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Louisville Study Examines Tear Gas Health Risks

Police fire tear gas and pepper balls on protesters after seven were shot in downtown Louisville on May 28,2020.
Police fire tear gas and pepper balls on protesters after seven were shot in downtown Louisville on May 28,2020.

Law enforcement use tear gas to break up demonstrations – most recently against people who took to the streets to support the movement for Black lives. 

People who come into contact with it face known health risks including to the skin, eyes and upper respiratory system. But Louisville researchers are trying to learn more about tear gas exposure and other possible complications. 

Kira Taylor is an associate professor of epidemiology and population health at the University of Louisville’s School of Public Health and Information Sciences. She’s one of the collaborators conducting the study

“The receptor for the chemical that is used in tear gas is embedded in the cell membranes of every organ system in the body. So it's possible that these chemicals are also getting into other organ systems, like the cardiovascular system or the reproductive system,” Taylor said.

UofL and science advocacy organization Until Justice Data Partners are collecting data through a survey. It’s anonymous and asks questions like:

  • The number of demonstrations attended
  • Proximity to the tear gas
  • Precautionary measures taken after exposure 

Monica Unseld founded the data advocacy group and is a partner in the research.

“When you're exposed to tear gas, you're supposed to take your clothes off, take your shoes off, dispose of them, shower before you even return to your vehicle, and then you’re supposed to decontaminate the area. We don’t believe that happened here,” Unseld said. 

She added, once the survey is complete, researchers will share the data with individual communities in efforts to mitigate possible long term health effects. 

“Our goal is to provide the information so that others can make the decisions, whether it's people who were demonstrators, whether it's [Louisville Metro Police Department], whether it's Metro City Council," Unseld said. "We see our role in this as just to gather the information and to share it."

The survey is ongoing, and it’s open to participants nationwide, not just to people living in Louisville. It’s gathered about 200 respondents so far, and researchers say they’re aiming for 600 participants in total.

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