How to Deal With Riot Control Agents

The effects of exposure to riot control agents generally last less than half an hour, but, as anyone who has ever been tear-gassed at a demonstration will tell you, it's a very long 30 minutes. The term "riot control agents" (RCAs) refers to several gases, including chloroacetophenone (CN) and chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile (CS), which are commonly known as "tear gas". Pepper spray is another widely-used riot control agent. Exposure to these chemicals can cause skin, nose, and eye irritation, nausea, and respiratory difficulties within minutes. In rare cases, RCAs can cause long-term health complications, blindness, and even death. If you plan on participating in any kind of protest, it is essential to know how to deal with exposure to these chemicals, but even if you're not the protesting type, you could still be at risk for exposure just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


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    Avoid exposure. RCA exposure is painful and can be fatal. Avoid exposure if possible by staying away from riots, protests and demonstrations. If you are committed to the cause espoused in a protest, don't let the threat of RCAs deter you from participating, but if you see police donning gas masks, or if you see RCAs being deployed, get away quickly. If you don't have a compelling reason to be at a protest, don't go: RCAs do not discriminate between protesters and passersby, and it's simply not worth the potential suffering just to satisfy your curiosity.
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    Be prepared. Wear clothes that cover as much of your body as possible, and cinch them down at the cuffs. Gas masks are effective against RCAs, but only if they are working properly--used masks purchased online or in military surplus stores may not function well, and older gas masks have been rumored to have asbestos filters. **This is an un-substantiated claim that has spread widely - HOWEVER, older, US-MADE canisters have been confirmed to have CHROMIUM toxicity. Also, NUMEROUS claims are made as to the "shelf life" of gas masks. ACTIVATED CHARCOAL, the filter element effective against CN/CS gas, HAS AN INDEFINITE shelf life. ** If you don't have a gas mask, you can use a respirator that covers the nose and mouth--make sure you use filters approved for use with paint thinners and other toxic gases. Alternatively, soak a bandanna or other cloth in apple-cider vinegar or lemon juice and tightly cover your mouth and nose with it. Bring airtight goggles to protect your eyes. Swimming goggles work fine as long as they have a good seal. If possible, don't wear contact lenses. Prepare and carry a solution of water and baking soda (the solution should be about 5% baking soda) to neutralize the chemicals on the skin. Avoid wearing oil-based creams or sunscreens, as these aid absorption of the RCAs.
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    Move to fresh air. The key to minimizing both the severity and duration of the effects of RCAs is to limit exposure. The best way to do this is simply to get away from the chemicals.
    • Walk quickly, do not run, from the area where the chemicals were released. Running may instigate panic in others. As soon as you detect the release of riot control agents move away as quickly and directly as possible. If the chemicals are released in front of you, you should walk quickly straight behind you to get out of range. Try to get upwind of the point of release.
    • Avoid visible clouds. RCAs deployed in canisters explode into smoke-like clouds, and clouds can also drift and accumulate, especially in low-lying areas or near the ground. Stay away from these clouds, as they have the highest concentrations of the RCA.
    • Get to high ground. RCAs are heavier than air, and the highest concentrations thus tend to be near the ground. Don't get down on the ground--it's good to stay upright anyway to reduce your risk of being trampled--and try to get to the highest point possible. This could be up a hill, atop a wall, etc.
    • Leave the building in the case of indoor release. If RCAs are deployed inside a building, get out as quickly as possible. The chemicals don't dissipate as they would outdoors, and the high concentrations can be extremely dangerous with prolonged exposure.
    • Get inside if possible. While rarely possible under the circumstances, it may be helpful to get inside a relatively airtight building if RCAs are deployed outdoors. Make sure doors and windows are closed, and try to get to an upper floor. Be aware, however, that if the gas already entered the building through an open window, or if a ventilation system is bringing it in unfiltered, you will need to evacuate the building and get to fresh air. Fresh air, especially if a breeze is present, is preferable to the stale indoor air if you have already been exposed to an RCA.
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    Flush your eyes. If your eyes are burning or if your vision is impaired, do not rub your eyes. Remove contact lenses and flush your eyes thoroughly with cold water for at least 10 minutes. Do not put the exposed contact lenses back in.
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    Remove exposed clothing. Once you are out of range of the gas take off all your clothes that may have been exposed (this usually means everything down to your underwear). If you are wearing a pullover shirt, cut it off rather than bringing it over your head. Do not put these clothes back on. Seal them in a plastic bag and leave the the bag at the scene--hazardous waste specialists generally come to clean up after RCAs are deployed--or take it with you so that you can clean the clothes later.
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    Rinse thoroughly with cold water or a neutralizer. Hot water opens the pores, which causes more of the RCA to be absorbed through the skin. Rinse your whole body in cold water for 3-5 minutes--a shower or hose works perfectly--but do not scrub or apply soap yet. Touching your skin will spread the chemicals and rub them in. If you have a neutralizing solution, such as the baking soda solution mentioned above, apply this liberally all over your body, paying special attention to exposed areas or burning, red, or itchy skin. Many RCAs can be rinsed out of the eye with milk. Fill a shot glass about half full with milk, hold it up to the affected eye and tip your head back, blinking a few times to make sure you rinse well. As your rinse, whether with water or neutralizing solution, try to position yourself so that the water runs directly off each part of your body, instead of trickling down from your head to your toes. The water that comes off your body will be contaminated, so make sure not to get it in your eyes or on other people.
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    Wash with soap and water. Shower with warm water and soap only after you have thoroughly rinsed with cold water. It's important that you shower; do not take a bath.
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    Get medical treatment. In many cases, you will not need medical treatment, but if symptoms persist once you are thoroughly clean, if you experience severe symptoms or loss of vision, or if you experience pain in your chest, see a doctor or other health professional immediately.


