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Wrong place at the wrong time? How to decontaminate if you’re hit with tear gas

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 15:45
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We live in very uncertain times, things can change at a moments notice. Both law enforcement and the military will be on stand-by to step in if there are any major problems and both will deploy any methods they have at their disposal to quell dissent and control a mob.

You don’t have to be involved in protests, riots or any other form of civil unrest to get caught up in events and end up in the firing line. Tear gas rather than bullets is often the first thing the police will take aim with.

The active chemical compounds found in tear gas are most commonly 0-Chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS) or 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (CN). Often referred to as CS or CN. CS and CN are not gasses, they are synthetic organic halogen compounds that are liquid or powder-like solids that at room temperature. CS the more potent of the two and CN is primarily used in the form of mace.

CS and CN which are the most common ‘gases’ used and it’s the powder consistency that makes it look like a cloud when it’s released into the air. As it settles it irritates skin and mucous membranes and it clings to clothes and skin, perpetuating the stinging and burning sensations every time it’s touched, the microscopic crystals breaking down even further when crushed against the skin. For this reason rubbing your eyes is a very bad idea even though it’s an almost instinctual action.

Keeping the powder away from your eyes, nose, mouth and skin is the best thing you can do but it’s so fine it permeates fabric if you are in the cloud for any length of time. The initial steps you should take are as follows:

  • If you are caught up in events where the police or military are visible you should expect a gas attack if the crowd is large and tempers are flaring. Any attack on law enforcement means they are far more likely to fire canisters into the crowd than if the protest remains peaceful.
  • Move as far back from the police lines as you can. Pull up hoods and roll down sleeves if possible as you continue to put some distance between yourself and the police. Cover as much of your skin as you can.
  • If you wear contact lenses but can proceed without them remove them, they can trap particles of CS in your eyes.
  • Get into a building if you can, if that’s not possible get as high as you can. CS is heavier than air but can remain airborne for some time. If you can get above the cloud you may avoid contamination.  High sided stationary vehicles should be a last resort as if you are affected falling off is a distinct possibility. Think multi-storey car parks, fire escapes and the like.
  • Some people who live in inner city areas carry swim goggles when they feel trouble is brewing, they have a tight fit and can protect your eyes very effectively. Gloves will also offer initial protection to your hands.
  • Work out which direction the wind is blowing. if it’s blowing against your back as you move away start moving faster, the cloud will move towards you once it starts to come out of the canister. if there is a side wind move in the direction opposite to the likely movement of the gas. If the wind is in your face as you move away you stand a chance of not getting gassed.

So lets say the worse happens and you are caught in the cloud of gas that’s hissing away happily a few feet behind you what then?

  • Move as fast as you can from the canister, remember the wind direction as it may work in your favour.
  • As soon as it touches you, you will feel the effects, your eyes will sting and burn, your nose will run and you will drool as your salivary glands start to work overtime. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE.
  • Continue with as much speed as you are able away from the gas cloud. Blow your nose and clear your throat as often as you can to get the irritant out of your body as fact as you can. The tears, snot and phlegm are your bodies way of trying to rid itself of the irritant particles. Go with it but keep moving if you can. The effects will stop anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours depending on your exposure. Try not to panic. you will feel like you can’t breathe but unless you have a predisposing condition such as asthma, a lung disease or are grossly allergic to the compound the sensation of not being able to breathe will wear off.

There is a great deal written about wet bandanas stopping the gas, cider apple vinegar on a bandana ditto, petroleum jelly under your eyes and even toothpaste spread under your eyes stopping the effects of the gas. I can’t endorse these because particularly with powder-based irritants the chances microscopic particles of powder sticking to the goo and actually exacerbating the problem is high. As for the wet bandanas, the same could be said if the powder stuck to it.

Covering as much of your face is definitely prudent but my spy from the Metropolitan Police tells me anything to hand will do and not many people carry apple cider vinegar around with them! Fair comment.

One thing that has been proven to work and has been used with success by law enforcement officers who have had a taste of their own medicine( bet that’s a training session you won’t forget Iain) is L.A.W. – liquid antacid and water.

Not all antacids are the same and for the purposes of treating this particular officer Maalox was used. Make sure you get the antacid not the stomach upset Maalox. Maalox antacid contains  aluminum hydroxide, magnesium hydroxide and simethicone. This is diluted half and half with water and can be used to rise and cool the eyes and skin, as it’s an antacid you can also drink some to soothe the inside of your mouth and your gullet. Also marketed under the name Mylanta the active ingredients in these OTC medications are different to Gaviscon and Pepto-bismol, the latter of which works far less efficiently against CS gas. L.A.W can also be used on the genitals . Apparently females and circumcised males suffer more the most from genital irritation.

Removing contaminated clothing should be done with care so as not to compound the problems with your eyes and airways. Preferably face into the wind so any residue that drops off and is blown past you. Close your eyes and take a deep breath before taking anything off over your head, thew it behind you after removal.

Although L.A.W can be used to soothe your skin it is more effective on delicate mucous membranes, such as the eyes, mouth, throat and genitals.

Skin cleaning is better accomplished by rubbing a copious amount of vegetable or mineral oil on the skin and then almost immediately wiping it off and using rubbing alcohol on the same patch of skin. This is a long and time consuming process and the rest of you will continue to sting and burn until you get around to that area.

Showering it off is the best bet. The water should be cold and copious amounts of laundry or dishwashing soap should be used. Bath bars, perfumed soaps and beauty products should not be used at all during the process as they can interact with the residue and make the problem worse.

Rinse off and then wash again.

If the cold is getting to you go to luke-warm but no hotter. Hot water opens your pores and allows residue to penetrate deeper into your skin which makes the surface contamination seem pleasant by comparison.

You need to be under running water for about 20 minutes to be sure you have removed it all.

Never be tempted to have a bath, you will just be sitting in a tub of chemicals.

Clothes can be laundered, at least twice and then air dried in order to reuse them but my ‘got gassed in a training exercise’ friend assures me bagging up and binning them is a far better idea. If you do go down the laundry route put the machine on the hottest wash you can for a full cycle before using it again to make sure all contamination has been removed.

Many thanks to Detective Inspector C,  Metropolitan Police for his help in writing this article.

Here are another couple of articles you may find interesting:

Coping with and prepping for martial law

12 Things you should do and 1 thing you should have if you are caught in  a riot

Take care,


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