By the time she was standing in front of the federal courthouse on Lownsdale Square on the night of July 25, Olivia Katbi Smith had already been exposed to tear gas several times. On those previous occasions during the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon, this summer, being gassed had been very unpleasant: leaving her coughing and making her eyes and nose run and sting.
But this time, standing about 30 feet from the fence that was surrounding the downtown courthouse, Smith felt suddenly and violently worse than she ever had before. “I didn’t know if I was going to puke or pass out,” she recalled recently. “I was stumbling, trying to get away.” Smith, who is 28, was wearing goggles plus an N95 mask and thought that whatever was making her ill might have been trapped inside her mask. “So I made a really bad instinctual decision to take it off,” she said. “And instead of bringing relief, it instantly felt so much worse, like I was trapped in the air. It was overwhelming. I could not breathe.”
Smith, like thousands of others in Portland, took to the streets in June to protest the suffocation and killing of George Floyd by a police officer. By the beginning of July, the crowds had begun to thin somewhat. But after Trump decided to send federal law enforcement to the city that month, the number of protesters surged and violence escalated. And according to interviews with more than a dozen people who attended the protests and research by the Portland-based Chemical Weapons Research Consortium, there was a marked shift in the use of chemical munitions on the crowds in the second half of July, as the federal agents released greater amounts and different types of smoke and gas onto crowds that seemed to set off severe and sometimes lasting health effects.
The Portland Police Bureau began using tear gas on Black Lives Matters protesters almost as soon as they first assembled in late May. Mayor Ted Wheeler acknowledged that the city has used “CS” tear gas. The commonly used formulation contains 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, a compound that was designed to induce immediate pain but can also have long-term effects, including chronic bronchitis. In early September, Wheeler ordered the police to stop using it. Tear gas is banned in war but can be used to disperse crowds of civilians.
After federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security descended on Portland in July in a mission dubbed “Operation Diligent Valor,” the use of chemical irritants to control, drive away, and confuse protesters and obscure the actions of law enforcement grew and intensified. Among the products that federal agents appear to have used during the military-style crackdown is a hexachloroethane “smoke grenade” manufactured by a company called Defense Technology and sold as “Maximum HC Smoke.” Volunteers for the Chemical Weapons Research Consortium collected 20 canisters from the protest area that are the size and shape of the smoke grenades, at least five of which still had Defense Technology labels on them. The group also analyzed the chemical residue on one of the recovered spent canisters and found it contained chemicals known to be released by the smoke grenades.
Juniper Simonis, a scientist and researcher with the Portland-based group, said that they were also able to track the use of the “HC” bombs or grenades through video and photographs because of their distinctive burning patterns. “No other type of munition they used burns like it,” said Simonis, who described the smoke bombs as giving off “visible heat” for one-and-a-half to two minutes.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to inquiries from The Intercept about its agents’ use of hexachloroethane “smoke grenades” and other kinds of crowd control weapons on protesters in Portland. Defense Technology referred questions about the use of the grenade to its parent company, the Safariland Group, which did not respond.
The HC smoke bomb, which was developed in the 1930s to disperse people and conceal actions on the battlefield, is particularly dangerous to health and the environment. The Military-Style Maximum Smoke HC grenade from Defense Technology is “very toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects” and is “suspected of causing cancer,” according to the grenade’s safety data sheet. Environmental effects of the smoke bombs include defoliation of trees and a long-term reduction in their growth.
The health effects of hexachloroethane include nausea, vomiting, central nervous system depression, and kidney and liver damage, according to the compound’s material safety data sheet. Zinc chloride, a compound released by the grenades in even greater amounts than hexachloroethane, has “long-lasting effects” on aquatic life, according to its manufacturer’s safety data sheet. The toxic compound also causes fever, chest pain, and liver damage and is associated with anorexia, fatigue, and weight loss.
Although the grenade’s manufacturer, Defense Technology, markets it as “military style,” the Department of Defense appears to have begun phasing out the smoke bomb years ago because it was incredibly dangerous. A 1994 report of the U.S. Army Biomedical Research and Development Laboratory notes, “Exposure of unprotected soldiers to high concentrations of HC smoke for even a few minutes has resulted in injuries and fatalities.”
