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10 Ways to prepare for, protect against, treat tear gas exposure

As Kenyans commit to take to the streets to protest against the high cost of living occasioned by excessive government taxation, one thing for sure is that there is going to be plenty of tear gas meted on demonstrators by the law enforcement officers.

Firing tear gas and other crowd-control weapons are deceptively known as “less-lethal,” however these weapons can in fact cause severe injuries and even death when used with excessive force.

Here is guidance to help people seeking to exercise their right to protest, prepare for, protect against and treat tear gas exposure.

Preparation and protection

  1. Nose and mouth mask

Tear gas is known to produce acute and chronic respiratory injuries. Tear gas is a toxicant dust that causes mostly respiratory symptomatology. When used for crowd-control purposes, gas dispersion can encompass an area from 60m to 300m; once spread, this chemical irritant makes demonstrators disperse by running away from its effects, thus leaving defenceless those unable to disperse by themselves from exposure.

Therefore, carry with you facemasks, scarves or bandanas large enough to cover your face from nose to chin. These can be a substitute for those who cannot afford a tear gas mask. If you can afford it, for as low as Sh800, get yourself a tear gas mask, which is an essential piece of personal protective equipment designed to safeguard individuals from the harmful effects of tear gas. These masks are also used in various industrial settings. It will help you from breathing in the toxic fumes.

  1. Eye protection and clothing

Shatter-resistant eye protection such as shatter-resistant sunglasses, swim goggles, or a gas mask can come in handy. Avoid wearing contact lenses, which can trap the irritating tear gas powder, underneath. If you do wear contacts lenses, keep a full facial gas mask or goggles on at all times. Stay away form eye make-up such as eyeliners, to prevent the chemicals from getting inside the eyes when exposure to the chemical irritant. Because clothes absorb the powdery gas, avoid clothes made from loose thread fabric. Opt for fabrics with tightly packed threads, which makes it easy for the gas to bounce off your clothes. Ensure to wear clothes that cover all your skin to prevent the gas from irritating your skin. Comfortable, closed, protective shoes that you can run in are a must. 

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What to bring to a protest

  1. Water 

Bring water in a plastic bottle with a squirt top. This will help to keep you hydrated as the running battles take place under the blazing sun. This water will serve to wash off your skin or eye. Tear gas works by irritating mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. It causes crying, sneezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, pain in the eyes, and temporary blindness. Water comes in handy by washing off these effects from the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

  1. Extra clothing 

Bring a change of clothes, in case you are exposed to chemical irritants. Pack your extra clothes in a backpack or a drawstring bag instead of an over-the-shoulder or a cross-body bag in case you need to run.

What to do upon exposure

  1. Walk, avoid running

When a tear gas canister explodes, powder sprays into the air and adheres to any moisture it can find, including the tears in your eyes, the sweat on your skin, the grease in your hair, and the saliva and mucus that cover your mouth and airways. Therefore, get out of the cloud of tear gas and away from the general area as soon as you can. Seek high ground, as most forms of tear gas are heavy; the closer you are to the ground, the higher the concentration of gas. Running may causes you to breath more heavily, filling your lungs with more tear gas. Try to keep your breathing even.

  1. Wash with water, avoid other substances

If your eyes have been exposed and are burning or blurry, flush them with water immediately. Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Use water from your water bottle to flush. If you can find an open drinking tap or sink in a public restroom, flush your eyes with water for 10 to 15 minutes. 

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There is no evidence that baking soda or milk is better than cool water alone. There is one small-randomised controlled trial that found that baby shampoo is no better than water. Using baby wipes or make-up wipes if water is not immediately available may cause increased irritation.

If possible, and you are not affected yourself, help others by moving them to a clean and ventilated area.

Do not try to remove the tear gas canisters, as doing so may put you at an increased risk for further harm and injury.

  1. Safety at home

Change your clothes as soon as possible. Rinse your body as soon as you get to a location with a shower. Take off your shoes outside your home to keep them from bringing any powder indoors.

Shed all the clothes you were wearing and hang them in an open, ventilated area for at least 48 hours before washing them. If you are not able to keep them in an open place, store them in a sealed bag until they are ready to be washed. Do not mix them with uncontaminated garments, as CS powder can be active for as long as five days after being released. This also serves to protect children from exposure to CS powder when you get home.

  1. Take a cold shower

Take a cold shower for at least 20 minutes to prevent the chemicals from irritating your skin any further. Do your best not to breathe in more tear gas during the shower, and keep your eyes closed. Wash your hair especially well.

  1. If symptoms persist

If you’re still having symptoms 30 minutes or so after getting all the agents off, are having eye or lung issues, or are at all concerned about your exposure, seek medical care. Persistent symptoms to watch out for may include; chest tightness, vomiting, diarrhoea and respiratory failure.

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