Tear gas, also known as mace and pepper spray, is commonly used by police in crowd control or by individuals for self-defense. Ranging from Ebola hysteria in West Africa to protests in Istanbul, the chemical has constantly graced the front page of newspapers this summer. Tear gas is known to impact the eyes, temporarily stunning individuals, but a recent study has found the chemical to also impact one’s lungs, and the consequences are far from temporary.

A study presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Munich, Germany, running from Sept. 6-10, investigated the duration of lung health effects in protestors directly exposed to tear gas. Results were based on the information collected from 546 people who had inhaled tear gas during public protest in June 2013, according to a press release. Data collected consisted of: individual’s smoking history, exposure to tear gas, reported symptoms, and duration of symptoms.

Results showed that the harmful effects of tear gas could be experienced up to two weeks following initial exposure. Of the 546 protestors, up to 70 percent reported respiratory difficulties, 80 percent had a lasting cough, 45 percent had phlegm difficulties, and 43 percent experienced chest pain. The average length for these symptoms was 15 days.

Researchers also interviewed 105 individuals who were not as involved in the protest but lived or worked close to the location of repeated protests. Of these, 76 reported breathlessness and 89 percent reported a lasting cough. Lung function tests also showed that 20 of the volunteers had some level of airway obstruction. “These results are significant as they contradict the previous assumptions about the effects of tear gas,” explained Dr. Eda Uslu from the Turkish Thoracic Society in the press release.

Although comprising of slightly different chemical makeups, tear gas, mace, and pepper spray are all freely available means of protection. The chemicals in these products irritate the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs, causing symptoms of tearing, sneezing, and coughing.

Interestingly enough, the chemical is not currently classified as a chemical weapon but is forbidden for use as a weapon of war in cases of international conflict. Many have found this contradiction to be further indication that the police's use of the chemical on the public is inhumane. Based on the study’s findings, Uslu concluded that tear gas should be “banned globally to prevent any further damage to health.”

Source: Effects of passive tear gas exposure. European Respiratory Society International Congress. 2014.