Pulmonologists in the country have warned against throwing tear gas canisters at #ENDSARS protesters, saying it would expose them to asthma, partial blindness and other life-threatening health conditions.
Nigeria is currently embroiled in ongoing nationwide protests by youths against the brutality and extrajudicial killings by men of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigeria Police Force.
Tagged #EndSARS, an acronym for End Special Anti-Robbery Squad, it is a social movement that started on social media calling for a ban of the Nigerian Police unit over the latter’s use of excessive force, oppression and brutality.
In an exclusive interview, a pulmonologist with the Federal Medical Centre, Abeokuta, Dr. Olusola Adeyelu described tear gas, which is formally known as a lachrymator agent or O-Chlorobenzylidene Malononitrile, as a riot-control agent used to disperse a large crowd.
“It is popularly called ‘tear gas’ because of the inflammation it causes in people’s eyes. Tear gas is an irritant or toxicant and prolonged exposure to it is very dangerous,” he said.
He disclosed that the long term effects of exposing an individual to repeated exposure can presumably cause a transformation of the lining of the airway cells from natural to mutant.
The medical doctor also noted that as a short term consequence, it can aggravate and even kill anyone with a history of respiratory diseases.
“I believe you remember that repeated tear-gassing was one of the issues surrounding the late Gani Fawehinmi’s cancer. Though no one was absolutely sure. But there was a high level of suspicion that it was the cause,” he said.
He urged demonstrators at the ongoing #EndSARS nationwide protest to endeavour to cover their noses and wear eyeglasses when they come under tear gas attack.
In a similar vein, another pulmonologist at the Faculty of Clinical Sciences, Prof. Olufemi Adewole has disclosed that continual exposure to the irritant in tear gas over a period of time may give people chronic lung disease or form of blindness.
“Tear gas is often triggered by police when they are under pressure. It has immediate and long term effect too. That also depends whether it was triggered indoor or in outdoor areas among a sizeable number of people or crowd.
“Generally, the immediate impact affects the eyes commonly. I am sure that is where the name ‘tear gas’ also came from. You can have irritation such as itchy eyes, red eyes and, sometimes, inability to see well because of the tearing,” he said.
Adewole remarked that the irritant also affects the nose because inhaling the substance can also lead to irritation like sneezing, adding that inhaling too much gas can lead to tightening of the muscles that line the airways called ‘Bronchospasm’.
“For instance, it can cause difficulty in breathing for those who are allergic to gas or reagent. This condition could be a bit life-threatening. For those who are asthmatic, tear gas can precipitate or trigger a form of asthma which can be catastrophic.
“I know a Nigerian politician, an asthmatic who was tear-gassed. Of course, he developed some respiratory problem and he died not long after that incident. Tear gas is also known to affect people’s skins, giving them some irritations like rashes,” he said.
The pulmonologist, however, pointed out that people may quickly overcome tear gas with regards to the eyes, nose and skin within 30 minutes if the risk exposure was done in an open space.
Conversely, he reiterated that if tear gas was thrown into an enclosed space, there is a tendency it could affect the cornea (eye) and result in ‘some form of blindness.’
“The person may have difficulty in seeing in the long run. The long term effect of tear gas could also cause airway diseases like asthma and other related conditions in an individual. But generally, we usually advise that when you are in a place and a tear gas is thrown, the best thing is to leave the area immediately.
“If possible, you may need to remove your clothing because this gas sometimes gets soaked and absolved into the skin through the clothes. You may have left the area and the effect is still there if you have a significant amount absolved in your clothes. It is therefore advisable to remove all clothing and clean up,” he said.
He noted that it is advisable for #EndSARS protesters undergoing any form of respiratory challenges to immediately rush to the refuge of nay hospital when caught in the web of tear gas canisters.
“Otherwise we cannot tell specifically if such a trigger could result in loss of lives or if it won’t recur when the person gets home. The long term effect may not be that much except the individual is repeatedly exposed to tear gas.
“That said, I must also say throwing of tear gas is not as common as it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s when we have a lot of student riots. Hardly in three months or so that you won’t have riot,” he stated.
Since the #EndSARS protest started some days ago, many victims of police brutality have shared emotional tales and video evidence of how men of the defunct SARS engaged in kidnapping, murder, theft, rape, torture, unlawful arrests, high-handedness, humiliation, unlawful detention, extrajudicial killings, and extortion.
The demonstrations have brought vehicular movements across major cities in the country to a standstill as motorists and commuters are trapped in the gridlock.
It had also featured a handful of organisations and individuals supporting the movement with standby ambulances, legal services, funds for hospital bills, medical supplies, food, glucose and water.