Tear gas could spread COVID-19 or make infection easier, researchers say

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — When Isaiah Barco heard a bang and saw a cloud of smoke during protests in Raleigh on May 30, it took a moment to realize what happened. 

“You know it just hurt really, really bad — got my nose and my eyes,” he recalled. “It’s just a really strong burning sensation.”

That’s when Barco knew he’d been affected by teargas.

“That leads to a profuse secretion of tears; that’s why they call it tear gas,” explained Sven Jordt, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine. “Your eyes are shutting involuntarily; you start sneezing, coughing.”  

In a pandemic, Jordt warns all that sneezing and coughing could spread COVID-19.

“One of the protesters or even police could have an underlying infection they may not even know they’re infected,” he said. “We’re also concerned that the inhalation of tear gas due to its effects on the lungs can make actually the infection worse.”

He also warned tear gas could make people more susceptible to the virus.

“It may reduce our body’s defense against the virus to enter the lungs and enter the cells and establish the infection,” he said.  

He noted a 2014 study by the U.S. military.  He said it showed tear gas “makes it more likely to develop an infection or a respiratory illness after exposure – just a single exposure in training.”

Barco said he thought about COVID-19 before taking part in the protest, but felt it was important to stand up against racism.

“I shouldn’t have to fear going to the store or going for a walk just because my skin,” he said, adding, “We decided to go out there and risk our lives for something we believe in.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, health officials are urging more testing, especially for people who attended any mass gathering, including a protest.

Barco has no symptoms of the coronavirus, but says he says he’s primarily staying home for two weeks, just in case he was exposed.

“If we do have it we don’t want to spread it to people on the outside,” he explained.

Raleigh police, Fayetteville police and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office all say they used tear gas at some point during the demonstrations.  

CBS 17 asked whether they knew it may contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

The Wake County Sheriff’s Office was the only agency able to provide that information. A spokesperson said the sheriff’s office was not aware of that, but would also not change its practices based on that information.

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