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The Tear Gas May Be Gone, But the Tears Will Continue


Lisa Gantz, MD
December 14, 2018

“Thank you for calling the California Poison Control Center. What can I help you with, doctor?”

 

Poison control centers offer guidance to the public and healthcare providers on how to treat exposures to toxins. Most of the calls I make are about accidental ingestions: the toddler who swallowed a few of grandma’s heart medication pills, or the infant who ate a candy-shaped laundry pod. This was the first time I had ever called regarding a chemical weapon

 

“What do we know about tear gas and kids?” 

 

I have been haunted by images of shoeless children, running from clouds of toxic fumes in nothing but a diaper and a t-shirt. The morning after the news of U.S. border patrol agents firing tear gas at migrants trying to cross at San Ysidro, which included families, I called the poison control hotline. I explained that I am a pediatrician in Los Angeles calling to confirm details about short and long-term physical effects of tear gas on children. I wanted to be ready for immigrant children who may arrive at my clinic in the coming weeks. 


Stunned by news images of shoeless children running from clouds of tear gas at the U.S. border near San Diego, Dr. Lisa Gantz prepared for the sad possibility she might soon be treating young patients for exposure. #AAPvoices

Although the uproar over tear gas use at the border last month has seemingly come and gone, these children may not forget and recover so quickly.

The toxicologist explained the temporary effects—irritation of the mucous membranes, including severe burning of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. It can lead to multiple types of burns: chemical, from direct contact with the gas, or thermal, from the canister that releases the toxic fumes. Exposure can cause corneal abrasions, which, if left untreated, can lead to eye infections that can cause permanent eye damage and even vision loss.
 
“As you know there is no antidote,” he said. “But if you have a child with severe burning of the skin, you can try rubbing vegetable oil on the skin to soothe it.” 

There’s a reason tear gas is considered a chemical weapon, and is banned from most battlefields around the world.


"Most of these physical effects of tear gas exposure thankfully have passed, but many of these children will continue to suffer damaging long-term psychological effects."


Next, we discussed respiratory effects. He echoed what American Academy of Pediatrics president Dr. Colleen Kraft said about the unique effects of tear gas on children shortly after its use at the border crossing. The effects on kids are amplified because of their “smaller size, more frequent number of breaths per minute and limited cardiovascular stress response compared to adults.” The fumes can have even more profound effects in children who have underlying respiratory conditions, like asthma. And children often do not know to shield their mouths and eyes, instead wailing and crying for help, leading them to inhale even more toxic gas.
 
Most of these physical effects of tear gas exposure thankfully have passed, but many of these children will continue to suffer damaging long-term psychological effects.

Because their parents were also suffering the effects of the gas and unable to protect or shield them, these children were exposed to what we define as “toxic stress,” or a traumatic experience without appropriate parental buffers. Toxic stress can permanently alter brain architecture and lead to both short-term and long-term effects on physical health, mental health, learning, and development.
 
Although we (thankfully) haven’t seen further use of chemical weapons against migrants, the psychological trauma will continue to impact these kids. And thousands of these children and their families remain at the border in squalid conditions, further perpetuating this cycle of trauma. New reports of a 7-year-olf Guatemalan child died while being detained after crossing the border only add to concern over caring for the health needs of vulnerable migrant children.


As a pediatrician, it is my job to protect and advocate for all children, regardless of where they were born. I implore our policymakers to provide more resources to the growing humanitarian crisis at our southern border, and to speak out and take action against any policies or actions that are harmful to immigrant children. The clouds of tear gas may have have settled, but we cannot settle for anything less. 

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About the Author


Lisa Gantz, MD, is a fourth year Med-Peds resident in Southern California and will be a Pediatric Chief Resident 2019-2020. She is a member of the AAP California Chapter 2 and a participant in its Immigrant Health Initiative.