  • Riot control agents can sometimes cause severe respiratory distress in those with asthma. If you are asthmatic, you should let your companions know before riot control agents are released so that they can administer treatment and help you to safety. The use of asthma medications such as inhalers can help alleviate breathing difficulties resulting from exposure.
  • Baking soda is an Alkali, Vinegar and Citrus Fruits are Acidic. Using the Correct Neutralizer is important.
  • If pain in the throat makes breathing difficult, gargle with water. Spit out the water--do not swallow it. Do this only if you are able to do so without choking.
  • Turn parts of the body that have been exposed to RCAs toward the wind (as long as you are upwind of the point of release). The wind will help carry the chemicals away from your body.
  • Dispose of contaminated clothing properly.
  • If you want to keep clothes that have been exposed, seal them in a plastic bag and wash them with detergent in hot water. Always wash contaminated clothing separate from other clothes. Hang them outside to let them air out for 2 or 3 days before wearing again.
  • If you use a vinegar-soaked cloth in place of a gas mask, you may want to use it over a dust mask, since inhaling the vinegar fumes can be unpleasant.
  • If skin blistering occurs, treat as you would a second-degree burn. For relief of persistent skin symptoms, apply calamine lotion, Burow's solution, colloidal oatmeal, or a topical corticosteroid.
  • Wash your body with castile soap before potential exposure to RCAs.


  • In the event of a terrorist attack or military strike in which toxic chemicals are released, it is important to determine which chemicals have been used. While riot control agents are heavier than air, some other, more toxic, gases--hydrogen cyanide, for example--are lighter than air. Furthermore, the methods of treatment vary considerably depending on what chemicals the victims have been exposed to.
  • Some people develop a heightened sensitivity to tear gas after one exposure, so that if they are exposed again, more serious health problems may result.
  • The mass panic that results in a group of people exposed to riot control agents can cause a dangerous stampede. Be careful not to lose your footing, or you may be trampled, especially since others may be partially blinded.
  • If temporary blindness or impaired vision develops be careful moving about. Your natural instinct will be to run away as fast as you can, but if you can't see clearly, you may injure yourself running into traffic or a stationary object.
  • If you are wearing a gas mask, make sure you know how to remove it quickly. If you are exposed to RCAs before you put your mask on, or if your mask is not functioning properly, you may vomit, and if you can't get your gas mask off you could choke.
  • Avoid touching exposed materials. Wear rubber gloves to handle contaminated clothes or when assisting an RCA victim.
  • Extended exposure to high concentrations of RCAs, such as that which may occur if they are released indoors, may cause long-term respiratory problems or death.

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