Riot control agents, often referred to as "tear gas," are chemicals that cause skin, respiratory, and eye irritation. Some of the most common chemicals used are chloroacetophenone (CN)—which is a toxic air pollutant, chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS), chloropicrin (PS), bromobenzylcyanide (CA) and dibenzoxazepine (CR). While tear gas is typically perceived as causing mostly short-term health impacts, there is evidence of permanent disability in some cases.  

In general, exposure to tear gas can cause chest tightness, coughing, a choking sensation, wheezing and shortness of breath, in addition to a burning sensation in the eyes, mouth and nose; blurred vision and difficulty swallowing. Tear gas can also cause chemical burns, allergic reactions and respiratory distress. People with preexisting respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), have a higher risk of developing severe symptoms of their disease that could lead to respiratory failure.   

Long-term health effects from tear gas are more likely if exposed for a prolonged period or to a high dose while in an enclosed area. In these instances, it can lead to respiratory failure and death.  

If exposed to tear gas, the American Lung Association advises you to immediately distance yourself from the source and seek higher ground, if possible. Flush your eyes with water and use a gentle soap, such as baby shampoo, to wash your face. If breathing trouble persists, seek medical attention immediately.  

For more information:

CDC Facts about Riot Control Agents

Page last updated: June 6, 2020

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