How did tear gas become a major pollutant in the Portland river?
by Maria Bruzhayte
There’s little known about the properties of CS gas and its long-term effects on humans and the environment. Almost every night since May 25th, the Portland police liberally spray local protestors and city streets with canisters of undisclosed chemical agents that accumulate in drains.
The state environmental agency is testing stormwater for chromium, hexavalent chromium, lead, zinc, copper, barium and perchlorate, all of which are harmful to humans. Since Portland is the only city to have this much tear gas used for so many days, the effects are still under investigation, but the unknown materials and heavy quantities of the CS gas runoff is a cause for concern to local environmental agencies.
What is CS gas?
CS is a chemical that causes uncontrollable crying, visual problems, coughing, severe headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, skin reactions, and other severe symptoms. CS gas is a powder that blows into the air as a mist and it doesn’t fall under the scientific description of tear gas. Its primary purpose is to disperse large crowds while causing maximum misery. It causes small children to lose consciousness and could be dangerous to pregnant people and older individuals who are more likely to be sensitive to harmful irritants.
Police don’t shy away from using CS gas in densely populated urban environments where air pollution already poses a risk to people suffering with chronic conditions. Law enforcement officials don’t disclose the contents of the canisters and long-term health risks are yet to be determined. This lack of transparency poses questions about the CS gas environmental impact.
How can it effect the local environment?
The Willamette River runs through downtown Portland and flows out into the Pacific Ocean through the Columbia River. Any chemicals accumulating in its drains will flush out into the ocean and affect marine life. While the effects of CS gas are being studied, local environmental officials and protective agencies are sounding alarms. Anna Feigenbaum, PhD, associate professor of communication and digital media at Bournemouth University, says that “Tear gas contaminates agriculture and groundwater…It poisons food, which should be discarded after exposure. It also poisons animals, often causing them serious injury or death.”
Over the years, law enforcement upgrade CS chemical compounds to create stronger irritants, often adding chemicals that degrade slower and stay on the surface for several days. Resilient chemical versions make their way into the river that supplies food and water to local wildlife. These untested pollutants coat Portland city streets with more toxic canisters deployed regularly.
Is anything being done to mitigate the damage?
After two months of continual CS gas use, the U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and state Representative Karin Power requested an investigation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality into the public health and environmental risks of tear gas and its effects on people, wildlife, air and water quality. Authorities took samples from the drains in late July to determine how much residue reached the Willamette River. Bureau of Environmental Services received multiple complaints of power washing after protest cleanup that illegally flushed gas residue into the storm drains.
The investigation is still ongoing, but at this time it is clear that both residents and the local environment received prolonged exposure to unknown combinations of irritating chemicals without government oversight or transparency. What will happen next and what methods the local officials will use to clean up the damage has not been disclosed.
What can you do?
Ocean pollution is a major concern across the globe. Whether it’s toxic runoff or microplastic buildup, marine life everywhere suffers from human activity. Learn about the Blue Streams program where we have active Ecosystem Enhancement projects on tributaries of the Willamette River. Here you can learn how we tackle pollution at its source.
Stay up to date with our blog by reading Marine Mammal Protection Act, 1972 to learn more about marine mammal decline. Despite the troubled times, we can come together to help through a Beach Cleanup and be more environmentally responsible in our everyday lives.
Author Bio: Maria Bruzhayte is a Los Angeles based writer, animator, and a contributor to the Ocean Blue Project blog.