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VERIFY: Yes, tear gas can help spread COVID-19

The VERIFY team spoke with one of our medical correspondents who explained how tear gas actually helps spread the virus.

Protests have taken place around the country in the aftermath of George Floyd's death. Police forces have used tear gas to disperse protesters in many of these protests.

Some social media users have wondered if tear gas could spread or exacerbate COVID-19. 

THE QUESTION

Can tear gas spread COVID-19?

THE ANSWER:

Yes. Exposure to tear gas leads to coughing and sneezing -- both spread respiratory droplets. Exposure also leads to touching the face. All of these can increase the chance of infection. 

WHAT WE FOUND

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website explains the effects of riot control agents, also known as tear gas, as “chemical compounds that make people temporarily unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin.”

Both the CDC and Healthline say the severity of symptoms can depend on the exposure to it being on an open or enclosed space, the amount of tear gas, the proximity to it or whether you have a preexisting health condition. 

The VERIFY team contacted Dr. Payal Kohli, KUSA’s medical correspondent, and she said that tear gas “can actually help facilitate the spread because it can lead to coughing, sneezing and shouting which spreads droplets and tearing (some reports say that tears can spread the virus) and touching of the face. So spraying this into crowds during a pandemic may not be the best idea.”

When it comes to the possibility of tear gas affecting someone’s response to COVID-19, the doctor clarified that there’s not enough evidence to support that but it is an efficient way to help spread the virus as “it leads to more respiratory droplets being emitted,” Kohli said. 

The doctor made clear that public events like demonstrations and protests are "super spreaders," and recommends people to wear masks, a form of eye protection, long sleeves, to not wear makeup or contacts, maintain social distancing and to carry hand sanitizer. 

"The message should be that all people wear masks as the rate of infection would be 1/12 as much. Also, don't touch your face, and try to get tested five days after you go to protests or sooner if there's any symptoms," she told VERIFY over email.

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Credit: AP
Police use tear gas to disperse protesters during a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Gov. Ralph Northam issued a curfew for this evening. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)