With frequent law and order situation in Kashmir leading to the recurrent use of pepper and tear smoke, Zeenat Farooq offers an idea of their composition and impact on human life
Pepper gas, the notoriously most famous “non- lethal” riot control and law enforcement options in Kashmir is a mix of various chemical substances: capsaicin’s (substances that make chillies hot), water, alcohol, organic solvents as liquid carriers, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, halogenated hydrocarbons such as Freon, tetra-chloroethylene (the exact composition depends upon the brand and purpose of use). For example, the canned pepper spray used for self-defence contains some low-grade chemical compounds which cause temporary irritation but are biodegradable and do not cause any deleterious effects. This, however, does not hold true for the handheld or the projectile based canisters used by law enforcement agencies.
The commercial grade pepper sprays are most painful. On the Scoville scale, this pepper measures 2.5-3 million units, depending upon the grade, whereas the most painful natural pepper measures about 1 million units. Scoville scale is a measure of relative piquancy of chilli peppers. The commercial grade pepper contains capsaicins that is around 600 times hotter than the natural ones.
If a person happens to be caught in a riot-like situation and finds himself exposed to pepper gas, irritation suddenly start right from the eyes, down to the throat and respiratory tract. The active compounds of the gas make contact with the cornea of the eye, causing burning sensation and irritation. This effect is reversible under ordinary conditions since the damaged cornea starts healing naturally within a few hours of exposure.
However, if a person is repeatedly exposed to stronger doses, corneal damage can increase and the person might even end up losing eyesight. Active components and solvents of pepper gas together increase allergic sensitivities, can damage bronchial airways by causing neurogenic inflammation in blood vessels, epithelial glands, and smooth muscles and stomach lining. It acts as potent inflammatory agents and can cause respiratory problems, increased vascular permeability and mucus secretion. Dermal exposure causes tingling, blisters, redness, pain, swelling, intense burning. Inhalation or ingestion causes nausea and disorientation. All of this means that such sprays can pose a life threat, at least to infants, young children, pregnant women, people who are elderly and those who already have any cardiac or respiratory problems like asthma.
The other gas that is used in riot control is the tear gas. It has global use. The active compound of tear gas is a solid suspended in tiny liquid droplets. This compound is a nerve agent that acts on the nerves and immediately leads to the sensation of pain by switching on pain receptors.
After about 20 seconds of exposure, the afflicted person can feel severe pain, tightening of the muscles of the chest and painful sting in nose and eyes. If a person is already challenged with a respiratory or cardiac problem, the effect of pain can be as worse as a cardiac arrest. (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine).Tear gas exposed people experience tremendous burning sensation in the throat, due to sensitization of pain receptors and can cough or vomit.
The projectile-based canisters of tear gas or pepper gas can sometimes prove harmful by causing physical injuries like fractures or even death when these happen to hit a person. In this case, also, children, elderly people, pregnant women and patients with respiratory illness are the most vulnerable group and as far as possible, they should avoid exposure to the gas and if exposed, should seek immediate medical advice. Stillbirths and miscarriages have been reported along with delayed menstruation, shortness of breath and another lung, heart and liver-related problems in a number of research studies performed on victims of tear gas shells.
In the case of pepper spray, similar effects are observed, especially when exposure is beyond low-level and within confined spaces (Research at University of Chile, 2001) and substantial research work still needs to be performed around the globe in areas where these chemical weapons are used on a regular basis by law enforcement agencies in order to uncover their long-term health effects. However, a very serious hurdle in the way of active research about health hazards of such chemical weapons remains the involvement of governmental agencies which often do not encourage such research and the few reports which at all happen to see daylight, making claims about the safety of such weapons, are often from the manufacturers themselves (The Chile case, 2001, The Bahrain case, 2012).
On the ecological front, these gases contain a number of chemicals in huge quantities which find their way into our ecosystem by volatilising in the air as well as leeching out and dissolving in the water bodies. These chemicals cause air and water pollution and harm aquatic life. These gases contain irritants which are solid at room temperature and need to be mixed in appropriate solvents to make an aerosol or liquid spray.
Sometimes, these solvents can be even more harmful than the active compounds. For example, methylene chloride, a well-known carcinogen (carcinogens are substances that have the ability to cause cancers) was used as a solvent in the tear gas and pepper gas shells used in 1999 in Seattle, USA. The canisters which hold these gases also contain a number of heavy metals which affect and pollute our environment.
The best thing a person can do, if possible, is to move as far away from the site of exposure as possible. Immediately covering your mouth and eyes with some sterile cotton handkerchief can also help dilute some of the ill effects. If the gas comes in contact with your exposed skin, say hands, do not wipe your eyes with your hands for some time.
Also, in order to minimize eye damage, one can use sterile saline to thoroughly wash eyes but this should be done with caution since using the inadequate amount of water or saline can further expose the skin to these chemicals and cause irritation. Do not panic and try to relax as most of the fumes will volatilize some time after exposure.
If the throat seems burning and swelled, avoid talking, smoking and consuming hot beverages so as to avoid any further damage to the trachea. Upon mild exposure, the symptoms shall ward off within an hour but mild to high exposure can make symptoms last for longer. Avoid touching unexposed skin for at least an hour after the exposure to minimize contact damage.
(Author is a research fellow at Department of Biotechnology, University of Kashmir.)