The Department of Defense did not respond to an inquiry about whether it had discontinued use of HC smoke grenades. But a 2012 report by the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, the Department of Defense’s environmental program, indicates that the U.S. military was at the time exploring the adoption of several less toxic “obscurants” because of the serious breathing difficulties, swelling of the lungs, severe liver problems, and death associated with the grenades. The SERDP report notes that those health issues “pose a threat to the health of the war fighters that are exposed to this smoke during training and combat.”
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Riddle.
Protesters who were exposed to chemical gas and smoke during the standoffs with federal agents in Portland report a constellation of immediate and enduring effects not usually associated with tear gas, including vomiting, hair loss, inability to eat, and inability to focus or “brain fog.” Some of the symptoms are consistent with those the military and the chemical manufacturers have linked to both hexachloroethane and zinc chloride.
Many people were instantly sickened by the chemical cloud. “I vomited and the people around me were vomiting as well,” said a medic who goes by Opal Hexen. “A whole block of people was throwing up into their respirators,” said Hexen, who was also wearing a respirator that covered much of her face. “At that point, I felt like I had to take it off to vomit,” she said. “And when I did, I had a blinding, choking feeling. My whole body started shaking. I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t process anything.”
Laura Jedeed, who went to the majority of protests in July, didn’t vomit but wanted to. “There’s a gag reflex,” she said of her immediate reaction to the substance that federal agents sprayed into the air. While she had been exposed to tear gas from the Portland Police Bureau on several occasions, “whatever the feds were putting out there felt a lot worse,” said Jedeed. “It burns like you’re on fire for 24 hours.” The night after being exposed, Jedeed slept clutching frozen cans to cool her hands. “And for about a day after, I’d get a gag reflex when I was swallowing.” Long after that, she struggled to eat and by August had lost 10 pounds.
Although Jedeed served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was deployed twice to Afghanistan, she said the ordeal of being exposed to chemicals “felt more like combat than anything I experienced in the military.”
Others also reported being uninterested in or repelled by food, and weight loss that persisted for days and sometimes weeks after the initial exposure. Mac Smiff, a music journalist and regular at the protests, began to find it difficult to eat in late July after being repeatedly exposed to tear gas and smoke bombs lobbed by federal agents. By early August, he had dropped from 193 to 181 pounds and recently said that he has yet to regain the weight.
The harms caused by the chemical agents are among the many physical injuries that resulted from the clashes with federal agents and local police in Portland. In a report released Thursday, Physicians for Human Rights documented a “consistent pattern of disproportionate and excessive use of force” by both Portland Police Bureau officers and federal agents during the protests throughout June and July. The report details brutal injuries from rubber bullets, other impact munitions, and tear gas canisters thrown at protesters in the city, which has logged more instances of police brutality during this summer of protest than any other U.S. city. The report also noted that the number of serious injuries from these “kinetic impact projectiles” in Portland increased after federal agents arrived in July. Nationwide, the group has confirmed 115 head injuries during the protests following George Floyd’s death between May 26 and July 27.
Nate Cohen was one of the people in Portland whom federal agents shot with a tear gas canister in July. Cohen was working as a medic around 1 a.m on July 26. And although U.N. guidance says governments have to protect medical personnel so that protesters have timely access to emergency medical services, and Cohen was wearing seven visible red crosses at the time, he said he felt clearly targeted at close range by the federal agents. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Cohen and several volunteer street medics in a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the city of Portland for targeting them at the protests.
“Tear gas canisters are not designed and explicitly not meant to be shot at human beings.”
“Tear gas canisters are not designed and explicitly not meant to be shot at human beings,” said Cohen, who has a chronic heart condition that has worsened since the incident and now has a canister-shaped scar on his chest. While local police also used gas canisters as ballistic weapons, the federal agents used them differently, according to Cohen. “The Portland Police Bureau usually shot them into the air,” he said. “The feds were shooting them at people.”
