There are many types of ‘tear gas.’ Here’s how to tell the difference.

Plus, the treaty that allows police to use tear gas when it's banned for military use, whether it actually reduces violence, and more.

June 4, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

What kind of tear gas is that?

A few journalists have written to ask me if all tear gas is the same and whether is it fine for journalists to call all riot control dispersants “tear gas.” I love these kinds of questions.

There are four main kinds of aerosols that police and military use in crowd control: irritant incapacitants (also called riot control agents), lacrimators, sensory incapacitants and tear gases. And they are, in fact, not the same.

This may be why authorities want to quibble over whether they shot tear gas in Washington, D.C., earlier this week.

We can start with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lumps all sorts of “riot control agents” under the term “tear gas,” saying:

Riot control agents (sometimes referred to as “tear gas”) are chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.

The National Institutes of Health further explained:

Tear gas is the common name for substances that, in low concentrations, cause pain in the eyes, flow of tears and difficulty in keeping the eyes open. Only three agents are likely to be deployed: (i) 1-chloroacetophenone (CN); (ii) 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS); or (iii) dibenz[b,f]-1,4-oxazepine (CR). CN is the most toxic lacrimator and at high concentrations has caused corneal epithelial damage and chemosis. It has accounted for at least five deaths, which have resulted from pulmonary injury and/or asphyxia. CS is a 10-times more potent lacrimator than CN but is less systemically toxic.

Pepper spray is different from CN, CS and CR substances. While under the CDC’s definition it could also be a kind of tear gas, pepper spray is different in chemical makeup. Pepper spray, called OC, comes from natural compounds — capsaicin, which is the active ingredient in hot peppers — as opposed to the manmade compounds in the others.

You could ask your police department (but you will probably have to FOIA it) what kind of gas or spray they use. They will probably give you the letters — CN, CS or CR. Of the three, CN is the most dangerous, but CS burns a lot more. CR is more difficult to get off your skin.

CS is the most widely used tear gas. It gets its name from the first letters of the surnames of Corson and Stoughton, the two scientists who synthesized it in 1928. CS was first used in the field by the British Army in 1958. The earliest versions of it were so concentrated that it caused thousands of deaths.

People react differently to CS. Drill sergeants, who are repeatedly exposed to it in training, may build up a sort of tolerance to it (not the same as an immunity) while others are very sensitive to CS. Bodies react differently but training on what to expect helps build tolerance.

CS is not a gas. At room temperature, it is a powder. It becomes a cloud that looks like a gas when agents are used to spray it. In that way, it’s sort of similar to the stuff inside an air freshener can, which also is not a gas itself, though there are gases in the can to spray the air freshener stuff into the air.

CS is considered safe to use on healthy people, but the real effects are not known because, medical researchers said, the research has been mostly done by the military and those documents are classified. One researcher also wrote about complications that have arisen when a person who has been hit with tear gas also needs medical attention. Surgeons said it can cause big problems in the operating room if the patient is still having problems breathing.

Tear gas is banned for military use, so why can police use it?

Under the articles of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, tear gas was banned for military warfare use. The reasoning was that once you use tear gas in a battle, the fight will escalate to include the use of more dangerous chemical weapons, like nerve agents. The agreement does not apply to domestic law enforcement.

Slate reported in 2010:

Signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention are free to manufacture riot-control agents — defined as chemicals that cause short-lived irritation or disabling effects — as long as they report their holdings to an international body and don’t make so much that their stockpile is inconsistent with domestic use.

Can tear gas reduce violence?

One reason police have said they use tear gas is that it allows them not to use other, more lethal means of force to get people to move. In fact, a Department of Justice report that looked at a two-year study by University of North Carolina’s Injury Prevention Research Center in Chapel Hill, found:

… the number of injuries to police officers and suspects declined after pepper spray was introduced. Complaints that the police used excessive force also declined.

The DOJ report said:

Ninety-four excessive force complaints were filed against State Highway Patrol officers from 1975 to 1998, peaking in 1992 — the year before pepper spray was issued. Complaints dropped sharply after the introduction of pepper spray.

