People Are Not Pests
(By Dominica Navarro, Healthy People & Communities Program Coordinator)
The city of Portland has exceeded its 90th night of protests after the brutal and unjust killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May. On August 23rd, Jacob Blake was shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin while his three children watched in the car nearby. In response to continued police violence, protestors have turned out in support of #BlackLivesMatter, calling for racial justice and to defund the police. Yet, as the demands for equity and accountability wage on, we continue to see the excessive use of chemical control agents on peaceful protesters in mass amounts.
Pesticides as Tools of Control and Oppression in the Fight for Racial Justice
As protestors in Portland rally each evening to advocate for their demands, they have been met by state and federal agents’, and now counter-protestors', forceful and repeated use of tear gas and mace, including CN (2-Chloroacetophenone), CS (o-chlorobenzylidene malonitrile), and the vomiting agent Adamsite (DM). American-made Adamsite, an arsenical diphenylaminechlorarsine used by federal agents in Portland, is the same gas used in World War I as an irritant that could bypass gas masks and cause soldiers to remove their masks to be exposed to fatal gases. Deaths by fatal gases accounted for over 85% of the war fatalities.1
Tear gas, as outlined in NCAP’s first blog post on the topic (People Are Not Pests: The Role of Pesticides in Violence, Racism and the Spread of COVID-19), has evolved hand-in-hand with the creation of pesticides since the early to mid 19th-century. Although chemical warfare was banned in 1972, we continue to see these chemicals adapted for use on our food and now, more than ever, for domestic control. According to Anna Feigenbaum, Senior Lecturer and tear gas researcher at Bournemouth University, “Tear gas has been known as a weapon of fear and submission since its invention. In its various forms it causes eyes and skin to burn, chokes its victims and as the name suggests creates temporary blindness though tears. The effects are not just physical; it is designed to provoke confusion, panic and terror.”2 Feigenbaum also states that modern tear gas “operates in the same mist of ignorance and fear that surrounds neurotoxic pesticides.”3
In addition to tears, there have been growing concerns by protesters, Portland residents and government officials about the extreme volume of tear gas being deployed in the city. The riot control agents being used—CN, CS and DM—come in a variety of launchable canister products with names like scat shell, triple chaser, instantaneo blast and muzzle blast, just to name a few. As protestors gather, these tools of chemical warfare are used in an effort to disperse and incapacitate crowds. As a result, many Portland residents are repeatedly exposed to the tear gas smoke and have rising concerns about long term health effects and its effects on the environment.
According to a medical review of CN and CS, “while serious systemic effects are uncommon, exposure to high concentrations may lead to severe complications and even death.”4 Reports indicate residues in downtown have been affecting people hours after being deployed, causing itchy eyes and scratchy throats. There have also been several reports of irregularity in menstrual cycles for those who have been exposed to tear gas in extreme and repeated doses. With limited information available on the long term effects of repeated exposure, 24-year-old protester Elisa Blackman, who got her period five times between June 2 and July 5, said, “it’s like they’re testing it on us.”5
Unfortunately, an accusation like this isn’t absurd, and it wouldn’t be the first time.
During WWII, mustard gas and other chemical agents were tested on soldiers by race. African American, Asian American and Puerto Rican soldiers were singled out for experiments conducted to gauge the effects of chemical weapons on different skin types. In search of “the ideal chemical soldier,” the thought was that if they were more resistant, the soldiers could be used on the front lines while white soldiers stayed back, protected from the gas.6 While Army Col. Steve Warren, director of press operations at the Pentagon, was quick to defend the sector stating, "the first thing to be very clear about is that the Department of Defense does not conduct chemical weapons testing any longer,"6 it is documented that training is still done with military groups. According to a comprehensive U.S. study conducted with Army recruits in 2014, researchers found those exposed to CS gas just once during a training exercise were at a higher risk for developing acute respiratory illnesses (ARI). The study also states that ARI is “among the leading causes for hospital visits in U.S. Army training populations and historically peak during combat training following mandatory exposure to the riot control agent CS.”7
According to OPB, “when asked about what all these chemicals are doing to the environment, state and city agencies say there’s nowhere to look to for answers, because no other U.S. city has ever been subjected to such a sustained barrage of tear gas.”8 Meanwhile, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services are working together to gather information about possible environmental impacts of excessive tear gas use. As data is being collected, Portland police have been cooperative with the efforts, however federal agencies have not been so cooperative and details are unknown regarding the tear gas they have used against protesters.8
On July 30th, Congress Member Blumenauer’s Office wrote an open letter to the Oregon DEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency outlining their extreme concern for the excessive use of “tear gas (CS gas), pepper spray, and potentially other, unidentified gases” as well as the public health impacts and risks of acute toxicity to aquatic life as toxins are washed away in stormwater facilities. Unfortunately, the DEQ came back with little substantive information in response to the list of concerns. No data was provided on the volume of munitions used, nor was any data provided on the measures the city or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken to assure compliance with usage guidelines per the products safety data sheets. However, the DEQ has taken steps to request the city provide additional water quality monitoring and sample results to comply with municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permitting. This additional monitoring includes outfalls where untreated water may enter the Willamette River (from downtown, as well as an area where water does not come from downtown), as well as a list of additional possible contaminants to test for, including chromium, hexavalent chromium, lead, zinc, copper and perchlorate.9
Systemic Change and the Demand for Alternative Resolution Tactics
With growing unrest and human and environmental health on the line, it has come time that we change how we approach our problems. Whether it be pests or protestors, we must get to the root of any issue. Just as creating healthy, diverse ecosystems prevents pest outbreaks, creating healthy, non-oppressive systems will correct the injustices that lead to protests. NCAP advocates for non-violent and non-chemical solutions to all systemic imbalance. We can no longer spray our problems away as the systematic dependence upon chemical solutions has done more harm than good.
