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PORTLAND, Oregon — For many of the past 78 nights, clouds of tear gas have wafted through downtown Portland and its surrounding neighborhoods. Liv Vasquez can feel the gas in her apartment, hanging in the air and irritating her eyes and throat. She believes it’s causing her serious health issues, like debilitating headaches and irregularities in her menstrual cycle.
Vasquez supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but she hasn’t attended any of the protests in the city. The 39-year-old is immunocompromised and has hardly left her apartment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect herself from the deadly virus.
But the symptoms she’s experiencing are so bad that Vasquez is leaving her inner Southeast Portland neighborhood — where she’s lived for nearly a decade — and moving to a suburb 15 miles outside the city, just to get away from the gas. She says there’s no other clear explanation for her recent health issues.
“I haven’t really changed anything in my life, besides living in Portland while it’s basically a war zone-slash-nuclear waste dump with all of this tear gas,” she said.
Local cops and federal officers have recently turned Portland into the biggest test case for sustained exposure to tear gas, possibly in American history. They’ve repeatedly doused parts of the city in gas and other riot-control munitions since protests over the police killing of George Floyd began in late May. The city was gassed so heavily in July that clouds showed up on the Federal Aviation Administration’s radar, according to The Nation.
“This feels like an attack on everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are in the city; it just felt like a bomb went off on the city.”
But no one really knows what the long-term health effects are, partly because no one’s supposed to be exposed to the chemical substance repeatedly over weeks and months — and the city’s residents and state lawmakers have started to worry.
Protesters and non-protesters alike in the city are reporting sustained difficulty breathing, migraine headaches, mental health challenges, gastrointestinal distress, and a range of other health problems associated with tear gas exposure. Now, accounts of tear gas causing irregularities in menstrual cycles are piling up as well.
“It’s a poisonous gas,” said Dr. Rohini Haar, a University of California at Berkeley faculty member and medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights. She helped lead a study about the effects of tear gas on refugees in Palestine in 2017. “It’s the dose that you get that makes it deadly or not, and if you increase that dose by getting hit every day, that's a much higher thing [risk] than just once in your life.”
The use of chemical weapons, like tear gas, was initially banned in international warfare by the Geneva Protocol in 1925 and then again by the United Nations’ 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention — which the United States signed. The compound is composed of chemicals like chloroacetophenone and chlorobenzylidene malononitrile that are designed to irritate the mouth, nose, and throat.
In the last two months alone, a number of U.S. cities have moved to limit or ban the use of tear gas. But many police departments are still allowed to use the substance. Since the protests began in late May, protesters in more than 100 cities have been tear gassed. And the effects can be severe. The Centers for Disease Control states on its website that exposure to large amounts of gas or “long-lasting exposure” can lead to blindness, respiratory failure, and even death.
Jen Moondancer, 33, experienced symptoms of tear gas exposure after she was exposed as part of her basic training in the U.S. Army. So when she started to experience similar symptoms in early July where she lives in Southeast Portland, she immediately made the connection.
“I noticed a change around the time when the Feds came here that my cycle had started to be twice as heavy as normal,” said Moondancer, who suffers from polycystic ovarian syndrome. “The pain had increased severely, I couldn’t get out of bed for almost two weeks, and I couldn’t eat anything. My digestive system was absolutely horrible.”
Moondancer’s neighborhood has not been directly tear-gassed. But she says that gas has still seeped into her tiny house on several occasions, particularly on nights when federal officers were deployed downtown.
“It kind of acts like an allergy,” Moondancer said of the gas. “My eyes really tear up, my nose get stuffy, and especially when I’m walking around outside, it gets worse.”
Moondancer hadn’t participated in a protest since early June. Since then, she’s only traveled into the downtown area, where copious amounts of tear gas have been fired, to attend classes at a beauty school and visit a friend. Even those trips are now a burden.
“Portland generally has a pretty clean air system because of all of the trees and the nature that surrounds it,” she said. “[Now] the air isn’t as clean, it’s a little bit harder to breathe, my chest gets tight, and it’s really just hard to be down there for more than a few hours.”
Like Vasquez, she’s now also considering moving to improve her health.
