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How to protect eyes from tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets during protests

Heading out to a Black Lives Matter protest? Leave the milk at home.

Protesters have faced a number of safety threats, from flying debris to rubber bullets to chemical irritants.

Dr. Eric Grieser, medical director and assistant clinical professor at the University of Florida Department of ophthalmology, has heard reports from colleagues around the country of patients coming in with permanent vision loss after protesting.

Here’s what to know before heading out.

Chemical irritants

Chemical irritants like tear gas and pepper spray can cause excessive tearing, eyelid swelling and irritation.

Tear gas can lead to inflammation, blood inside the eye, scarring inside the eyelids and cataracts. It can also cause damage to the optic nerve.

“The biggest thing is with tear gas is it loves to get trapped under contact lenses and

Eric Grieser, MD, is a medical director and assistant clinical professor at the University of Florida Department of ophthalmology. [ Courtest of Eric Grieser ]

keep causing irritation over and over again," Grieser said.

Avoid wearing makeup, which can bond to chemical irritants, or contact lenses. If you must wear lenses, remove them immediately should tear gas be released.

The quicker you can get the lenses out, especially before the lids start to swell, the better. Wear gloves if you can, or ask a friend to help. Don’t rub your eyes.

Remove clothing that is near the face, and try to find higher ground as quickly as possible. tear gas tends to stay low because it is heavier than air, Grieser said.

Pepper spray is another uncomfortable threat. It can cause scarring around the eye. Pepper spray is oil-based, so touching it makes it spread.

Both cause a burning sensation. Resist the urge to touch your eyes. Instead, use a chemical eye wash or plain water to flush out the chemicals.

“The solution to pollution is dilution,” Grieser said.

Do not use milk. It isn’t sterile, and bacteria could cause infection in the eyes. Some guides advise mixing baking soda with water to neutralize the acidic chemicals, but Grieser advises against it.

“There’s no known harm with it," he said. "We just don’t have any data that supports it.”

To clean the skin around your eyes, use water or baby shampoo, which is nontoxic and won’t hurt your eyes if it accidentally gets inside.

Projectiles

A “less lethal" bullet fired by Dallas Police shattered the left eye of protester Brandon Saenz at a May 30 protest in downtown Dallas. Freelance photographer Linda Tirado was also shot in her left eye while covering protests in Minneapolis. She told the New York Times she was wearing goggles, but they slipped off as she ran from tear gas. She thinks she was hit by a rubber bullet.

Rubber bullets are one of the scariest threats for protesters, Grieser said. They can cause significant eye trauma and even vision loss.

But there’s also debris to worry about, as well as pepper balls, chemical irritants in a projectile form.

Grieser recommends wearing safety goggles. Not every pair of goggles offers adequate protection, though. To keep safe against debris and rubber bullets, opt for ballistic eyewear. Recommended models can be found here.

What to pack in a protest bag

  • Water, to hydrate and flush out any chemical irritants
  • A change of clothes
  • Chemical eye wash
  • Sunscreen
  • Cloth face masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus
  • Ballistic eyewear
  • Gloves, in case you need to remove contacts from your eyes or the eyes of someone else
  • Baby shampoo to clean skin around eyes

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