Since George Floyd’s death on May 25, people around the country [are] HAVE BEEN gathering to protest against police brutality. Law enforcement officials in many cities have attempted to break up crowds of protesters using riot control agents like tear gas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), riot control agents work by causing irritation to the area of contact, like the eyes or skin, within seconds of exposure. Usually, these effects are temporary and dissipate after a person is able to leave the area they were sprayed and clean the affected parts of their body, although there can be potential for long-term effects from prolonged exposure, including a risk for blindness.
To prevent ongoing irritation and potential health problems, the CDC recommends people sprayed with riot control agents like tear gas remove their clothes as soon as possible. Going to a protest? Here’s everything you need to know about how to decontaminate clothes and PPE sprayed by tear gas.
What to do if you get sprayed by tear gas
The first and most important thing to do is to leave the area, Jeffrey E. Siegler, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, tells Allure. After you find fresh air, use water on your skin and clothing to dissipate the tear gas, which Siegler says is essentially a “micro-pulverized dust.”
Next, remove the affected clothes. According to the CDC, items that need to be pulled over the head may need to be cut off. Then, decontaminate yourself with soap and water.
“As soon as you get home, if you’ve been exposed to tear gas, even lightly so, shower and wash your hair well,” says Dean Winslow, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care and professor of hospital medicine at the Stanford University Medical Center.
Once you remove residual chemicals from your hair and skin, take care of your clothes. Winslow says it’s important to decontaminate all clothing before wearing again, since the chemical agent in tear gas can linger on inanimate objects for two or three days.
When to discard clothes when sprayed with tear gas
As a precaution, the CDC recommends placing sprayed clothing in a plastic bag and discarding them. This step may be important if you were directly sprayed by a high concentration of tear gas.
Sven Eric Jordt, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine who researches how nerve receptors respond to chemical irritants, says soaking in detergent and several repeated washes may work for mild contamination — but there is no guarantee.
“You don’t want to carry tear gas residues into your home, especially with children or elderly [people] around,” he says.
People with underlying lung conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may also consider discarding clothes or PPE if exposed to tear gas. Panagis Galiatsatos, a physician specializing in internal medicine, pulmonary, and critical care at Johns Hopkins Medicine, says noxious chemicals like tear gas can flare underlying lung diseases.
How to decontaminate clothes when sprayed with tear gas
If you decide to wash your clothes, Winslow says using your regular detergent in the washing machine is OK. However, how many times you wash your clothes depends on a number of factors.
“A lot of it depends on how much of the tear gas you were exposed to,” says Galiatsatos. “The closer you are to the canister, the higher concentration of particles, and if you’re that close, you might need to get rid of your clothes. If you were just misted from farther away, one or two washes should be enough.”
For PPE like face shields or goggles, Galiatsatos and Siegler say it might be better to throw those away, since it’s hard to know how effectively you cleaned them. Siegler says you can wash cloth bandanas or face coverings in the washing machine, but recommends against trying to decontaminate and reuse disposable masks like surgical masks.
Once you remove your clothes and take a shower, you should start to feel better. But Siegler says if you still have excessive pain, irritation, and shortness of breath after decontaminating — or if you have a lung condition and you’re struggling to breathe or your breathing treatment isn’t working — you should seek medical care as soon as possible.