[News] Toxic Chemical Smoke Grenades Used in Portland

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sun Oct 11 16:17:24 EDT 2020

Chemical Smoke Grenades Used in Portland
Sharon Lerner - October 10, 2020

*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 <https://zenodo.org/record/4059329> 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.
Smoke Grenades

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
<https://www.hindawi.com/journals/tswj/2014/963638/>. In early September,
Wheeler ordered the police to stop using it. Tear gas is banned
<https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/bio/1925-geneva-protocol/> in war but
can be used to disperse crowds of civilians.

[image: IMG_20200816_013936]

Unexploded smoke grenade recovered from July 16 protests in Portland by a
front-line protester and medic.

Photo: Courtesy of Juniper Simonis

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
<https://zenodo.org/record/4059330#.X37EtZNKjep> 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 <https://pim-resources.coleparmer.com/sds/48183.pdf>.
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.
toxic compound also causes fever, chest pain, and liver damage
<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15563650.2016.1271125> 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 <https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a277838.pdf> 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.”

(Left/top) After a reaction has stopped, HC canister shows charred remains
and (right/bottom) HC ordnance off-gassing Zinc Chloride mid-deployment.Photo:
Courtesy of Sarah Riddle.
Immediate and Lasting Effects

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

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.

[image: Protests for Black Lives]

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 <http://www.phr.org/Portland> 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 <https://2020pb.com/> 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
<https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/29cbf2e87b914dbaabdec2f3d350839e> 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
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.”
Uncharted Territory

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
<https://www.dontshootpdx.org/>. 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

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
<https://twitter.com/MsLucky420/status/1311443948246691840> 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.
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