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Ohio Lawmakers Call For Ban On Tear Gas At Protests During Pandemic

Cleveland police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of protesters in front of the Justice Center during demonstrations May 30. Ohio lawmakers are calling for a ban on tear gas during the pandemic, citing public health concerns. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]
Cleveland police use tear gas to disperse a crowd of protesters in front of the Justice Center during protests May 30.

More than 20 Ohio state legislators are calling for an end to the use of tear gas and other chemical agents to disperse crowds at protests in the state.

The group of Democratic lawmakers signed a letter to the governor saying tear gas and other chemical agents can cause dangerous health effects such as respiratory failure, blindness and miscarriages.

They also said they’re concerned it could exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus.

State Rep. Janine Boyd (D-Cleveland Heights) wrote the letter and said irritants that cause people to cough and touch their face should not be used in the middle of a pandemic.

"This is not the time – symbolically or in terms of our public health – to put those protocols into practice,” she said.

Infectious disease experts have said using chemical agents will likely facilitate the spread of the coronavirus in mass gatherings.

“Right now we’re in the midst of a pandemic, we’re trying to control these cases, and we’re trying to avoid transmission, especially in settings like mass gatherings,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar in health security at Johns Hopkins University. “When you’re using an agent that’s going to basically induce coughing, it’s really a surefire way of assuring there’s going to be spread in those situations.” 

Since there is already a risk of exposure to the virus in large groups such as protests, Adalja said using pepper spray and tear gas could increase that risk.

“Those risks need to be weighed in the minds of those individuals that are deploying those chemical agents,” he said.

Over the past few weeks, tear gas has been deployed in both Cleveland and Columbus at protests held in response to the death of George Floyd who died after being pinned under a police officer's knee for almost nine minutes in Minneapolis in May.

Boyd said after hearing concerns about tear gas from her constituents who attended the protests in Downtown Cleveland, she decided to write the letter.

“It’s unbelievable to me that as responsible as Ohio has been, that we would suddenly just throw all that out the window, and then just shoot tear gas or pepper spray at people and cause all of ... the ripple effects of the reactions to those agents,” Boyd said.

Ohio House Democrats also proposed a bill that would prohibit the use of tear gas as part of a larger police reform plan.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.