June 7, 2020

Poison Center issues recommendations on treating crowd control agents

People in communities throughout the nation continue to exercise their First Amendment right “of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievance.” As groups continue to fight against social injustice and protecting this right through peaceful protest, there is a risk of exposure to crowd control agents.

Common agents used for crowd control and dispersal are pepper spray, pepper balls, tear gas and impact rounds or rubber bullets. These agents are intended to cause discomfort and pain.
If there is a chance that you will encounter these agents, here are some recommendations to improve your safety:

•    Wear a mask
•    Protect your eyes with glasses or goggles
•    Do not wear contact lenses
•    Consider a face shield
•    Do not wear makeup, as crowd control agents are oil based and will dissolve into the makeup
•    Wear long pants and sleeves
•    Carry water. Milk is less effective than water
•    If you have asthma, take your inhaler

Exposure to tear gas (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, called CS) causes immediate pain and irritation to eyes, nose, mouth and skin. The effects from tear gas may last up to 30 minutes after decontamination. Treatment for exposure to tear gas includes:

•    Removal from exposure site
•    Use mild soap and water to wash off skin
•    For burns to skin, rinse well with water or saline solution and seek medical care 
•    Eye exposure:
Contact lenses should be removed immediately
Rinse eyes with a constant stream of room-temperature water for 15 to 20 minutes
Wash glasses with soap and water, and rinse well
If vision is blurred or severe pain and redness to eye persists, seek care in an emergency room
•    Remove clothing and shower, washing with mild soap
•    Double bag clothing in plastic until it can be washed

Effects from pepper spray or pepper balls are similar to tear gas, but the effects are prolonged. Extraction of oils from peppers (oleoresin capsicum) are used to produce pepper spray and pepper balls. Immediate effects are pain and tearing of eyes. Most people will experience irritation to the eyes, mouth, nose and skin for approximately two hours after decontamination. Direct exposure to the face and eyes with pepper spray may cause prolonged skin and eye irritation. More serious effects can include permanent eye injury and vision loss. Injury from direct contact with pepper balls are possible, and include permanent eye damage and vision loss, burns and blistering to skin, severe irritation to nose and throat, and temporary breathing difficulty. Treatment for exposure to pepper spray and/or pepper balls includes:

•    Blot skin dry to avoid spreading residual capsicum
•    Wash skin with oil-free soap and rinse well
•    For burns to skin, rinse well with saline solution or water
•    Eye exposure:
Remove contact lenses immediately
Rinse eyes for 15 to 20 minutes with a constant stream of room-temperature water or saline solution 
Seek medical care for persistent redness and blurred vision or severe eye pain at any time
Wash glasses with soap and water, and rinse well
•    Removal from exposure site
•    Remove clothing and double bag in plastic (exposure to pepper balls can cause ongoing and repeated exposure to agent with movement of clothing)
•    Shower with mild soap

The health care professionals at your Michigan Poison Center are dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of everyone. Before participating in protests and other social justice events, call your poison center at 1-800-222-1222 to find out more about the effect of crowd control agents and decreasing injury from exposure to these agents.