Several major studies completed in the last decade paint a stark picture of the effects of tear gas exposure. A study of nearly 7,000 U.S. Army recruits going through basic training at Ft. Jackson in 2014 found that they had a “significantly higher risk” of incurring acute respiratory illnesses after being exposed to tear gas just one time.
Haar’s research, conducted with refugees living in the Aida Refugee Camp outside of Bethlehem, led to comparable findings. A number of people living in the camp were dealing with long-term respiratory problems, neurological issues, and eye pain, and a quarter of respondents had to miss work due to tear gas-related illnesses. The more often people were exposed, the more, on average, they suffered.
But what’s happening in Portland is kickstarting even more research: Kaiser Permenente is currently surveying the city’s residents who have been exposed to tear gas to study its effects, but their work won’t be complete for some time.
On the other hand, not much is known about how tear gas exposure can affect reproductive health. Many environmental factors, including stress, can cause irregularities in menstrual cycles, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the effects of tear gas specifically. Haar also noted that a disproportionate focus on a potential link between menstruation issues and tear gas could be used to deter people who mestruate from protesting and exercising their First Amendment rights.
But in addition to stories like Vasquez’s, a study conducted with more than 100 subjects exposed to tear gas in Bahrain, and a similar study in Chile, have found that repeated exposure could possibly cause miscarriages. Chile temporarily suspended the use of tear gas due to that conclusion back in 2011.
An ongoing study being conducted by Planned Parenthood North Central States and the University of Minnesota will specifically focus on the effects of tear gas on reproductive health.
As a result of the range of perceived effects to tear gas exposure, some Portland residents are pursuing legal action. Vasquez has retained a lawyer and said she wants to sue Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the city’s police commissioner and has earned the nickname “Tear Gas Teddy” for his handling of the bureau. One downtown resident already won a settlement from the city for health and property damages from tear gas seeping into her apartment.
“I’m going to have to get regular cancer screenings, and this could possibly prohibit me from having children,” Vasquez said, referring to research she has seen on the risks of tear gas exposure. “That’s a long-term, lifelong effect from just living in my house.”
“It dries, it gets on surfaces”
In addition to questions about Portland’s air quality, long-term concerns exist about the city’s water supply and aquatic life.
“The gas itself doesn’t disappear,” Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer told VICE News. “It dries, it gets on surfaces, it gets into the sewer system, and it’s something that government needs to be responsible for.”
On July 30, Blumenauer and Oregon State Rep. Karin Power sent a letter to the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality asking for information on how the deployment of tear gas will affect air and water quality in the city.
While the Oregon department has responded to the letter, the EPA has not. According to Haar, the lack of research focused on how tear gas affects the environment alone is distressing.
“These are all really important questions, and they warrant a moratorium on tear gas until they are answered,” she said.
For Portland in particular, the sewer system is a major concern. Many of the storm drains around the federal courthouse in downtown Portland lead directly to the Willamette River. That’s one reason why city officials were alarmed to see crews power-washing the tear gas-laden courthouse exterior.
“It’s the dose that you get that makes it deadly or not.”
Crews from the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services deep-cleaned the city’s downtown storm drains last week and collected samples to reveal how many chemicals entered the drains. While the bureau is hopeful that it was a minimal amount, Public Information Officer Diane Dulken said, “There’s no way that we can capture it all.”
Much is still unknown about exactly what Portland has weathered. Despite inquiries from various members of Congress, no federal agency has yet revealed exactly what types of riot-control agents it used in Portland or what quantities.
In addition to the non-response from the EPA, no one from the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security has answered a letter from Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden asking for details on the deployment of gas.
Blumenauer, Power, and Wyden have all demanded to know whether law enforcement have used expired riot-control munitions in the city, which have the potential to release too quickly or at too high a concentration. They have not yet received an answer. Neither Portland police nor DHS responded to a request for comment for this story.
For now, it appears that Portlanders will have to navigate the coming months with little assistance as they try to clean up their city and deal with the effects of the chemical assault on their own — all while continuing a protest movement in the face of additional tear gas.
“I’m already in this fucking small box apartment, and now I can’t even use the little patio I have,” Vasquez said. “It’s infuriating. This feels like an attack on everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are in the city; it just felt like a bomb went off on the city.”