Products for living amid tear gas fears

City Talk | Eileen Ng 10 Dec 2019

By day, the small commercial kitchen in a Hong Kong industrial building produces snacks. At night, it becomes a secret laboratory assembling kits for pro-democracy protesters seeking to detox after repeated exposure to tear gas.

Volunteers seated around a kitchen island sort and pack multicolored pills into small resealable bags. At another table, a woman makes turmeric pills by dipping gelatin capsules into a shallow dish of the deep orange spice.

"Police have used so much tear gas and people are suffering,'' says the owner of the kitchen - speaking on condition of anonymity as she fears repercussions for her business. "We want to especially help frontline protesters, who have put their lives on the line."

Police have fired more than 10,000 tear gas canisters to quell violent protests that have rocked the special administrative region for six months. The movement's demands include fully democratic elections and an investigation into police use of force, including tear gas. Its heavy and prolonged use in Hong Kong, one of the world's most densely populated urban centers, is unusual and has sparked health fears.

While there's no evidence of long-term health effects, it's also largely untested territory.

"I don't think there have been circumstances where there has been this level of repeated exposure for people to tear gas," says Alistair Hay, a British toxicologist from the University of Leeds. "What's going on in Hong Kong is pretty unprecedented."

Police have fired it in cramped residential areas and near hospitals, malls and schools, affecting not only protesters but also children, the elderly and the sick.

Some worry that tear gas residue could stick for days or weeks to asphalt, walls, ventilation ducts and other places. Parents, schools and various community groups have demanded to know the chemical makeup of the gas - but police won't divulge that information - so they can clean up properly.

In the absence of official information, some parents have stopped taking their kids to parks, and online tips urge mothers to refrain from breastfeeding for a few hours if they are exposed to the gas. Many avoided fresh fruits after a wholesale market that supplies half of Hong Kong's supply was gassed last month.

New daily rituals include using a baking soda solution to bathe, wash clothes and clean surfaces. Tips shared by protesters include not bathing in hot water after exposure, as it is believed it will open pores and let the chemicals seep in. The kitchen owner making detox kits says she wants to help protesters, who often avoid seeking treatment at hospitals to hide their identity and avoid possible arrest.

The kits contain capsules that include vitamins and other natural ingredients and are packed into a small pouch with 10 bottles of a cloudy caramel-colored drink that contains an antioxidant said to be an immune-system booster. Each comes with instructions for a 10-day detoxification program that includes no alcohol or smoking.

It has not been scientifically tested for treating symptoms, but the kitchen owner claims feedback was positive from a first batch distributed to frontline protesters through a network of first-aiders and social workers.

Hay says that excessive concentrations of CS gas, a common tear gas component, and residue that persists in the environment could cause prolonged symptoms and health complications for vulnerable groups.

A survey in August conducted by a group of doctors of some 170 reporters covering the protests found most had difficulty breathing, persistent coughing or coughed up blood, skin allergies and gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting.

Residents are also concerned by reports that the tear gas could emit dioxin, a cancer-causing substance. Hay says he isn't aware of any cases of tear gas producing dioxin, though it could in theory be released if a canister burns above 250 degrees Celsius.

Authorities say any toxin found could come from the many street fires set off by protesters.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong, where more than 1,000 rounds of tear gas were fired on one day last month, hired an independent laboratory to test air, water and soil samples. Preliminary tests reportedly showed no harmful substances.

A 17-year-old volunteer helping make the detox kits says he has joined many protests and often experienced stomach cramps, nausea and rashes for days after being gassed.

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