Hong Kong Protests: How To Treat Children When They Come In Contact With Tear Gas.
(WTF! I can’t believe I’m writing this.)
I never thought I would have to write about tear gas when I set up this blog. Well, I thought I would write about stuff that was maybe 3 to 4 shades grittier than a typical Peppa Pig episode (imagine Mommy Pig talking with George and Peppa about consent, or Peppa finding out her playgroup Teacher Madame Gazelle had to leave because her visa status was in jeopardy due to Brexit. Stuff like that.)
But how to treat your child when he or she comes in contact with teargas? REALLY? Have we come this far? Carrie Lam, supposedly-fellow Hong Kong mom, I dedicate this to you.
Researching this was excruciating and made my blood boil. You do not want to type “teargas” and “children” together in a search box. What pops up is heartbreaking and will make you question human decency. But the possibility of being accidentally tear-gassed has become a weekly concern for many Hong Kong residents.
Tear gas worries popped into my mind last Sunday, when I was about to head to a yoga studio in Mong Kok. My husband Kai came into the living room: “Maybe you should not go. The police used teargas against the protesters in the Yau Tsim Mong area around 2:30 this morning.” For Hong Kong newbies, Yau Tsim Mong stands for the districts Yau Ma Tei, Tsim Sha Tsui, and Mong Kok. I looked at the watch. It was 7:30 a.m. My thinking process that early went like this: “Five hours have passed since the police have used tear gas. It takes five hours to fly from Hong Kong to Kathmandu. That’s far. I should be ok heading out.”
I only said out loud the last thought sentence, but Kai was not convinced. “What if there are still remnants of teargas, or if the police are still rounding up people? Please check the news updates and take the usual precautions when you’re out.”
On the MTR I checked if there were still clashes in the area and where exactly teargas rounds have been shot. In the search results articles popped up about children having come into contact with teargas after the protests in Wong Tai Sin. For the first time I wondered, how harmful is tear gas to a child’s health? For years I believed that tear gas was the equivalent of a slap in the face when it came to non-lethal weapons. It can knock you to the ground, it’ll sting, it’ll make you weep, but it will fade and you can dust yourself off and go home.
It only took one short Google search session on the MTR to show me how wrong I was. Tear gas is not non-lethal. The Hong Kong police deemed it as “less lethal”. Once I was back home, I dove in deeper. Prepare for a mental whiplash from all the inner head shaking and disapproval.
What is tear gas? The tear gas used by the Hong Kong police is CS (or chlorobenzalmalononitrile). It is important to know that tear gas is not a gas, but an aerosol. It does not simply disperse in the air but will sink to the ground. Teargas is so potent, it is banned in warfare but allowed to disperse civilian crowds.
What are the general effects? Tear gas will irritate eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. Hunter Walker from the Business Insider describes what it's like to get tear-gassed as following: "I'm sure my eyes burned, but that's not what I remember. The most overwhelming aspect of the pain was an intense tightness in my chest. It felt like my heart might burst or collapse into itself and it was so bad I thought I might be having a serious medical issue. As I doubled over, I actually wondered for a moment whether I might die."Once in fresh air a healthy adult should be able to recover from the effects around 10 minutes. Emphasis on “healthy” and “adult”.
How does teargas affect children? The last time this was actively discussed in the news was when US border agents used tear gas on migrant children and women. This was in November 2018. My own son was just a bit holder than one and a half years, and was still trying to figure out running. Seeing footage and pictures of children fleeing and scrambling from tear gas broke my heart. There is no debate about this. You do not use tear gas when there are children around. If it's forbidden in freaking warfare it should be forbidden against civilians, especially the vulnerable ones. What is even more worrying are the long-lasting effects tear gas can have on children. As mentioned before CS is an aerosol and will sink to the ground. A CNN report states that "Children are especially at risk because tear gas is heavier than air. It is present in higher concentrations closer to the ground, and children, being shorter, are exposed to higher concentrations. Also, since their lungs are smaller, when they inhale tear gas the potential for injury is higher." The American Academy of Pediatrics condemned the use of tear gas on migrant children: "The use of tear gas on children -- including infants and toddlers in diapers -- goes against evidence-based recommendations, and threatens their short and long-term health. Children are uniquely vulnerable to physiological effects of chemical agents. A child's smaller size, more frequent number of breaths per minute and limited cardiovascular stress response compared to adults magnifies the harm of agents such as tear gas."