And that’s only one of several ways that chemical crowd control weapons were misused to potentially dangerous effect. While Portland police did consistently use tear gas, the federal agents used far more of it. “The amount of tear gas that they used, especially in late July, was so extreme relative to normal procedures that we have no idea what that level of exposure does to people,” said Cohen.
The fact that several of the tear gas canisters recovered after the protests showed that the products had expired long ago raises further questions, according to Cohen. “These were 10 to 15 years past their throw-out dates,” he said. “None of us have any clear idea of what happens to CS gas after it begins to break down.”
Perhaps the biggest question about the chemicals is which ones exactly the agents released and in what quantities. Anita Randolph had gotten somewhat accustomed to being gassed by Portland police before she was doused with chemicals by federal agents in late July. “We had learned pretty quickly that you can get used to the sting that comes along with it,” Randolph said of the gas released by the local police. “But when the feds started tear gassing, it was painful.” Even though she was wearing a gas mask and had covered her body from head to toe, Randolph found herself suddenly and painfully unable to breathe after being surrounded by a haze from canisters the agents had shot near her. “I dropped to my knees,” she said. “I could not walk or stand up to the point where people had to help me.”
The aftereffects lasted markedly longer than when she had been gassed in the past. “I had a mental fog for almost a week afterward,” said Randolph, who is a neuroscientist and board member of Don’t Shoot Portland. In addition to being confused, unable to focus, and struggling with memory, Randolph had several severe migraines and vomited twice during the weeks after her exposure. For days, she was so sick she was unable to leave her bed. Many of the friends Randolph was gassed with told her they were also having symptoms — including some that she didn’t have.
One thing they all shared was the question of what exactly they had been exposed to. “What was that?” Randolph and her friends began asking each other.
According to the Physicians for Human Rights report, the use of chemical irritants “where there is not sufficient toxicological information available to confirm that it will not cause unwarranted health problems” is probably unlawful.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable that we don’t know what was used,” said Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights. According to Heisler, international principles require law enforcement to provide information on the composition of any chemical irritants used. “But, in Portland, there was no information provided.”
For people who were exposed, questions about their health are compounded by the use of potentially multiple unknown chemicals. “What happens if, in the space of two minutes, you breathe HC gas then another gas and then another gas?” asked Cohen. “I don’t think anybody knows. I think we’re in uncharted territory as to what the implications are.”
Life in this uncharted territory can be scary. Mac Smiff, who is still trying to regain the weight he lost since July, worries about the possibility that he and others who spent time in the fog of chemicals that blanketed Portland this summer may have an increased cancer risk. “I was just talking to a friend whose mom has cancer about how many of us have been exposed to things that may be carcinogens,” said Smiff. “There are still so many questions we were exposed to.”
Randolph, the neuroscientist, is worried about lasting mental health effects. “Being gassed is traumatic,” she said. “And seeing all that violence happen, a lot of people will be reaching out for mental health support — for anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.”
While most of the tactical federal agents withdrew from Portland in late July, a protester who goes by Jack Tudela believes she was again exposed to the toxic chemicals when she was attending a protest at an ICE facility on September 18. Since July, Tudela had already experienced some disturbing symptoms she tied to the chemicals used by the federal agents. She usually likes to keep her nails long but recently began to notice that her nails were turning brittle and breaking off. She was also beginning to lose her waist-long, black hair. After she showered, clumps of hair came off in her comb. And Tudela, who has a seizure disorder that is controlled by medicine, said she experienced more frequent mild seizures after the gassing incidents. Like many other women who protested in Portland, Tudela also noticed changes in her menstrual cycle after being exposed to chemicals at the protests.
Tudela’s exposure at the September protest may further exacerbate and prolong all of the symptoms she is experiencing. “They unleashed so much gas that night,” she said. Tudela went to that protest to draw attention to reports that ICE had performed hysterectomies on women in their custody without their consent. And, as she expected, after the chemical-laden confrontation, she experienced some of the same reactions she had at previous protests, including burning in her lungs, nausea, vomiting, difficulty focusing, and an aversion to food. Still, she said, expressing outrage over the violation of others’ bodies was worth the risks to her own.