"I bled that night": How tear gas may be wreaking havoc on protesters' reproductive health
Thanks to a growing movement against policing, this summer has been largely defined by its uprisings. Across the United States, people have taken to the streets to uplift the names and lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. Local and federal governments have not held back in their attempts to quell dissent. As a result, police have blinded people, federal agents have detained them, and numerous protesters have been hospitalized.
Many photos of protests share one key feature: a thick, foreboding cloud of tear gas hanging over the crowd. Tear gas, classified by the United Nations as a chemical weapon, is so common that people often head to protests with gas masks or homemade solutions like a bandana soaked in water. But while tear gas's immediate effects are unpleasant enough — including crying, running noses, and vomiting — some protesters say it has damaged their reproductive health.
In many anecdotal cases, protesters linked tear gas to early or otherwise unusual periods. Ray, who declined to provide their last name, tells Mic that they had their first experience with tear gas while protesting earlier this year in downtown Minneapolis. While marching, someone threw a bottle of water towards police, who responded by tear-gassing the entire crowd. "Probably two days later, I got my period — about two weeks early. My next period came four weeks later," Ray says.
The full effects of tear gas on reproductive health, specifically for people with uteruses, are not fully known. This is partially because it can be difficult to study, and some argue that the stress of protesting itself can trigger a number of physical responses, including irregular periods. However, Dr. Zoey Thill, a family physician and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Mic in an email that "the usual 'stress response' of the menstrual cycle is for things to sort of 'shut down'. Ovulation can be delayed or can stop altogether. The complaints I’m hearing about with regard to tear gas exposure are of early periods, prolonged periods, or multiple periods in a month. These complaints can’t be explained by stress alone, and may be related to exposure to tear gas."
"Proving a link between tear gas and reproductive health is not the point. Governments should not harm people expressing dissatisfaction with their services."
In 1988, tear gas was linked to miscarriages in Palestine and, in 2012, Physicians for Human Rights — which has condemned tear gas — linked the irritant to miscarriages in Bahrain. For a short time, tear gas was banned in Chile because of its suspected effects as an abortifacient, although the government eventually began using it again. However, Thill cautions that searching for a definitive study to say, without a doubt, that tear gas causes miscarriages or irregular periods misses the larger point.
"Proving a link between tear gas and reproductive health is not the point," Thill wrote to Mic. "Governments should not harm people expressing dissatisfaction with their services. Full stop."
"To be certain, there are known bodily risks to tear gas exposure: asthma exacerbations, arrhythmias, permanent vision changes or vision loss, etc. The police use this weapon despite these known risks," Thill added. "Even if a perfectly designed study showed — without a doubt — that tear gas caused miscarriage, police would continue to use it. We are not fighting with those that respect science or bodies."
Even then, if such a study did exist, it's hard to imagine that everyone would know about it. The information linking tear gas to reproductive harm is already difficult to find unless you're already looking for it. Oftentimes it's social media and the work of grassroots organizations like the Colorado Doula Project that helps people make the initial connection between tear gas and their reproductive symptoms. Ray says they did not "immediately contribute" their irregular period to tear gas. But "folks I follow on Instagram were spreading information about how tear gas can cause reproductive issues ... I spoke with probably four other [assigned female at birth] folks who got their period shortly after exposure to tear gas in Minneapolis."
Some protesters, however, know the risks going in. Oluwatimah Wise, a midwife's assistant and doula, went to protests aware of the possible impact that tear gas could have on her reproductive health. "Twice now these protests have resulted in the use of tear gas. I have noticed immediate cramping the next day both times," Wise says. "This cramping has persisted on and off consistently. In addition, on one occasion, I started my menstrual cycle around a week early."
The use of tear gas has been banned in warfare since the Geneva Protocol went into effect in 1928. However, that ban doesn't mean the U.S. hasn't used chemical weapons in war since. And with the U.S. historically positioning Black-led movements and protesters as domestic terror threats, it's no surprise that responses to protests mirror military tactics.
Many have pointed out the irony of tear gas being technically banned in warfare but perfectly legal for police to use on protesters fighting for racial justice. "Officers responding to groups of protesters with tear gas is criminal," Ray says, "especially during COVID-19. Take this encounter as an example — dozens of officers in full riot gear had a bottle of water thrown at them, and they responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Such a gross and excessive response."
"State violence — with or without tear gas — is a threat to reproductive health."
But historically, police have used devastating tactics to suppress Black-led movements for liberation. From the early existence of policing as slave patrols to surveillance under programs like COINTELPro and Philadelphia police bombing a city street, excessive responses and state violence often go hand in hand. As Thill wrote to Mic: "State violence — with or without tear gas — is a threat to reproductive health. In New York City, where the NYPD have been particularly violent in response to public demands for their accountability and/or abolition, I have taken care of people who have had significant stress responses to police response to protest, including one person who suffered a miscarriage shortly after being violently arrested during the early days of the curfew."
Some protesters believe tear gas has done even graver harm to their bodies. Muna, a registered nurse who declined to provide their last name, says they were providing medical assistance at protests in St. Paul, Minnesota, when the crowd was gassed repeatedly. "The air was completely saturated," Muna tells Mic. "The highway had a smog over it that required high beam lights to travel."
"I bled that night. I was taking hormonal birth control at the time for menstrual regulation, and I had a very heavy cycle," Muna explains. In the following months, they had cramps and migraines that were different from their past cycles. By July, they had a dull ache in their pelvic area that grew worse by the next month.
"I went to the ER where they performed a trans-vaginal ultrasound, finding polycystic ovaries and a hyperdense right ovary," Muna says. "I do connect this sudden health change to the tear gas. I’ve been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome since I began puberty, but have never experienced complications such as severe and chronic pelvic pain."
For Black people, tear gas takes on another layer given the history of reproductive harm that the U.S. has unleashed against Black communities since the country's inception. As Wise says, "The U.S has a long history of reproductive violations especially to Black female bodies. This includes the very history of gynecology which was pioneered by J. Marion Sims, who performed surgeries on slaves without anesthesia. The U.S government has also played a huge role in forced sterilization to Black, Latina, and Native women."
"Our pleas are being met with silencing and violence — not just to living Black communities, but to our next generation as well."
Sterilization in or by the U.S. cannot be separated from eugenics. Just look at Puerto Rico, where about one-third of women were sterilized between the 1930s and 1970s. Most troublingly, unwanted sterilization in the U.S. is well-documented — and it's not something that's relegated to the distant past. In 2013, documents revealed that nearly 150 women were illegally sterilized in California prisons.
While the average person may not be aware of tear gas's possible reproductive harms, it's unlikely that the U.S. government is that out of the loop. In fact, federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control refer to tear gas as a "riot control agent" as a way to justify its use, as provisions in the chemical weapons ban allowed for the use of such irritants to control demonstrators. It's the same way the misnomer "less-than-lethal" weapons serves to downplay the violence of these tools. At the end of the day, tear gas is a chemical weapon, and to the state these reproductive harms may just be an added "bonus" of using it.
"It's certainly not a stretch to suggest tear gas is just another pawn in the attack on brown and Black reproductive health," Wise says. "These protests are a plea ... to be allowed to live in peace and without oppression. In response, I do believe our pleas are being met with silencing and violence — not just to living Black communities, but to our next generation as well."