Is there any scientific evidence? There have been several studies which indicate that the use of tear gas is a risk to public health and increase the likelihood of long-term effects to those who have been exposed to it. In Hong Kong, doctors held a press conference and revealed in their study that frontline reporters have fallen ill after being exposed to tear gas. The majority experienced "difficulty breathing, persistent coughing or coughed up blood." Many have also reported rashes, diarrhea or vomiting. Another study focusing on the health of US Army recruits who have been exposed to tear gas in basic training found that the recruits "had a significantly higher risk of being diagnosed with ARI (acute respiratory illnesses).
What the effect on pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers? There has not been much research on this. But there are cases which give certain indications. When protestors in Bahrain have been tear-gassed Physicians of Human Rights have been reported cases of women miscarrying after exposure. Even if a pregnant has been only lightly exposed it is still recommended to seek medical attention. Incredibly, there are guidelines for breastfeeding moms who have come in contact with tear gas. Female army recruits have to expose themselves to tear gas during riot control training even if they are breastfeeding. According to the army, CS is quickly metabolized. They recommend to wait 8 hours before breastfeeding again. Withing those 8 hours just pump and dump. Do not even use that milk for baby baths.
What is this all that talk about expired tear gas canisters? Recently, there have been pictures going around social media showing empty tear gas canisters left by the police after clashes with protesters. HKU science Lecturer Karen Mok said that tear gas could become more toxic when it is past its expiry date. When activated the released heat can convert some of the decomposed CS into phosgene and cyanide. Again it was hard to find more research on this. Some sources say that if "enough time" has gone by the tear gas in the canisters becomes actually less effective.
Worst case scenario: You and your child are caught in the middle of a clash and the police has deployed tear gas.
I really recommend the Business Insider article by David Brooks which explains what to do when you are have been directly hit by tear gas.
As mentioned in my previous post, ideally, you should not be there with your child at all. But let’s say you’ve been caught by surprise. You did not see the police raising the flags warning the crowd that they are about to shoot tear gas canisters but you do see the white smoke coming towards you.
Hold your breath.
Close your eyes if possible. You only have the choice between not seeing or not seeing with burning eyes.
Pick up your child and get out of the area as quickly as possible. Tear gas spreads quickly.
If your child has been exposed by tear gas call your doctor or take her to the hospital. Also see the following steps for next scenario.
More likely scenario: Your child has been lightly contaminated by tear gas carried in by other people, or tear gas particles have wafted over.
Do not let the CS contamination spread into your home. CS particles can be active and irritating for months. If tear gas canisters have been shot near your home, switch off the aircon if possible and seal the windows and other openings with vinegar soaked cloth or towels.
If you bring your child into your home for treatment leave anything that could have been contaminated e.g. bags, clothes, shoes etc. outside of the door or put everything in a bin bag for later. Head directly to the shower, and avoid touching anything else in you home. Inform the lobby or security staff of your building if possible.
Remove contacts or glasses. Glasses need to be washed with lots of soap and rinsed properly
If you need to rinse your child’s eyes try to hold it off until you have access to A LOT of cool water like a shower. A small amount of water like from a drinking bottle will make the burning only worse. There is no scientific evidence that pouring milk into your eyes or putting toothpaste under the eyes works any better than water. Stick to water and use a lot. Think of a very long cool lukewarm shower. Again use soap and wash their hair thoroughly as CS particles could be easily trapped in there as well.
Throw away the contaminated clothes or bags. CS particles have been designed to stick to surface and can be reactivated whenever they come in contact with small amounts of liquid. If you cannot part with certain items, air them out first, then wash them for several times thoroughly.
Observe your child. If your child is under 3 years old or suffers from any respiratory conditions like asthma call the doctor right away. Observe older children for a few hours. If they remain unwell or display symptoms like breathing problems, GI issues e.g. diarrhea call the doctor or go to the hospital.
On the Hong Kong Moms Facebook page I’ve read several posts in which moms wrote about their children being concerned, even anxious regarding the protest. Just from watching the news or footage on social media, children were scared that their parents might be tear-gassed or attacked.
Now, it's not hard to imagine that having come in contact with tear gas might be a very scary event, even traumatic for children. Toddlers could start to become more clingy, elementary kids could be having nightmares or teenagers develop sleep problems or act out even more than usual.
Children’s stress response is greatly influenced by how parents react to it themselves. Your presence alone is a major healing factor. Allow them to talk to you about it. Acknowledge their feelings. As parents we don’t want them to be scared or concerned. But it's part of the coping process. Let them have these feelings and respect that they do exist. Take your time easing them back into life to eventually rebuild trust and safety. They will learn that aweful things do happen but also that their parents will aftercare the shit out of this.
Honestly, I'm knackered. From my dinner table, on a still tranquil balmy Hong Kong night, I can only hope no more kids will get hurt. I need to get up now and sneak a peak at my sleeping son. Hug your loved ones and stay safe, everyone.