It’s no news that police officers across the world often use tear gas against demonstrators at protests to repress and ward off crowds, leaving them choking, irritated and in pain. In handling issues like these, there have been disagreements on what to do and how to protect yourself when those canisters get thrown into the crowd.
Over the past couple of days, Nigeria has witnessed a number of protests to fight against police brutality, especially the injustices meted against citizens by a unit of the Nigerian Police Force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). In the #EndSARS movement, Nigerian youths have taken to the streets across different states and in the diaspora, calling for the dissolution of the special squad.
The universal human right that endows people with the freedom of speech and expression makes protesting your right. But even though these protests have started off peacefully, many of them have resulted in violence with unarmed protesters ending up arrested, hit with tear gas, shot and even killed.
This is why it is very important to know how to protect yourself and help others during protests.
What to do before and when being exposed to tear gas
1. Cover your nose and mouth
Wear a gas mask or use a bandana or scarf to cover your nose and mouth. Make sure it is soaked in water. As tear gas is a crystalline powder and not necessarily a gas, this will prevent the powder from getting into your airways and allow you to breathe more easily. Also wear a head covering like a beanie or a hat so that you can get the powder off more easily.
2. Be ready
You might have your placards ready, but that’s not all you’ll be needing. Cover as much of your skin as possible. Wear goggles to protect your eyes. Carry your things in a backpack or something you can comfortably run with. Take a bottle or two of clean water along. Do not wear makeup as the powder from the tear gas can easily cling to it. Avoid wearing contact lenses. Wear glasses instead.
3. Stay calm before helping others
Avoid coming in contact with the cloud of tear gas as much as possible. It is essential to keep calm and secure your face mask or bandana before helping others. Then, when you have your airways (and eyes if possible) thoroughly covered, look around you and see if there’s anybody you can help.
If you see somebody lying or sitting down, try to move them to a clean and ventilated area. The tear gas will settle to the ground, so make sure you find your way to higher ground.
4. Leave the area
Now, after everyone who needs assistance has been handled, you need to move away from the tear gas cloud. Although your first instinct might be to run, fight it. Running will mean you taking deeper breaths and filling your lungs with more tear gas, even if you’re wearing a gas mask. While seeking high ground, move quickly, but ensure to keep your breathing even.
5. Put out the tear gas canister
In the event that a gas canister lands right next to you, you may want to know how to put it out immediately before it causes more damage. But be warned; this is more dangerous than retreating from the area. So proceed with extra caution.
- Use a traffic cone. Cover a canister with a traffic cone to stop the spread of the gas, and pour a lot of water into the opening at the top of the cone to put the fire in the canister out. This stops the release of tear gas almost instantly. However, you will need a lot of water, which is most likely in short supply at protests.
- Use a water bottle. This method is much more dangerous since it requires actually handling a hot, detonated tear gas canister, and direct contact may lead to second-degree burns. Use thick, heat-resistant leather gloves to pick up the canisters, put them inside metal water bottles, and shake them thoroughly until the fire in the canister is completely out. For this method, protection is key. Make sure your eyes and airways are thoroughly covered with a gas mask. Also, wear appropriate, heat-resistant protection on your hands to avoid burns.
6. Wash the tear gas from your skin with cool water
As quickly as possible, wash the tear gas from your skin with large amounts of cool water. Before you touch your face, take care to wash your hands thoroughly with soap so you don’t hurt yourself.
You can also spray a baking soda and water solution (three teaspoons of powder for every 8.5 ounces of liquid) on your face and mouth to neutralize the effects of tear gas particles.
If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, take off your glasses and then rinse your eyes with plain water for several minutes. Tilt your head so water rushes over your eyes instead of splashing on your face. Make sure the water is clean in order to avoid infection. Milk is probably not as sterile as clean water and is not advisable to use, but using it is better than nothing. Clean your glasses thoroughly before putting them back on. Do not re-use contacts.
7. Get rid of the chemicals after exposure
Once you are no longer exposed to the cloud of tear gas, the next step is to clean yourself up as soon as possible. Tear gas is a powder; it can get stuck to and linger on your clothes and shoes. Take off all the clothing that may have the chemicals on them, and leave other soiled items like shoes outside to air out. Hang your clothes in an open, ventilated area for at least 48 hours before washing them separately from your other uncontaminated laundry.
Then, take a cold shower for at least 20 minutes to prevent tear gas from irritating your skin any further. You might have to shower a couple of times before you stop smelling of tear gas, but the first one will reduce the pain and irritation to a minimum. Don’t forget to wash your hair properly. After that, you’ll be able to head right back out to the demonstration.