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A demonstrator protects himself from tear gas during a protest over the killing of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 18 in Ferguson, Mo. / Scott Olson, Getty Images

In Ferguson, Mo., police have been using tear gas to disperse crowds gathered for more than a week over the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a police officer.

When people are exposed to tear gas, the chemical agent activates the fine nerve endings on their eyes, skin, noses, airways and mouths, said Sven-Eric Jordt, associate professor of anesthesiology at the Duke University School of Medicine, who has studied the biological effects of tear gas.

The effect? Eyes water and eyelids swell up. When a person inhales it, the body produces mucus.

"That's why many people feel tear gas can be suffocating," Jordt said. "It produces a drowning feeling that your airways are filled up with liquid."

Some people vomit after being gassed, he said.

The most common kind of tear gas used in riot control is called CS. It's a solid that is shot through an aerosol, so it becomes a gas, Jordt said.

Tear gas is especially dangerous for people with respiratory conditions, such as asthma and emphysema, he said.

Exposure can cause irreversible damage to the skin, similar to a chemical burn, he said.

How long the effects last depend on the level of exposure, Jordt said. There is no treatment. The best thing to do is to use "copious amounts of water" and soap, he said.

Tear gas is commonly used by police to control riots, yet it's banned by international treaty in warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into effect in 1997.

"You can gas citizens with tear gas but not enemies," said Michael Luhan, spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which administers the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by 190 countries.

"The reasoning is tear gas and other chemicals are not meant to kill," said Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, a non-profit organization with offices in more than 30 countries.

But, Walker points out, "there's not a clear, bright line between lethal and non-lethal for any chemical."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Tear gas 'produces a drowning feeling'

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