A year after protests against racial riots across the country sparked violent clashes between activists and law enforcers, House Democrats on Thursday opened an investigation into the health consequences of using tear gas by police.
Two subcommittees of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform began the investigation by asking companies that manufacture and sell tear gas, and asking some government agencies to provide a wide range of documents, to determine if the federal government has done enough to ensure that the dust safe to use on humans.
“The United States has agreed not to use tear gas in war,” four Democrats, including subcommittee chairmen, wrote in a letter to agencies and companies. “In this country, however, tear gas is frequently used by law enforcement as a ‘riot control agent’.”
“Given this domestic use, we would have expected an analysis showing that tear gas products are safe for humans, but we have not seen it yet,” they wrote. “In fact, evidence suggests that tear gas is associated with long-term adverse health effects for the exposed.”
The letter was signed by Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois and chair of the Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee; Jamie Raskin, Democrat from Maryland and chair of the subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties; and two notable progressives in the subcommittees, the representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
According to lawmakers, they could not determine if there was federal oversight of the composition or safety of these products.
At least 100 law enforcement agencies – many in major cities – have used some form of tear gas against civilians protesting police brutality and racism this past summer, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In the short period, the most common domestic use of tear gas was against protesters since the long years of unrest in the late 1960s and early 70s, reports The Times.
In their letter, lawmakers cited the Associated Press report that military personnel exposed to tear gas during basic training were 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with acute respiratory distress after exposure to tear gas compared to before exposure.
“Researchers have expressed concern about the composition of tear gas, which has grown stronger over time and how it could affect the long-term health risks of exposure,” they wrote.
The Democrats are seeking information from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, and the companies Safariland, Combined Systems and Pacem Defense.
Safariland announced last year that it was leaving the tear gas industry after the product was used on protesters in Washington.
Lawmakers have asked federal agencies to investigate the effects of tear gas products on human health and the feasibility of standards for the substances. For the companies, their requests include a list of all US entities that sell their tear gas products, a description of the safety testing performed and all internal documents related to any adverse effects on the health of tear gas on humans.