The study said there appeared to be a link between those two facts. And the DOJ pointed to another link:

A 1998 study, however, indicated that the introduction of pepper spray reduced the number of assaults on police significantly in the Baltimore County (Maryland) Police Department.

Unemployment figures arrive Friday

In the next couple of days, some conversation will turn again to unemployment figures, which come out on Friday. They will be shockingly bad.

By some estimates, the figures will show that another 10.3 million jobs were lost in May. It points toward an unemployment rate that could approach 24% for May. Close to one in four working Americans were jobless last month. Because unemployment figures lag behind what is unfolding at the moment, the June figures could begin to show states reopening and businesses rehiring, but at a reduced rate.

The Congressional Budget Office said this week, “In the second quarter, the number of people employed will be almost 26 million lower than the number in the fourth quarter of 2019.”

And the CBO dashed projections that by the end of this year we will be in a shiny new recovery. Read the forecast:

The economy is expected to begin recovering during the second half of 2020 as concerns about the pandemic diminish and as state and local governments ease stay-at-home orders, bans on public gatherings, and other measures. The labor market is projected to materially improve after the third quarter; hiring will rebound and job losses will drop significantly as the degree of social distancing diminishes.

However, those improvements will not be large enough to make up for earlier losses. Compared with their values two years earlier, by the fourth quarter of 2021 real GDP is projected to be 1.6 percent lower, the unemployment rate 5.1 percentage points higher, and the employment-to-population ratio 4.8 percentage points lower. Inflation and interest rates on federal borrowing will remain relatively low because of subdued economic activity and weak labor market conditions through 2021.

In short, when the jobless figures come out in a couple of days, they will rock us back. But if all goes well (and that is a big IF), assuming there is not a second wave pandemic in the fall that shuts it all down again, the economy will be better than it is now. But even by the end of next year, we will not be back to where we were before the pandemic.

Concern, violence and COVID-19 = gun sales

As soon as there is an odor of uncertainty in the air, whether it is civil unrest or COVID-19, U.S. gun and ammo sales rise.

AL.com reported:

Several gun stores in Central Alabama say they saw a jump in firearm and ammo sales Monday in reaction to Sunday night’s vandalism following a day of peaceful protests in downtown Birmingham.

“Everyone is making ammo runs,” said Alabama Guns and Outdoors Owner Russell England about sales Monday, a response, he says, to “(the) current state of the world.”

The store’s business was already booming, first from coronavirus, and again since nationwide protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

Mediaite said:

“The boom in handgun sales has been particularly noticeable in recent months,” said Jurgen Brauer, chief economist for Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting. “Yet again, firearms sales have surged in unprecedented ways. In May 2020, very nearly two handguns were sold for every long-gun.”

Brauer’s firm estimated Americans bought 1,726,053 firearms over the course of the month, an increase of 80% compared to May 2019. The figure is especially notable considering many states — including Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, and Washington — ordered gun stores to close during the coronavirus pandemic, though many continued to operate illicitly. In Michigan and New York, stores such as Walmart were also permitted to sell firearms during the period.

According to FBI data, more than three million background checks were processed through the bureau’s NICS database in May, a record for the month.

The stock market reacted, too, as stock prices for gun and ammo companies rose sharply this week. MarketWatch reported:

Shares of the guns and ammunition maker have run up 17% amid a 3-day winning streak and have soared 51% this year.

Smith & Wesson Brands Inc.’s stock SWBI, 11.57% ran up 8.7%, toward the highest close since October 2018. The firearm maker’s shares have hiked up 40% over the past 4 sessions and have powered up 59% year to date.

Ammunition and outdoor products maker Vista Outdoor Inc.’s stock VSTO, 5.82% climbed 4.6%, and were headed for the highest close since January 2019. The stock has run up 49% amid an 8-day win streak, and has climbed 49% year to date; it has never produced a calendar year gain since going public in January 2015.

