Can Exposure to Teargas Affect Your Pregnancy?

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What is teargas?

Teargas is a general term used to refer to lachrymator agents that are used by law enforcement agencies for riot control. The term lachrymator comes from the Latin word lacrima which means tears. Hence, these agents irritate the eyes causing excessive tearing and temporary blindness. Here are three of the most commonly used lachrymator agents:

  1. Pepper spray

Pepper spray is extracted from capsicum, a type of pepper. It was first engineered by the FBI in the 1980s to protect law enforcement officers from protesters. There are different strengths available ranging from 0.18% to 3%. Low concentrations of pepper spray are available to the public for personal protection. Pepper spray is also used for defense against animals such as bears.

Pepper spray causes irritation of the eyes and other mucus membranes. It causes an immediate burning sensation leading to forced closure of the eyes, excessive tearing and temporary blindness. When inhaled, it causes running nose, coughing and a burning sensation in the lungs. The effects typically last for twenty to ninety minutes. A scientific investigation carried out by ophthalmologists found that a single exposure to pepper spray, while excruciatingly painful in the moment, is harmless in the long run.

  1. CS Gas

CS gas is a chemical that is solid in room temperature. It is dissolved in an organic solvent to form an aerosol. It is the most commonly used lachrymator agent by law enforcement officers worldwide because it is the most potent irritant whilst being the least toxic. It reacts with moisture on the skin and eyes leading to a burning sensation. The effects are forceful eye shutting, vomiting, tearing and running nose. These wear off within an hour. Excessive exposure leads to chemical burns which can lead to permanent scarring.

  1. Xylyl Bromide

Xylyl bromide is a colorless liquid the is mixed with organic chemical compounds to form an aerosol. This form of teargas is manufactured and packaged as a grenade. The effects are excessive tearing, temporary blindness and throat irritation.

Prognosis

Teargas is not meant to cause long term harm. The goal is to deter the person or animal on the receiving end by inflicting temporary pain that will enable one to either make a quick getaway or, in the case of law enforcement officers, restrain the individual. Hence, teargas exposure has a good prognosis.

Even so, high exposure, close proximity to source and exposure in an enclosed space for a significant period of time worsens the prognosis. In this case, complications such as glaucoma, cataracts, chemical burns and pulmonary edema can occur. In addition, individuals with chronic lung disease such as asthma are particularly at risk. Death in asthmatics who have been exposed to teargas, though rare, have been recorded.

What about exposure during pregnancy?

An animal study showed that CS gas, the most commonly used lachrymator agent by law enforcement officers, does not result in adverse outcomes during pregnancy. However, exposure to teargas during pregnancy can cause harm indirectly. Sudden exposure causes panic and disorientation which may lead to accidental injury.

In addition, the other effects of teargas such as chemical burns and pulmonary edema can complicate an otherwise uncomplicated pregnancy. Thus, while teargas does not directly harm one’s pregnancy, exposure during this delicate may simply be unpleasant or lead to a host of other complications.

What to do when you come into contact with teargas while pregnant

Due to the pain and ensuing panic, the first instinct following teargas exposure is to flee. This is a good idea but because teargas compromises vision, it can lead to accidental injury. Thus, while fleeing from the scene should be done quickly, it should also be done as cautiously as possible. To do this, try to remain calm. Also, avoid rubbing your eyes as this will worsen the irritation.

Once you are far enough from the source and are breathing in fresh air, start decontaminating. First, take off any contaminated clothing items. Then rinse off any contaminated body parts including your eyes with as much water as humanly possible. You may also use milk, or clean yourself with water and baby shampoo. If you have contact lenses, remove them before rinsing out your eyes but clean your hands first.

If you are alone and are unable to remain calm enough to remove yourself from the situation and decontaminate, call for help. Call an ambulance, a loved one who lives nearby or ask a bystander to assist. Teargas has no antidote. The management of teargas exposure in the hospital setting is to decontaminate the patient with saline or plain water and provide topical painkillers. Any complications that arise such as chemical burns are managed on a case by case basis. Be sure to inform the doctor attending to you that you are expectant. Oftentimes, a bedside ultrasound and regular followup is the only additional management that will be required.

In summary

Teargas exposure is uncommon and most people go about their whole lives only seeing and hearing about it on the news. But with the ongoing protests in major cities of the world, this may change. Whether you have chosen to participate in the protests or are accidentally caught between the crossfire of law enforcement officers and protesters while going about your business, knowing how to act will prevent unnecessary panic. This is especially true for pregnant women. While teargas does not directly harm one’s pregnancy, exposure during this time is an absolute no-no as it can start a chain of events that will negatively impact the pregnancy.

Marlene Okoth
Dr. Marlene Okoth is a medical doctor practicing in Nairobi, Kenya. She is also a trained science writer who is passionate about providing clear, concise, lucid and accurate medical information geared towards helping people better their lives. She is particularly keen on impacting the lives of women and children through health education.

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