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Wed 19 February 2020
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Fears of long-term health issues had been exacerbated by the police force’s use of expired tear gas which can degrade into more toxic chemicals, Steve Shaw reports.

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Some suffer from coughs so severe they choke up blood, others suffer from headaches which are so intense they are unable to sleep. For months, Hong Kong residents have been feeling the side effects of tear gas.

Official figures show that Hong Kong’s police force has fired more than 16,000 rounds of the gas since June last year and much of it has seeped into the windows and vents of residential tower blocks, hospitals, schools and elderly care homes. It is estimated that 88% of Hong Kong’s population lives in the affected areas.

When clashes with pro-democracy protestors have spilled into the subways and shopping malls, police restraint has been just as limited. Officers have been seen throwing and launching tear gas into these enclosed spaces, despite Geneva Convention guidelines stating that “chemical irritants in closed spaces have multiple risks, including high levels of exposure, leading to injury and death”.

In November, police even fired gas near to a major hospital close to Hong Kong Polytechnic University where they had been clashing with protestors. Patients in the hospital were forced to wear gas masks, the hospital’s ventilation systems had to be shut down and ambulances forced to divert patients to other hospitals.

Initially, the city’s residents showed little concern for the gas’ toxicity beyond the immediate discomfort, which includes excessive tearing in the eyes, blurred vision and a choking sensation. But, after months of exposure, many are now questioning its long-term effects and calling on the United Nation’s expert on toxic gases to carry out an investigation.

In a report seen by Byline Times, organisations including Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, Public Health Research Collaborative and Civil Rights Observer, outline the urgent need for the UN to investigate the composition of the gas, which the police have refused to disclose. Concerns centre heavily on the make-up of Chinese-manufactured gas, which the police began using after the US and UK cut off supplies over human rights concerns.

It is believed the Chinese gas burns hotter than others and can emit dioxin, a chemical the World Health Organisation describes as “highly toxic” and capable of causing “reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer”. 

In one case, a journalist repeatedly exposed to tear gas on the frontline was diagnosed with chloracne, a condition commonly associated with dioxin exposure. Hong Kong doctors also carried out a study in August and interviewed 170 journalists exposed to the gas during their reporting. Many described symptoms ranging from a persistent cough and coughing up blood, to skin reactions such as rashes and problems with their eyes. Others had diarrhoea, vomiting and, in one case, pneumonia and bronchitis.

“Symptoms are also beginning to show on people who frequent the areas where tear gas was extensively used, such as people who live or work in the neighbourhood,” the report states. “These include infants, children, elderly. A single mother who lives in a sub-divided flat in Mong Kok was left homeless for a month after tear gas seeped into her home and caused her son to break out in rashes. A family said they stopped going out on the street to participate in peaceful protests, after their four-year-old son started coughing, in the fear that tear gas would affect their son’s asthma. An elderly man with asthma said his condition worsened and remained bad for days after being exposed to tear gas.”

It continues: “Doctors have in some cases written a note granting pregnant women indefinite sick leave so that they can work from home and avoid breathing in toxic tear gas in the office, in order to prevent the development of teratomas – a kind of tumour that can lead to premature birth.”

Fears of long-term health issues have been further exacerbated by the police force’s use of expired tear gas which can degrade into more toxic chemicals, including cyanide oxide and phosgene. These have the potential to cause heart, brain, nerve or lung damage depending on exposure. The police promised to stop using the expired gas after it was revealed by local journalists, but it was later found that they had simply scratched the expiry dates from the canisters.

Doctor Anna Feigenbaum from Bournemouth University wrote in one study: “Expired tear gas is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, the mechanism that sets off the canister and grenade can become faulty. This can lead to injury for personnel using the device. It can also make incendiary devices increasingly likely to cause fires. Secondly, the chemical compound contained in the grenade may no longer be approved according to the most recent safety tests and certificates. Thirdly, it can be even more difficult to trace expired gas canisters to their point of sale. This is because less-lethal ammunitions do not have the same kind of tracking procedures as firearms, they can be moved between storage facilities with little or no publicly accessible documentation. Expired equipment should not be in use on the street. It is meant to be taken out of circulation and destroyed according to careful environmental protocols for waste disposal.”

Despite the growing body of evidence, the Secretary for Food and Health in the city, Sophia Chan Siu-chee, has dismissed health concerns and stressed that water and air quality has not been affected by the discharge of tear gas. But, Democratic Party legislator Ted Hui Chi-fung recently launched legal action at the city’s High Court to force the police to reveal its components.

If successful, the court order would compel the police to list all the ingredients of tear gas used since June and, if any are harmful, the law-maker says he will seek an injunction that will prevent the police from using it. Outside court, he said: “They arbitrarily said that tear gas did not affect health and public hygiene, but members of the public are very concerned. The police should not act without any limitation and any transparency when using their weapons. I hope the court will see that this is a reasonable application.”


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