The chemicals released into the air by tear gas and other crowd control equipment in Portland’s nightly protests eventually sink to the ground and are washed away by rain.
On Tuesday (April 18), five environmental organizations led by the ACLU of Oregon and others sued the Department of Homeland Security over human and environmental health concerns. According to the complaint filed in federal court, the United States violated the National Environmental Policy Act by using “an unprecedented amount of dangerous chemical weapons” without first conducting an environmental effect assessment.
The federal government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Authorities and academics in the area are attempting to ascertain whether and how residents and the surrounding ecosystem have been impacted by the city’s prolonged Black Lives Matter rallies.
The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services reported last month that cyanide and other heavy metals were detected in considerably greater concentrations in stormwater catch basins next to a protest site than elsewhere in the city.
According to city authorities, stormwater samples collected 700 feet from the Willamette River, which cuts through Portland, had lower pollutant levels than those tested from a protest site several blocks farther from the river.
“While pollutant levels that enter the Willamette River are thankfully low, the city is concerned about any and all additional pollution loads,” stated Environmental Services Director Mike Jordan in September.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reported that “the repeated deployment of tear gas in downtown Portland has led to elevated levels of certain contaminants” in the city’s storm drains. Nonetheless, spokesperson Susan Mills said the quantities recorded in stormwater catch basins “are not likely high enough to cause immediate impacts on the environment.”
However, environmentalists are concerned because runoff from demonstrations at the federal courtroom and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters is drained straight into the Willamette.
Activist Juniper Simonis stood in the water with a mesh colander at her knees one recent day. A rubber buckshot pellet was discovered in Simonis’s scoop of silt. Later, Simonis, an environmental consultant with the slogan “These Gams Kill Fascists” tattooed on both legs, found a more extensive particle, most likely from a grenade of the sort that sometimes includes tear gas.
Simonis claims that the river and storm drainage system provided the raw materials for dozens of tear gas projectiles and pepper balls, which he displayed to a reporter.
According to Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeepers, one of the groups suing the federal government, the items raise issues about the existence of invisible chemicals and heavy metals from the crowd control devices.
“It would seem that those pieces of hardware and the pellets… could be indicative of the contaminants making it to the river as well,” Williams added.
According to the complaint, “the presence of chemicals, sediment, and munitions debris… in the Willamette River waters can cause negative effects to recreationalists and wildlife.” The DHS is asked to analyze the health and environmental implications of tear gas and other weapons and provide the results to the public.
“Everyone has the right to live in a clean, safe neighborhood. Kelly Simon, the interim legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said, “Environmental hazards and police violence disproportionately deny that right to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color.”
According to a municipal investigation, sediment in catch basins near the courthouse has been found to have significant concentrations of cyanide, hexavalent chromium, and barium. And that worries Purdue University associate professor of environmental and ecological engineering Andrew Whelton.
“If contaminants accumulate in sediment, they may leach out over time or… be released into the water column,” Whelton said in an email.
A state environment lab supervisor named Lori Pillsbury recently testified before a House subcommittee in Oregon, saying, “Some of the products and the propellants associated with tear gas use can be detrimental to water quality and aquatic life.”
According to Sven-Eric Jordt, a Duke University’s School of Medicine researcher, people are likely exposed to chemicals at far more significant amounts than what was detected in catch basins. During demonstrations, he suggested collecting air samples.
However, state authorities said that tear gas exposure is not being measured since no air quality sensors are nearby.
Medical professionals have noted a dearth of research on tear gas’s potential side effects. Two surveys, including one by one of the primary healthcare organizations in the country, are being conducted to fill the knowledge void.
Britta Torgrimson-Ojerio, the study’s primary investigator, the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland conducted the poll because individuals had reported experiencing health effects from tear gas exposure immediately and weeks afterward.
Menstrual cycle alterations, extended headaches, and gastrointestinal difficulties such as a lack of appetite, diarrhea, and nausea were also reported, despite “almost no peer-reviewed evidence” for them, as Torgrimson-Ojerio put it.
Asha Hassan, the principal researcher on a different poll conducted by Planned Parenthood North Central States and the University of Minnesota, described it as “very exploratory” and suggested avenues for further study.
Lack of transparency is one of the barriers to assessing health and environmental effects. An earlier AP investigation also found a lack of monitoring from federal authorities.
Officials in Portland have argued that they cannot disclose how much of each chemical goes into the crowd control agents since it is a trade secret. In addition, the compounds produced by the devices are not usually disclosed.
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Zinc chloride is a known component of the smoke from HC (hexachloroethane) smoke grenades, which have been used in Portland. However, the safety data sheets for these weapons do not mention this.
According to a U.S. Army investigation, zinc chloride has killed and injured exposed service members. An EU body has declared it “very toxic to aquatic life.” It is also challenging to determine which components of tear gas are present in the atmosphere.
High concentrations of chemicals in catch basins have led Pillsbury to conclude that she cannot link them to crowd control munitions “because these contaminants are associated with many daily activities and urban runoff.”
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