To move forward, we must move past chemicals and violence and instead, work toward more just and equitable systems and agreements. Like the ban on chemical agents in warfare, we must continue to disband the use of such products in all its forms - pesticides and tear gas alike.
Currently, the Oregon Department of Agriculture is accepting public comment on its proposed rule to restrict the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos is a dangerous insecticide, widely used on a variety of crops, including strawberries, apples, wheat, and Christmas trees. Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin, damaging the brains and nervous systems of those who are exposed. Farmworkers, rural communities, children, pregnant mothers and endangered wildlife are especially at risk. If you live in Oregon, tell the ODA you care about protecting human and environmental health from chlorpyrifos exposure.
In honor of Martin Luther King, 57 years after his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, where thousands of marchers gathered in demand of equality, I would like to echo his same words: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Only now I must clarify, it is the clean waters of justice and a healthy and mighty stream of righteousness that we want.
Call to Action: Tell Us Your Story
Have you been affected by chemical pollution in Portland due to current situations? Please send us your testimonial.
If you have questions about the potential health effects of tear gas, please contact the Oregon Health Authority – Environmental Health Assessment Program: EHAP.Info@dhsoha.state.or.us
- Patton J. Medicine in the first world war: gas in the Great War [Internet]. Kansas City, KS: University of Kansas Medical Center; 2019 Apr 8 [cited 2020 Aug 27]. Available from: http://www.kumc.edu/wwi/medicine/gas-in-the-great-war.html
- Feigenbaum A, Weissman D. The use and abuse of tear gas [Internet]. Poole, UK: Bournemouth University; Undated [cited 2020 Aug 27]. Available from: https://www.bournemouth.ac.uk/about/financial-information/previous-annual-reviews/annual-review-2015/research-bu/use-abuse-tear-gas
- Vallianatos E. Pesticides, tear gas and history: from WW1 to today’s streets [Internet]. ARC2020; 2018 Mar 14 [cited 2020 Aug 27]. Available from: https://www.arc2020.eu/pesticides-tear-gas-and-history-from-ww1-to- todays-streets/
- Schep LJ, Slaughter RJ, McBride DI. Riot control agents: the tear gases CN, CS and OC-a medical review. J R Army Med Corps [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2020 Aug 27];161(2):94-99. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24379300/ doi:10.1136/jramc-2013-000165
- Ellis R. ‘It’s like they’re testing it on us': Portland protesters say tear gas has caused irregularities with their periods [Internet]. OPB; 2020 Jul 29 [cited 2020 Aug 27]. Available from: https://www.opb.org/article/2020/07/29/tear-gas-period-menstrual-cycle-portland/
- Dickerson C. Secret World War II chemical experiments tested troops by race [Internet]. NPR, OPB; 2015 Jun 22 [cited 2020 Aug 27]. Available from: https://www.npr.org/2015/06/22/415194765/u-s-troops-tested-by-race-in-secret-world-war-ii-chemical-experiments#:~:text=Live%20Sessions-,Secret%20World%20War%20II%20Chemical%20Experiments%20Tested%20Troops%20By%20Race,the%20color%20of%20their%20skin.
- Hout JJ, White DW, Artino AR, Knapik JJ. O-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS riot control agent) associated acute respiratory illnesses in a U.S. Army Basic Combat Training cohort. Mil Med [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2020 Aug 27];179(7):793-798. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25003867/ doi:10.7205/MILMED-D-13-00514
- Samayoa M, Dake L. 60-plus days of tear gas leaves lingering questions about environmental impacts [Internet]. OPB; 2020 Jul 31 [cited 2020 Aug 27]. Available from: https://www.opb.org/article/2020/07/31/tear-gas-environmental-impact-portland/
- Whitman R. DEQ Response to Blumenaur and Power [Internet]. Portland, OR: Dept of Environmental Quality; 2020 Aug 7 [cited 2020 Aug 28]. Available from: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ncap/pages/1587/attachments/original/1598898647/2020.08.07_DEQ_Response_to_Blumenauer_Power.pdf?1598898647