Tear gas! Tear gas! What is it and what to do?

a protestor malawi

photo credit Amos Gumulira - A protestor throws back tear gas cannister in Lilongwe

“Its like breathing fire!” “ My face was burning!” “My chest was so painful!” Comments from my friends and family who were caught in tear gas during the civil unrest that recently gripped Malawi, after peaceful demonstrations against the government turned violent.

The road to positive social and economic change is a bumpy one but I sincerely hope that nothing as brutal as this ever happens again, but in the event that it does…..what to do if you ever caught in the midst of teargas? What exactly is teargas? Can you protect yourself? What are the remedies?

What is teargas?
Tear gas is a term used to refer to a group of chemicals more formally known as lachrymatory agents (taken from Latin – lacrima – “a tear”) as they cause the eyes to tear.  Tear gas produces extreme discomfort by irritating the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose, lungs and mouth causing tearing, sneezing and coughing, and sometimes vomiting.…it will stop anything dead in its tracks hence its use in riot control! It is non-lethal with discomfort usually disappearing after 5-30 minutes.

A bit of science
Tear gas is actually not a gas but a very fine acidic powder (its acidic property is important to note because this determines its remedies).  The acid powder is made into a solution which is then sprayed as an aerosol or released by grenades. There are different types of compounds that are used as tear gas, but they often share similar structural chemical elements. These structural chemical elements affect enzymes along mucous membranes in the mouth, nose and lungs.

As tear gas is an acid the most effective compounds are anti-acids. Its effects can apparently be mitigated by antacids like Maalox and Alka-Seltzer, by washing the eyes and face with a mixture of antacid and water. The only antacid I am familiar with in Malawi is milk of magnesia and I am not sure whether it would work as well, chemistry says it should.  Avoid any mint flavoured anti-acid on your face! That will just add more sting to the burning sensation.

Try and wash the clothes that you are wearing separately and make sure you wash your hair and skin as soon as possible.

Obviously a gas mask or googles but who has the time or money to have those on the ready during a riot, alternatively cover your nose and mouth with a wet bandana.

A cost-free protective device is your behaviour…panicking only makes the situation worse, stay calm, don’t rub your eyes and breathe slowly. Avoid swallowing, try coughing, rinsing your mouth and spitting. Remember this is only temporary.

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