Cybercrime may be rising in the pandemic

Take a lesson from what happened to one New Mexico county last week when the Rio Arriba County government found out it had been cyberattacked by ransomware.

Governing.com warned local governments:

Criminal activity seems to be on the rise in the online world, while more traditional types of crime have dropped during the pandemic crisis. Many people are relying more heavily than before on online services for work, entertainment and shopping. This makes them more likely to become the targets of different types of online crimes. And the websites and online platforms that these Internet users access become more attractive targets to motivated hackers who aim to take them over and deface them.

This is just a continuation of what was already unfolding before the pandemic. Security Boulevard, a security news website, noted:

Cyberattacks against state and local governments have been dramatically increasing. In 2019 alone, there were 140 ransomware attacks — an average of three per day — targeting public, state and local government and healthcare providers. This is up 65% from the previous year.

Baltimore, New Orleans and Pensacola, Florida, local governments were attacked by hackers in December last year.

Why do poor people suffer more in pandemics throughout history?

Go back in history, say to 1349 when the “Black Death” pandemic killed half of all Europeans (take a second to consider that sentence) and half of all people living in London, and we might learn something about who is most vulnerable in pandemics. It is always the people living on the margins.

Let’s take a quick tour through history. After we dive in, I will make a few suggestions about how you might think through this story where you are.

Science Magazine included a piece that quoted a bioarchaeologist:

“Bioarchaeology and other social sciences have repeatedly demonstrated that these kinds of crises play out along the preexisting fault lines of each society,” says Gwen Robbins Schug, a bioarchaeologist at Appalachian State University who studies health and inequality in ancient societies. The people at greatest risk were often those already marginalized — the poor and minorities who faced discrimination in ways that damaged their health or limited their access to medical care even in prepandemic times. In turn, the pandemics themselves affected societal inequality, by either undermining or reinforcing existing power structures.

And, oddly, there were big climate issues going on back then, too. The Science Magazine article continued:

The late 13th and 14th centuries were a time of climatic cooling and erratic weather. Harvests had failed and famines had struck in the century or so before the pandemic emerged. In the Great Famine of 1315–17, up to 15% of the population of England and Wales died, according to historical records. As wages fell and grain prices soared, more people were driven into poverty. Household account books and records of payments to workers on English manors show that by 1290, 70% of English families were living at or below the poverty line, defined as being able to buy enough food and goods to not go hungry or be cold. Meanwhile, the wealthiest 3% of households received 15% of the national income.

Even back then, the rich quarantined in big country estates while the poor lived in jammed cities.

Scientists learned a lot by studying the skeletons of those who died in that time. In the U.S., scientists have found similarities in epidemics involving Native Americans. In the 1918 pandemic that struck in both a spring and an autumn wave, they found that black people were more likely than white people to get sick in the first wave. Science Magazine reported:

Then, in the deadlier autumn wave, black people were infected at lower rates, presumably because many had already acquired immunity. But when black people did get sick in the fall of 1918, they were more likely to develop pneumonia and other complications, and more likely to die, than white people. That may be because black people had higher rates of pre-existing conditions such as tuberculosis.

This is an opportunity for you to talk with local and regional archaeology departments, which could be state, federal, university or even museum-based.

It seems to me this also provides a door for you to examine the state of local health care for marginalized populations. NPR reported:

Moreover, 25 states and the District of Columbia saw cuts to overall public health spending between 2008 and 2018, according to data compiled by the State Health Access Data Assistance Center at the University of Minnesota. The reductions came despite repeated warnings from government agencies and experts that the public health system wasn’t prepared for a pandemic or biological attack.

How will we be differently prepared for the possible autumn resurgence? What does 700-year-old Black Death data teach us about who is most vulnerable?

You could look at records from 1918 to see who died in your community and where. Compare that data to what you are seeing today. You are likely to find strong similarities because demographers will tell you that housing and economic patterns in most cities have deep roots in history.

The way we work now

WSB-Atlanta photojournalist Tracy Reeves packed up before another shift. Oh, and this does not include the camera gear.

A screenshot of Tracy Reeves’ Facebook

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.