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CDC: Tear gas can cause blindness, death with long-lasting exposure, especially in closed settings

The CDC says long-lasting exposure or a large dose of riot control agents, especially in a closed setting, can cause severe health issues

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A controversial Charlotte city council vote is raising questions about the use of tear gas moving forward.

On Monday night, the city council voted to defund chemical agents in the 2021 budget. However, it does not impact the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department’s current stockpile and the department has not said if it plans to stop using tear gas.  

Some have said tear gas is inhumane, but others say it’s an important tool for crowd control. WCNC Charlotte is taking a closer look at how tear gas impact’s the human body.  

The CDC says usually the effects of tear gas last for 15 to 30 minutes, but depending on a number of factors, it could impact a person’s health down the road.

The sound of tear gas being fired sends crowds running in fear.

“It’s suffocating,” says Justin LaFrancois with Queen City Nerve, an alternative newspaper.

LaFrancois shot a now-viral video that appeared to show protesters surrounded by tear gas in Uptown.

“What happened was essentially inhumane, unethical treatment of protesters,” said LaFrancois.

As the debate over tear gas rages on, WCNC Charlotte looked into what exactly the chemical agent does to the human body. According to the CDC, the shorter term impacts of riot control agents include runny nose, excessive tearing, coughing, skin burns, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

“You feel like you're going to die, you feel like you're swallowing bleach,” said LaFrancois.

However, chemical agents also have possible long-term impacts, according to the CDC. The agency says long-lasting exposure or a large dose, especially in a closed setting, can cause severe health issues. That ranges from glaucoma and blindness to death due to chemical burns in the throat and lungs.

“Most of the time people will not die if they breathe in tear gas, if you're in a room and you breathe in a bunch, you could potentially die that way,” says Dr. Joe Kuhns, a criminal justice professor at UNC Charlotte.

On Monday night, the city council voted to defund chemical agents in CMPD’s 2021 budget, but the vote does not impact the current stockpile. 

RELATED: Charlotte City Council votes to ban CMPD purchases of chemical agents for crowd control in next fiscal year

Unlike the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, CMPD has not announced plans to stop using tear gas for crowd control.

RELATED: Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office no longer using tear gas

“We want to be careful of ridding ourselves of its availability unless we have other methods or means of managing large crowds,” said Kuhns.

WCNC Charlotte reached out to CMPD on Tuesday to see if they plan to use tear gas for crowd control in the future, but at this point they have not responded.

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