Tear Gas and Miscarriages
by Sarah Terzo
Major protests against police brutality have occurred around the U.S. in recent weeks. While many demonstrators were peaceful, some rioting occurred. There are many documented cases of police using tear gas and other chemical agents on both violent and nonviolent protesters. A New York Times article says that chemical agents were used on protesters in at least 100 American cities.
There’s a very compelling reason why pro-life activists should be concerned about tear gas: a great deal of anecdotal evidence and one study showing that tear gas may be an abortifacient that can cause miscarriages.
A 2012 report on the use of tear gas against civilians in Bahrain documented many miscarriages linked to tear gas. Investigators from Physicians for Human Rights interviewed women and medical professionals. They were able to examine ultrasounds and medical records to document many of the miscarriages.
The report states:
Local medical professionals also reported to PHR that they had begun to associate miscarriage with women’s exposure to toxic chemical agents.
One obstetrician/gynecologist said that she had seen an increase in miscarriages—especially in the first trimester—in her practice at a private hospital in a predominately Shi’a community exposed to toxic chemical agents.
Two other female physicians, who live in neighborhoods regularly saturated with toxic chemical agents, also reported an increase in miscarriages among their patients; one physician exposed to toxic chemical agents reported she herself had recently developed abnormal menstrual periods and suspected a miscarriage.
A nurse who works at Salmaniya Hospital told PHR investigators, “There are many, many miscarriages. We believe the miscarriage rate has increased, although there is no quantitative evidence. What I want to know is: What is this gas . . . and what will be the future complications?”1
The women who were interviewed told investigators that when they went to the hospital while miscarrying, doctors asked them where they were from and told them they were seeing many similar cases:
One woman from Sitra who miscarried during her 11th week of pregnancy reported that the first question her doctor had asked her, after finding that her baby had no heartbeat, was whether there were problems related to “political unrest” in her village. Presumably, this doctor knew that political unrest in a village implied that toxic chemical agents would be omnipresent.2
Many other women reported miscarriages but were unable to get their medical records. According to one woman:
Many Bahraini women are suffering from the psychological effects of losing a baby and extreme fear. They are not able to speak out and they lack their medical records. The hospitals are not giving us the medical records to document the miscarriages and the birth defects that are happening, so I must speak out.3
Miscarriages after tear gas were also seen among Palestinian women in 1988 when tear gas was heavily used in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to the UN, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas cannisters into enclosed spaces such as houses, schools, and even hospitals. In one case, multiple patients had to be evacuated from a hospital, and 41 Palestinians died from these chemical attacks.Many of them were infants. Women also had miscarriages.
A report from the AP says:
Among the victims was a 35-year-old woman in the Gaza Strip who died along with her unborn child after going into labor prematurely as a result of inhaling tear gas, the U.N. representative said.
He said the gas apparently causes muscle spasms that can cause miscarriage, and dozens of such cases have been reported.
A study at the University of Chile linked miscarriages with tear gas and actually led to the Chilean government banning the use of it by their police. Andrei Tchernitchin, a toxicology expert at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Chile, said of the study, “There’s a probability that the chemical substances in tear gas can affect reproductive function, damage the fetus in the last trimester of pregnancy and children in the first years of life.
Dealing with Counter-Arguments
Col. Ranaan Gissin, a military spokesman, did not deny that a large number of miscarriages occurred but claimed they were the result of “stress” on the women due to being involved in riots:
According to doctors, not just Israeli doctors, when pregnant women participate in riots their blood pressure goes up and they have miscarriages caused by overexcitement, not by tear gas.
This ignored the fact that, according to a spokesman for the UN, most women were at home and not protesting, much less rioting, when they were exposed to tear gas.
The Washington Post described one typical case:
For two days, Ikkram Said, a slender, 27-year-old woman who was four months pregnant, said she could smell fumes wafting into her courtyard from outside. Even with the windows closed, she said, her eyes stung, she coughed constantly and had trouble breathing. Then one day she noticed blood when she went to the toilet and became frightened.
She had a friend drive her to the camp’s United Nations health clinic and was advised to go to Shifa Hospital in nearby Gaza City. By the time she got there she had stomach cramps and uterine contractions. Soon after, she miscarried.
The article spoke of local doctors:
While they concede they lack hard data and autopsy results to verify many of their claims, these sources contend the weight of circumstantial evidence clearly indicates that tear gas is at least a significant contributing factor in deaths and miscarriages among a refugee camp population that, even in the best of times, is in a precarious state of health.
UNRWA’s chief health officer in the Gaza Strip, Dr. Samir Badri, was quoted saying:
There is until now no solid scientific proof, but certainly the accumulated evidence is strongly incriminating.
When you see a woman with no previous history of miscarriages or bleeding, and after exposure to tear gas she bleeds and aborts, you can say safely it is the gas.
It turns out that much of the tear gas that was used in Israel was manufactured in the U.S. A Report to House of Representatives titled “ISRAEL Use of U.S.-Manufactured Tear Gas in the Occupied Territories” tried to debunk the link between tear gas and miscarriages by saying:
Although allegations of large numbers of spontaneous abortions and miscarriages were widespread in the Palestinian community, the physicians who the factfinding group spoke with had found no obvious change in the rate.4
The authors make the argument that there was no increase in miscarriages in official statistics. However, the Washington Post says:
Medical experts say . . . accurate statistics . . . are largely unobtainable in the chaos of civil unrest and military crackdown that has reigned in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip since December.
The argument that tear gas isn’t statistically linked to miscarriages ignores the fact that medical records may not be accurate in an impoverished, chaotic area in the middle of civil unrest.
Also, another reporter states:
According to physicians at one hospital in Gaza . . . .over 35 deaths of foetuses had occurred in the last three months of pregnancy in their hospital alone, all from tear gassing. One should bear in mind that this is one hospital which serves one sector of Gaza, and many cases from the refugee camps do not reach the hospital. Doctors say that most cases are not reported, as mothers are fearful of military retaliation at hospitals and simply recover at home. The same applies throughout the West Bank.5
This further suggests the miscarriage rate may be higher than the official statistics show.
Interestingly, after denying that miscarriages increased, the report to the House says in the very next sentence that the increase in miscarriages was caused by “other factors, such as the stress and excitement of being present during a violent confrontation,” thus contradicting itself.
Those who try to debunk the miscarriage/tear gas link generally rely on a study done on rats and rabbits, which exposed pregnant animals to tear gas for five minutes on several consecutive days. All the animals carried their pregnancies to term. However, the rats that were injected with tear gas gave birth to litters with “skeletal deformities.” showing that there is a potential for the tear gas to cause problems.6 The study design was quite cruel; further humane research is needed for a definitive answer.
But it is clear that doctors on the front lines and women who miscarried believe there is a connection.
- Richard Sollom, Holly G. Atkinson, Physicians for Human Rights “Weaponizing Tear Gas: Bahrain’s Unprecedented Use of Toxic Chemical Agents Against Civilians” CUNY Academic Works August 2012, pgs 28-29
- Donald E Wagner “CS Tear Gas a Form of Chemical Warfare?” “Developments in the West Bank and Gaza, May 1990” Hearing Before the Subcommittees on Europe and the Middle East and on Human Rights and International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundred First Congress, Second Session, May 9, 1990
- Eugene J. Olajos, Harry Salem “Riot Control Agents: Pharmacology, Toxicology, Biochemistry and Chemistry” JOURNAL OF APPLIED TOXICOLOGY 21, 2001 pgs 355–39
For more of our posts on similar topics, see:
Police Brutality to the Preborn / Sarah Terzo