Over the last two weeks, people across the country have demonstrated daily against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others. As police respond to these protests with escalating violence, many people—including pregnant people and breastfeeding parents—are experiencing for the first time the kind of riot control weapons that communities of color are all too familiar with.
Questions have arisen about the safety of “nonlethal” methods on pregnant protesters, as old news about tear gas being an abortifacient (a substance that induces abortion) has resurfaced. What are the risks tear gas poses to a developing fetus, and is it safe for pregnant people to protest? Is it safe for people who are breastfeeding?
As an abortion doula, I avoid telling pregnant people what to do. I believe it’s important to keep the focus on the responsibility of the police to not use chemical weapons and escalating tactics in the first place. Police are making protests unsafe; it’s not that pregnant people are acting recklessly when they participate. Tear gas is a chemical weapon, and calling it anything else only serves to disguise its purpose and the effects it has on our bodies.
What is tear gas?
Tear gas degrades the mucous membranes. It burns the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. It causes gagging, vomiting, coughing, streaming of the eyes, and difficulty breathing. Tear gas is generally considered and accepted as a “nonlethal” or “less lethal” weapon, but when misused or used excessively—as we’ve seen by police across the country this week—or when used indoors, some research has shown it can be lethal. Tear gas is also much more dangerous to people who have respiratory diseases like asthma or emphysema, as well as vulnerable populations like babies, the elderly, and people who are immunocompromised. It’s also worth pointing out, as others have, the irony of using a chemical agent that attacks the respiratory system during a pandemic of a respiratory disease.
But can tear gas cause a miscarriage? There is evidence that tear gas may have an impact on the reproductive system, from menstruation to breastfeeding—this is what we know so far.
Tear gas and miscarriage
When I posted to the Colorado Doula Project’s Instagram that tear gas is an abortifacient, it wasn’t something I did lightly. I’ve received a lot of questions from people who say they can’t find any information on whether this is true. It’s worth noting that part of the reason we don’t have as much concrete data as people would like is that there isn’t a way to conduct ethical trials on pregnant people, the elderly, or children. We have tests on young, able-bodied soldiers—that’s pretty much it.
As much as I value scientific testing, anecdotal information that goes back over 30 years and the observations of physicians, activists, and regular people who have survived tear-gassing is also data. These reports come from countries that have experienced a lot of war or civil unrest, like Chile, Palestine, and Bahrain. It’s worth noting that the Chilean government temporarily halted the use of tear gas in 2011 over concern that tear gas could cause miscarriage and harm young children.
What we don’t know is whether one exposure to tear gas is enough to cause a miscarriage. The impact of stress and brutal handling from police, from running or from injury, could potentially increase the risk. We also don’t know the effects of tear gas on the placenta, and the stress alone could be reason enough to stay home and away from protests.
Tear gas and menstruation
Some women who were present at Standing Rock for the Dakota Access pipeline protests, and were exposed to tear gas multiple times, reported not getting their periods for a year after they left the demonstrations, a fellow organizer told me. Stress could be a factor, but a year is a very long time for that kind of disruption to the menstrual cycle.
War Resisters League, a pacifist organization that advocates against wars in the United States and abroad, includes delayed menstruation as a possible side effect of tear gas. This suggests that tear gas may have an impact on the endocrine system, which regulates reproductive functions like menstruation, but there has been minimal scientific research on these impacts.
Tear gas and breastfeeding
There’s a bit more data on the effects of tear gas for breastfeeding people, as we have some information about the half-life of tear gas on the body. La Leche League Asia & Middle East, part of La Leche League International, a nonprofit organization that supports and provides resources to breastfeeding parents, released its research and suggestions for breastfeeding that resulted from the use of tear gas during the Hong Kong protests in 2019.
According to the report, any contaminant or chemical has to get into the nursing parent’s blood stream in order to get into breast milk, so “pumping and dumping” may not be necessary after being exposed to tear gas. Le Leche League suggests waiting an hour to nurse after you have decontaminated yourself as much as possible is sufficient.
The decontamination process, or at least the best that we can do, should look like this: Removing your clothes from the head down, cutting them off if necessary to keep from pulling them over your head to keep chemicals from getting on your face, and showering thoroughly, making sure the water washes downward from your head to your feet. Be sure to really scrub your body and be careful to get rid of any clothes that might contaminate your house, children, or pets.
There are so many unanswered questions about the toxicity of tear gas on our bodies, and its impact on our environment—particularly when it’s used so excessively within cities, where people can’t get away.
Last week, my partner and I were exposed to tear gas through the windows of our home—and we’re not alone. If you are living in an area where police are using tear gas, close your windows tightly for the entire night to avoid exposure to the chemical. War Resisters League has even more tips and guidelines to dealing with tear gas, such as not wearing contact lenses, lotions, or oils to keep the chemicals from being trapped in your eyes or on your skin.
The question of whether to be present at these protests because of the potential risk is not a consideration that anyone should have to make—since there is no reason that peaceful protesters should ever be attacked with chemicals or excessive force. Never mind a pregnant or breast-feeding person.
The ethics of police using tear gas on anyone, but especially on vulnerable people, is particularly relevant given the nature of these protests. Racial justice and reproductive justice are inextricably linked. The rights of Black people to choose to become pregnant, to raise their children in healthy environments, free from police violence, is at the heart of reproductive justice.