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    Saturday, 10 September 2016

    Tear gas has serious adverse effects on health

    Dr Evans Masitara
    Health and Human Rights Activist, Former Vice President Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors
    Association. Writes in his individual capacity.
    Email: dr.mastara@gmail.com

    The recent political developments which has seen civil unrest characterised by massive protests due to governance issues has led to confrontation between the police and civilians.
    Tear gas has been used countless times to disperse crowds and in unfortunate incidences bystanders have been caught in the crossfire. The immediate effects of tear gas are irritation of the mucus membranes causing tears, painful eyes, shortness of breath and at times chemical burns to the skin. Usually these symptoms commence 30 to 60 seconds after exposure and can last for an hour to 24 hours after removal from contaminated space, although in extreme cases tear gas can cause blindness, cardiac arrest, and death. People with pre-existing medical conditions such as Asthma, heart disease and TB may require hospitalisation and respiratory support.  A lot of people have not paused to consider the long term medical effects of tear gas exposure. This causes a risk to policemen, protestors, civilians and journalists.
    Tear gas formally known as lachrymatory agent or lachrymator is a chemical weapon.
    The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibits use of tear gas and pepper spray in warfare but ironically allows its use for crowd control. CWC stipulates that effects should disappear shortly after exposure.
    It is also not allowed to fire tear gas into enclosed spaces such as rooms and motor vehicles. Research into the effects of exposure has been limited due to fear of litigation by authorities and the ethical implications of clinical trials. In a 1987 attack on protestors in South Korea, 351 000 tear gas canisters were fired. Scientists managed to positively link a surge in miscarriage, still births, delayed menses, heart and Liver disease to the tear gas exposure. In 2011, 54 deaths were attributed to tear gas in Bahrain. A case of serious vascular injury from teargas shells has been reported in Iran with associated nerve injury of 44% and amputation 17%. Studies done in Turkey showed that tear gas victims suffered lung damage with associated chronic reduced lung capacity. In Chile teargas use was temporarily banned in 2001 following positive linkages of Tear Gas with foetal harm and miscarriage. These examples should make us think twice regarding the indiscriminate use of teargas on Zimbabweans.
    At room Temperature tear gas is found in a solid state. It is at times dissolved in Methyl Chloride which has been positively identified as an agent that causes cancer. It is logical to deduce that constant exposure to tear gas increases your likelihood of getting cancer. It is my firm belief that the right to health is a fundamental human right which is part of the "Bill of Rights' in our constitution. Endangering the health and lives of thousands of Zimbabweans, is not only cruel but reckless. The authorities should find alternative means of crowd control which do not endanger the health of the public.
    The other worrying trend is the use of the water cannons with blue liquid. People exposed to that liquid have complained of severe itchiness and burning sensation. Citizens deserve full disclosure by manufacturers and police departments of the material data safety sheets of all chemicals used in crowd control.
    Manufacturers must be held responsible for the health effects, both acute and chronic, of the chemicals they create. Police officers must be educated about the risks of the chemicals they disburse and be held responsible for the aftercare of those they expose. 
    I would like to take this opportunity to encourage restraint amongst our law enforcing agents as far as using these harmful commodities is concerned as they are also risking their own heath.  I would also like to urge our scientists to conduct local studies so that we can justify an end to this primitive method of crowd control. Last but not least, may the protestors demonstrate peacefully without interfering with operations of other Zimbabweans so that the police may find no excuse to unleash these harmful substances. 
    A healthy nation is a productive nation! Let's build a new Zimbabwe !
    "Tear gas is a misnomer for a group of poisonous gases which, far from being innocuous, have serious acute and long term adverse effects on the health of significant numbers of those exposed".
    We aim to change the conversation on tear gas by calling this so called non-lethal weapon what it is: a chemical weapon. We view tear gas pepper spray and all lachrymatory agents and so called non lethal weapons as chemical weapons in the war on democracy - Physicians For Human Rights 2001
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