Teargas and Your Uterus: It’s not good
A year ago, I never would have thought in a million years that this is a topic that needs discussing, but here we are! Here in Portland, Oregon, activism and standing up for basic human rights have come with a toxic price of being exposed to tear gas. This chemical weapon has been used daily in the city since May of 2020, as well as in other cities in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Many of the activists of the BLM movement have been exposed to this on multiple occasions, mostly at very close range, and for some on a daily basis. What we are seeing more and more of in our clinic, is dysfunctional uterine bleeding from teargas exposure. Those with uteruses bleeding for days/weeks with no pattern, or having a seemingly normal cycle and then after the exposure having irregularity. So, what is that about?
For those of you who do not know much about tear gas, here is a “brief” background.
Teargas is a weapon made up of various chemicals and liquid compounds, more specifically: bromoacetone, various alcohols, organic solvents, halogenated hydrocarbons, and propellants such as Freon, tetrachloroethylene, xylyx bromide and or methylene chloride (this does not include many of the SECONDARY compounds like dioxin that are also used in tear gas). Tear gas doesn’t cause people to tear up, rather its purpose is to irritate mucous membranes with contact. It’s not actually a gas, it’s a powder. Since it is dispersed in the air, the eyes and the respiratory system are both affected, and it can also irritate the skin depending on the level of exposure. When you touch your face you are actually grinding the powder into your cells and making them more irritated. Teargas activates the receptors that activate pain, TRPA1 (via 2-chlorobenzalmalonitrile or CS gas) or TRPV1, which activates pain perception in the GI tract, respiratory tract, dermal and ocular membranes, as well as transient irritative symptoms. When it comes into contact with moister areas or is diluted by using water or milk, the irritation can last longer and be absorbed in the body because you are giving the powder a solution to disperse in and it could prolong the effects significantly.
The idea is that is supposed to used be from far away, and the suggestion that it is “safe” is implying to the exposure being minimal and from a distance. Here in PDX, for those who are bravely fighting downtown for over months and months night after night, this exposure is long term and comes in at a closer range than usually used in protests, and in some cases contacts directly onto their bodies.
The CS teargas (chlorobenzylidene malonontrite) that has been discontinued in most places is what is being used in many protests in the USA right now. It was used in the Arab Spring Protests as well as the protests in Chile in 2011, but was discontinued for its damage to the uterus, its effect on breastmilk, potentiating miscarriages, toxic effects/risk of fetal demise in the 3rd trimester, stillbirth, and long-term effects to young children.
But why does it have this effect?
Unfortunately studies are limited and the only evidence we have is the unfortunate effects, so there’s been no formal study on the teargas compounds on reproduction. It is now being more documented that this is a huge risk and a likely consequence. We know that there are many environmental pollutants that act as endocrine disruptors meaning they mess with your hormones. The fact that the uterus is just shedding without the cyclical hormone prompt is a safe assumption that it is disruptive to sex hormones, and it is unknown the length of damage that can occur.
Most women are pretty limited to ingest most things with breastfeeding due to chemicals being fat and/or water soluble, and binding to cells and getting transferred into the milk. When something enters a breastfeeding mom’s bloodstream it has a chance to get to the baby pending plasma concentrations. And this is where we are taking into account the ability of teargas to get into mucous membranes incredibly easily, and thus being effortlessly transported within the bloodstream of mom, and then potentially on to the baby. There are studies that suggest after exposure to teargas, breastfeeding should be avoided for one hour, but the specifics of the proximity of the teargas were not specified. Dioxin, which is a common secondary compound of teargas, has been shown to bind easily to breastmilk and can cause infant harm acting as a carcinogen, an immune suppressant, and causing reproductive damage in the infant and mom. Dioxin is classified by the EPA as a carcinogen.
So what do you do?
If you have been at the protests and are starting to experience these symptoms, please contact your doctor immediately. At Femelle, we do have protocols to aid in this, but they are altered for each patient’s medical needs specifically.
If you want to be part of the protests, but obviously want to protect your body from long term damage. Here are some harm reduction tactics:
- Wear a mask (3M Pink replacement cartridge filters with yellow label on the side). Make sure your mask FITS (medium fits 80% of most people). Have a weather sealed bag to place it in so that the open-air contaminants won’t be collected in the filter.
- Wear eye protection (note, if you have contacts DO NOT wear them to a protest that might have tear gas).
- Clothing: wear 2 layers of clothing to cover all exposed skin. Wear 2 pairs of underwear to protect your vaginal mucosa from any exposure.
- Wear gloves.
- If you get hit with tear gas, flap your arms like you are trying to fly. Again, these are dust particles and will move away if there is motion.
- Leave the area if you can taste it, smell it, feel it, you become nauseous, dizzy, etc…
- When removing clothing be careful you aren’t spreading the particles elsewhere on yourself or in your home (do it outside).
- Take a shower, making sure you wash your eyebrows and hairline (tear gas can accumulate here), washing your body from the top to the bottom, and bag/wash your clothes after each night of protesting.
- Line your car or mode of transportation with garbage/contractor bags so that the particles from your clothing do not get into your car. Dispose of garbage/contractor bags nightly.
- Have a good immune supportive/detoxing protocol that is suggested by your provider. There are guides out there that can be very damaging to some people pending other conditions that they have so it’s always best to check in with
If you are breastfeeding, pregnant, or trying to become pregnant, it is best to not be in the front lines protesting with this new level of risk. There are many other ways that are effective forms of activism and aiding the BLM movement that are safe from biological warfare, and super impactful, and make a difference.
Here is a research study survey from Planned Parenthood to take if you have been in contact with tear gas: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-north-central-states/about-ppncs/research/tear-gas-and-reproductive-health-study
Dr. Noe King