has raised concerns about potential adverse health effects. The objective of this study was to describe the health consequences of exposure to tear gas agents and associated healthcare utilization among adults reporting recent exposure to tear gas.
Methods: A cross-sectional, self-administered web-based survey of a convenience sample of 2257 adults reporting recent exposure to tear gas in Portland, Oregon (U.S.), administered between July 30, 2020-August 20, 2020. Descriptive analyses were conducted on socioeconomic characteristics, reported health issues, utilization of healthcare services, and frequency of reported exposure to tear gas. Associations between reported mental health issues, healthcare utilization and race and/or ethnic categories were assessed using a chi-square test. For tests of association, racial and/or ethnic categories were divided into White/Non-Hispanic only and all other racial/ethnic categories due to a small number of Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic participants and participants with multiple race and/or ethnic background. Effect sizes for the differences were expressed as Cramer's V, a metric that measures associations between nominal responses. The Cochran-Armitage trend test was used to assess the relationship between health issues and the number of reported days of exposure to tear gas (i.e., a proxy dose of exposure) grouped into 1 day, 2-4 days, and ≥ 5 days. Missing data (item non-response) were omitted from the analysis.
Results: Almost all respondents (2116; 93.8%) reported physical (2114; 93.7%) or psychological (1635; 72.4%) health issues experienced immediately after (2105; 93.3%) or days following (1944; 86.1%) the exposure. A slightly higher proportion experienced delayed head or gastrointestinal tract issues compared with immediate complaints. The majority (1233; 54.6%) reported receiving or planning to seek medical or mental care. We observed a positive exposure-response trend for all except mouth-related delayed issues (p < 0.01).
Conclusion: Persons who reported exposer to tear gas agents also reported physical and psychological health issues over a multiple-day period. Health issues reported increased with the frequency of reported exposure, indicating a potential dose-response; these health effects often led to healthcare utilization. This study provides evidence of potential unexpected harms of tear gas in civilians.
Keywords: Crowd-control; Health effects; Healthcare utilization; Tear gas.