Masks On: A Study By a Street Medic Suggests Long Term Effects of Tear Gas Dominique Ritter

Montreal, Sept 9 2002 — Whether you're inclined to believe that the Concordia protesters are zealots deserving of a good pepper-spraying, or prefer to think that former Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu is a war criminal who doesn't deserve a public forum, pretty much everyone can agree on the need for a healthy demonstration.

To that end, Urgence Manif was created as a loose collective of medics who join demonstrations in order to treat wounded protesters — like a MASH unit for the social justice movement. As major protests have moved around the globe, so too have squads of street medics. Urgence Manif, an offshoot of Concordia's Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), came together to serve the demonstrators at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City last year, and its medics (volunteers who've undergone first aid training) have treated pepper-spray victims and injured protesters at many demos, including the Netanyahu brouhaha. But in addition to their work on the street, Urgence Manif is also involved in some vital health research.

Summit safety

As early as 1989, when the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study on the negative health effects of tear gas, reports have reached the public about the dangers of tear gas exposure. But a former Urgence Manif medic has found new evidence that offers further strength to the original studies.

Scott Weinstein, a Montreal nurse who served as a street medic at the Summit of the Americas, told protesters not to worry about tear gas exposure. Beyond the initial discomfort, he told them, they wouldn't suffer any adverse effects. To his chagrin, he has come up with the evidence to prove him wrong.

Before the Summit, many people involved in the protest movement believed that a single tear gas ingredient, the propellant methylene chloride, caused the side effects seen after mass tear-gassing at the so-called Battle in Seattle in 1999. In Quebec, Weinstein decided to collect empty gas canisters. When he started hearing reports of medics and protesters who were still suffering from side effects up to two weeks after the protest, he checked up on the chemical makeup of the two kinds of tear gas used. Neither contained methylene chloride. Weinstein concluded that tear gas alone, without that particular propellant, produces a range of health problems, from asthma to emphysema to abnormal menstruation.

"So many were sick later on," Weinstein says of the Quebec protesters. "I felt responsible."

Sickness in numbers

Soon after, Urgence Manif did a survey of close to 180 protesters and found that about 80 per cent of respondents experienced negative side effects from tear gas exposure. But Weinstein admits that, "scientifically, the study's got some flaws."

One: Most of the respondents were involved in a very intense and stressful experience, which can also produce ill health. Two: the respondents volunteered to do the questionnaire and were not an objective study group. So Weinstein did another study.

This time he focused on Quebec City residents who lived in the area where the demos took place but did not participate in them — people who were exposed to tear gas but didn't suffer the same stress or the same bias.

"I was predicting a statistically significant amount of illness — 10 to 15 per cent," says Weinstein. Instead, "about half the people interviewed reported side effects.

The Urgence Manif study hasn't been officially released yet, but Weinstein expects it won't be much longer before he has the data properly interpreted by the statistician, the epidemiologist, the toxicologist and the gynecologist he's engaged.

"We want it to be as scientifically valid as possible," he says. "But what's really important to emphasize is not that tear gas is bad, but that the use of violence against people who are dissenting is unacceptable."

Montreal police spokesperson Lynne Labelle says that police don't carry tear gas, and can find no report of police using it (the SQ and the RCMP both admit that they count tear gas among their arsenals, although the RCMP has never used it on the island of Montreal). And at the recent Concordia demonstration, police used pepper spray but no tear gas. However, tear gas may not be the only agent causing health problems at demonstrations. Weinstein has heard reports that the pepper-spraying incident at Concordia induced an asthma attack in one student and vomiting in at least two others.


Ritter, Dominique, "Masks on: A study by a street medic suggests long-term effects of tear gas," Montreal Mirror 2002-09-19.

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