A year after protests against racial justice across the country sparked violent clashes between activists and law enforcement, the House Democrats opened an investigation Thursday into the health effects of police tear gas use.
Two subcommittees of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform began investigations by asking companies that produce and sell tear gas and some government agencies to produce a wide range of documents to determine whether the federal government has done enough to ensure that the substance is safe to use in humans.
“The United States has agreed not to use tear gas in war,” four Democrats, including the subcommittee chairmen, wrote in a letter to the agencies and corporations. “However, tear gas is commonly used by law enforcement in this country as a 'riot control tool'.”
"Given this domestic use, we expected an analysis showing tear gas products to be safe for humans, but we have not seen this," they wrote. "There is even some evidence that tear gas may be linked to long-term adverse health effects for those exposed."
The letter was signed by Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois Democrat and Chair of the Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee; Jamie Raskin, Maryland Democrat and chair of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee; and two prominent progressives on the subcommittees, Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
The lawmakers said they "couldn't determine whether there is federal oversight of the composition or safety of these products."
At least 100 law enforcement agencies — many in major cities — used some form of tear gas last summer against civilians protesting police brutality and racism. according to an analysis by The New York Times. In the short span, it was the most widespread use of tear gas domestically against protesters since the long years of unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Times reported.
In their letter, lawmakers cited The Associated Press's report that military personnel exposed to tear gas during basic training were 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with acute respiratory disease later on after tear gas exposure compared to before the exposure.
"Researchers have expressed concern that tear gas formulations have gotten stronger over time and how that may play a role in the long-term health risks of exposure," they wrote.
The Democrats are seeking information from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and the companies Safariland, Combined Systems and Pacem Defense.
Safariland announced last year it was leaving the tear gas business after the product was used on protesters in Washington.
The lawmakers asked federal agencies to conduct some research into the effect of tear gas products on human health and the feasibility of setting standards for the substances. For the companies, their requests included a list of all U.S. entities that sold them tear gas products, a description of safety tests performed, and any internal documents related to any adverse health effects of tear gas on humans.