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Smoke Grenades: Somehow Even More Toxic than Expected

by Austen Lethbridge-Scarl

Portland’s Chemical Weapons Research Consortium, led by Dr. Juniper L. Simonis, has been studying the use of chemical weapons on Portlanders by Portland Police and federal agents since early in Portland’s Black Lives Matter uprising, and they’ve just released a report on the impacts of an especially toxic kind of smoke grenade used by the Department of Homeland Security: Hexachloroethane (HC).


When combined with zinc oxide in smoke grenades, HC produces a bevy of extremely dangerous chemicals. The most present of these is zinc chloride, which is the focus of the Consortium’s paper, but it also produces a number of poisonous and/or carcinogenic byproducts including carbon monoxide, phosgene (a World War 1-era chemical weapon), and hexachlorobenzene (a fungicide that's been banned in the US since 1966). Note that this isn’t even “teargas”, the chemicals that irritate your eyes and lungs. All of this is just the smoke.

Simonis says of zinc chloride in their abstract:

The gas released is so toxic that the grenades deployed produced enough ZnCl2 to kill the author (~100 kg) 137 (131 -154) times over and its release has led to persistent major health issues in the exposed population. Given prior case histories of ZnCl2 exposure and novel symptoms associated with HC grenade use by DHS, ZnCl2 is certainly the causal agent and has created an ongoing human and environmental health crisis extending well beyond the protests’ footprint.

The report also describes the effects of HC smoke on the environment, such as defoliating trees and stunting their growth, as well as its significant harm on aquatic life. (The City of Portland's survey last month about CS gas residue in our sewer systems suggests these chemicals probably didn't reach the Willamette via sewer, but the Consortium's report notes an individual risks acute symptoms from a HC canister 200 yards away. This is almost exactly the distance between the Hatfield Courthouse and the Willamette River.) We’ve been on the “what the hell is this horrible stuff doing to us?” beat for a while and one of the most consistently horrifying things is how poorly studied these chemicals are. The Geneva Conventions ban their use in warfare, meaning they’re exclusively used by governments against their own citizens, and they’re deployed without those governments knowing (or caring) what the impacts will be on human beings or the environment surrounding them. It’s taken citizen scientists like Dr. Simonis, with enormous community support, to collect and share information the government won’t.

And it’s worth remembering the ultimate reason why this stuff was deployed in the first place: to make people stop putting paint on a building. All of this was because of paint. Unreal.

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