I was working as a legal observer in San Francisco when I was exposed to the chemical agent known as tear gas.
Touted as the safest known “riot dispersion” tactic in civilian uprisings, the compound is categorized as a chemical warfare agent and its use is banned in warfare. Yet it was recently used in Montreal to break up a Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of the death of George Floyd, and has been deployed countless times across the United States over the last month.
My own encounter left me with long-term disruptions to my reproductive health. It happened just after U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration, when I was an undergraduate at Stanford University in California. A pressing need for advocates at rallies and demonstrations had inspired me to obtain training from the National Lawyers Guild. I felt pride donning my neon-green cap and reflective vest, symbols of my desire to support the rights of people protesting by documenting police behaviour, and connecting those arrested with immediate counsel.
The protest was peaceful, but the atmosphere was charged. Soon, riot police were shooting tear gas canisters directly into the crowd, instead of into the air. Far from de-escalation, the gas provoked chaos. Even from near the edge of the fleeing crowd, I couldn’t escape the rapidly dispersing cloud.
Seconds after contact, I felt nothing. Then the chlorobenzylidene malononitrile powder began adhering to moisture on my skin. A severe burning sensation in my eyes, nose and the inside of my mouth followed. My eyes started streaming tears, worsening the pain. Activated pain receptors made me nauseated and short of breath. I escaped the fray and a medic flushed my eyes out with cold water, bundling my vest into a plastic bag. Brief exposure meant the effects lasted only a few hours. I wasn’t hit with a canister or a truncheon. As an Indigenous woman at a protest, I felt I was lucky.
Then two days later I missed my period.
“I had no idea what had happened to me. I wondered whether the police had any idea what they had done to me, either.”
I knew that exposure to tear gas put me at a higher risk of developing pneumonia, but this was not a side-effect I had anticipated. Weeks went by. That nauseous feeling remained. Finally, I had my period after almost three months, but it took even longer to regain a sense of normalcy. I reached out to the medic who had come to my aid, and she reported the opposite: non-stop bleeding and painful cramps for weeks. I spoke to other water protectors who were more heavily tear-gassed at Standing Rock, and they did not get their periods for a year.
Being on the front lines of a social justice movement can be very challenging — emotionally and physically — but a year-long absence of menstruation is a serious disruption to the functions of one’s endocrine system, which can’t be accounted for by stress alone.
I had no idea what had happened to me. I wondered whether the police had any idea what they had done to me, either.
The War Resisters League, a pacifist organization, includes disrupted menstruation as a possible side-effect of tear gas. There is very little research into the negative long-term effects, and even fewer studies focusing on those of us whose reproductive system includes a uterus and ovaries.
Here are some things we do know about the suggested link between tear gas exposure and miscarriage, as well as adverse effects on the fetus during pregnancy:
- In 1988, the United Nations attributed “dozens” of miscarriages to tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian demonstrators.
- In 2011, Chile temporarily banned the use of tear gas against protesters after a University of Chile study showed chlorobenzylidene malonontrile might cause miscarriages, as well as “affect reproductive function, damage the fetus in the last trimester of pregnancy and children in the first years of life.”
- In 2012, the non-profit Physicians for Human Rights reported that, following the use of tear gas by government forces in Bahrain, doctors said they had noticed a significant rise in miscarriages in neighbourhoods where tear gas was used frequently.
- In 2016, a US National Library of Medicine publication cited circumstantial reports as suggesting “a correlation between CS exposure and miscarriage.”
As there is scant research regarding the effects of tear gas on reproduction and fertility, activists are sounding the alarm. Many on Twitter reported spontaneous bleeding and painful cramps that last weeks after exposure, even if they had IUDs or were on testosterone. They are demanding to know what has been done to their bodies without their consent.
I value scientific research enormously, but I do not believe in the infallibility of science, nor its ability to present findings completely free of bias. Women of colour like me are already under-represented in medical research. We suffer daily the consequences of an inadequate scientific knowledge base for issues disproportionally affecting us, and if we are also queer, non-binary or transgender, that burden intensifies.
Colonial infrastructures have participated for centuries in “reproductive terrorism,” the term I use to call attention to the way the state has violently sundered the relationship of Black and Indigenous people to our own reproductive health. This terrorism encompasses forced gynaecological experiments on enslaved African women, sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools, denial of treatment for African-American men afflicted with syphilis, stillbirths attributed to sour gas leaks in the Lubicon Cree First Nation, and the coerced sterilizations of Indigenous mothers.
“I never want another person to go through what I went through, unsure of the damage that had been done to me by the state.”
The use of tear gas forms part of this legacy of reproductive terrorism Canada and the United States have inflicted on Black and Indigenous people under the mantle of “science,” “progress” or simply “convenience.”
It is terror to be exposed to a chemical weapon whose long-term effects have never been studied.
It is terror to be put at risk of miscarriage or unpredictable menstrual cycles.
It is terror to be forced to choose between my ability to have children and my ability to fight for a better future for those children.
In 1989, Dr. Howard Hu and other medical investigators from Physicians for Human Rights asserted that if a weapon was found to present “too serious a risk” to the public, that it was “the responsibility of those in charge of public safety to decide on alternatives.” It is not my responsibility to present comprehensive solutions, but it is my responsibility to share my experience and to use my voice to call for change.
I never want another person to go through what I went through, unsure of the damage that had been done to me by the state for peacefully attending a protest. Use of tear gas must be outlawed in Canada.
NDP MP Matthew Green has sponsored a House of Commons petition calling for its nationwide ban on the basis that it “can and has caused death, miscarriage and significant long-term health effects.”
There is an urgent need to reform Canada’s justice system to prevent the senseless violence inflicted on Black and Indigenous people. These goals will take time, but there’s a reason I have continued donning my beloved legal observer cap after all these years. It’s because I know one small action is enough to give hope. And banning tear gas is that action.
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