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Cold hands and burning hearts: The health risks and repercussions of protesting

All around the world today, people are protesting. Some march in peaceful demonstrations while others riot in anger. Since 1979, there has been over 250 million recorded events of protests, and the number seems to be growing more rapidly as time goes on (Stuster). There is no doubt that protests have, and will, continue to shape the course of human civilization and play a key role in the development of society. While the political, social and psychological impacts of protests are greatly studied and debated, it is also imperative to consider the physical dangers and long-term health risks associated with it, in hopes of devising cautionary measures that will maximize the safety of everyone involved in protest activities.

Before delving into the topic, it must be addressed that many of the dangers that will be discussed are related to riots caused by violent protesters and tactics employed by protest policing. The question of how, or even whether, protests should be made less violent, as well as the debate around militarization of protest policing, is far beyond the scope of this article. Therefore, no attempts will be made to discuss or suggest safer methods of demonstrating or policing. Instead, the piece will address some of the most common dangers in protesting as it is present now, without regarding reasons and debates for why current practices should be changed.

Many riot control measures used by police and military personnel can pose serious dangers to anyone involved in a protest. One of the most common tactics used by police to disperse crowds is the tear gas, which most commonly includes the eye irritant chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CNS) (“A closer look at riot control methods”). In Canada, tear gas was used by the police during the tuition hike protests in Quebec in 2012 (“Riot police use tear gas to control student protest”). The gas immediately causes irritation to the eyes, nose, skin, mouth, and respiratory tract, causing choking and coughing among many other symptoms. Research has found that exposure can be linked with persistent symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, and possible long-term damage to the respiratory tract and nervous system, especially for people chronically subject to the compound for long periods (Craig et al.). There are also many recorded cases of death associated with high exposure to tear gas, particularly in enclosed spaces (Craig et al.).

While protesters have devised and suggested various procedures to limit the effects of tear gas, the safest and most important steps to take when exposed to the compound is to: disperse from the area, cough, spit, and rinse one’s eyes with cold water. Any further steps should be taken with proper medical knowledge or consultation. Additionally, protesters should avoid using lotions and skin oils before attending any rallies where CNS could be used, as these can trap the chemicals and prolong their effects. Gas masks, goggles or wet napkins over the nose can provide a little bit of protection against tear gas, although longer exposure will still pose significant danger (“Safety During Protest”).

Besides tear gas, riot police also employ a number of blunt weapons, such as batons, as well as a number of non-penetrating rounds, including plastic bullets, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds. These armaments, although intended to be non-lethal, can cause serious injuries at close range, and can be fatal if one is shot in the head. Rubber bullets were used by Isreali police against Palestine protesters during demonstration in 2002, and medical records have shown that at least 151 deaths were caused by rubber bullets (Siegel-Itzkovich). A study on 90 patients injured by rubber bullets found that 17 of them suffered permanent injuries or deformities, with one death (Miller).

While tear gas and non-penetrative rounds are the most common crowd control methods used by the police in dire situations in North America, there are countless other measures and equipment used by riot police around the world, some much more deadly. Even more, protesters themselves can often harm one another, both intentionally and unintentionally, especially in the cases of large, violent riots. Attempts by the police to disperse large crowds often result in a chaotic stampede, endangering those who get pushed along and trip. There is also the danger of fires being caused during riots, which could be a big concern, particularly for those with respiratory problems (“Demonstrations, Protests, and Crowds”).

Preparedness is the only way to minimize dangers during violent riots. Protesters should familiarize themselves with their surroundings and location, and look for spots to escape to should they find themselves feeling endangered. They should also be cognizant of nearby hospitals and have an emergency contact in case things go wrong (Warner). These are only some of the most basic and essential examples; anyone who is planning to attend demonstration or marches should consult additional credible guides on how to adequately prepare for protests and respond to dangerous situations such as tear gassings; some suggested precautions have been laid out by the Amnesty International in this infographic.

Health concerns are not limited to chaotic protests where police are involved. Even in a peaceful demonstration, there are cautions one should take to ensure that they do succumb to fatigue or stress. As demonstrations can span many hours and travel to different locations, it is important that those participating in them wear comfortable running shoes and clothes appropriate for the weather. Another risk inherent with being in close proximity with a large number of people is the spread of contagious diseases, such as the flu. Therefore, as trivial as it may seem in the face of what is at stake, self-care basics such as maintaining a proper diet and sleep schedule, staying hydrated, and practicing good hygiene, should not be ignored when one is attending protests, as to minimize the risk of falling ill. There are numerous tools and supplies protesters should bring to rallies to help sustain their well-being, including water, high-energy snacks, hand-sanitizers, first-aid kits, among others (Mak). Anyone interested in attending a rally should read over a guide or article suggesting what essentials they should pack.

In truth, there is no amount of precaution that will be able to ensure everyone’s safety. Regardless, citizens should be aware of the dangers and risks involved with protests and plan around it. It must also be considered that when impassioned protesters take to the street, their health might not be their immediate priority, and indeed, it is is this will to act and make sacrifices that drives many movements. However, a movement is only as strong as the people in it, and it is crucial that protesters try their best to sustain their own health and well-being, in order to ensure that their demonstration can continue and succeed.



“A closer look at riot control methods from rubber bullets to tear gas.” CBC, CBC Radio Canada, 25 June 2010, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/a-closer-look-at-riot-control-methods-from-rubber-bullets-to-tear-gas-1.941398.

“Demonstrations, Protests, and Crowds - myRisks Information.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/safety/resources/aztopics/demonstrations-protests-crowds.html.

Mak , Gerry . “How to gear up for a protest.” Hopes & Fears, Hopes LLC, 11 Jan. 2016, www.hopesandfears.com/hopes/city/how-to-gear-up/216551-what-to-wear-protest.

Millar, R. “Injuries caused by rubber bullets: a report on 90 patients.” British Journal of Surgery Society Ltd., 1975, pp. 480–486.

“Riot police use tear gas to control student protest.” CBC, CBC Radio Canada, 7 Mar. 2012, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/riot-police-use-tear-gas-to-control-student-protest-1.1300073.

Rothenberg, Craig et al. “Tear Gas: An Epidemiological and Mechanistic Reassessment.” Ed. Jeffrey D. Laskin. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1378.1 (2016): 96–107. PMC. Web. 20 Feb. 2018.

Safety During Protest. Amnesty International. www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/SafeyDuringProtest_F.pdf.

Siegel-Itzkovich, Judy. “Israeli Doctors Warn against Rubber Bullets.” BMJ : British Medical Journal 324.7349 (2002): 1296. Print.

Stuster, J. Dana. “Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979.” Foreign Policy, 22 Aug. 2013, foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/23/mapped-every-protest-on-the-planet-since-1979/.

Warner, Claire. “How To Stay Safe At A Protest.” Bustle, Bustle, 22 Dec. 2017, www.bustle.com/p/how-to-stay-safe-at-a-protest-by-planning-ahead-76212.

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