How Tear Gas Works and How It Affects Your Body [Video]

2-Chlorobenzalmalononitrile, better known as CS gas, is one of the most common tear gases used in the United States today, but did you know it’s not actually a gas? We break down how it works, a bit of its history and the best ways to recover if you’re hit with it. A reminder: We’re not doctors!

Video transcript:

This chemical has been in the news a lot lately.

It was first synthesized in 1928 by American chemists, Ben Corson, and Roger Stone. It’s CS gas, but you’ve probably just heard it called tear gas.

With all I’ve heard about tear gas recently I wondered first, how does it even work? And second, is it safe? Here’s what I learned.

Tear gas is a catch-all name for molecules that irritate the mucus membranes of your eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. But if you’re in the US and someone says tear gas, they’re probably referring to CS gas.

Chemical weapons have been banned from use in warfare since 1925. And CS gas was specifically listed as a band chemical in 1993, but it can still be used legally as a riot control agent.

Exposure causes sneezing, coughing, crying, difficulty breathing, skin inflammation, and temporary blindness. It’s just generally really unpleasant.

Kabrena Rodda, PhD: It might be better referred to as a pain gas in that what it actually does is it causes intense pain.

CS gas isn’t used to make people tear up. It’s used to cause pain.

It’s also actually not a gas. It’s a white crystalline powder. Tear gas grenades are loaded with that powder plus something that will help project it through the air like gunpowder.

Once it’s in the air, CS gas will bind to cystine residues on our receptor protein in your cells called TRPA1. TRPA1 is all over our bodies, our skin, the corneas of our eyes, and the linings of our lungs. And when it’s activated a signal is sent to our brains that our brains then translate as, Hey, I’m in pain.

TRPA1 activation also causes inflammation, and that means swollen blistering skin.

It’s the same receptor that oils and mustard and wasabi will bind to. But CS gas is much more potent. It’s actually about a thousand times more potent than wasabi. So even really small amounts of CS gas can cause a lot of pain.

Okay. So that’s how it works, but is it safe? The short answer is that for healthy people, without any underlying conditions, probably.

Kabrena Rodda, Ph.D.: So somebody who has an underlying say heart condition, they may be more inclined to say, have a heart attack, or basically worsening of the symptoms that they already experienced due to their underlying conditions. That’s exactly the concern, right? The more people that are present at any given demonstration, the more likely it is that there’s going to be somebody who is more at risk.

We also don’t know the long-term effects of CS gas, but there does seem to be a link between CS gas exposure and respiratory illness.

A 2014 study done by the US Army looked at over 6,500 army recruits who were exposed to CS gas. Regardless of concentration, recruits who were exposed to CS were more likely to come down with a respiratory infection within a week.

Yeah. Respiratory infections.

There’s no effective antidote to see us gas exposure. You kind of just have to wait it out. It usually takes about 30 minutes for most of the symptoms to fade away.

According to the CDC, if you’ve been hit with CS gas, you need to get to fresh air and higher ground is better because CS gas is heavier than air. Those tiny CS potter particles can be washed away by water, but you need a lot of it. Immediately start flushing out your eyes for at least 15 minutes. And if you have contacts in, toss them.

They also recommend getting CS gas off of your skin using a soap and water mixture.

Reminder: we are YouTube channel, not a doctor. So if you have any concerns or questions about exposure, definitely contact your physician.

Stay safe and see you next time.

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