Tear Gas – Is it Chemical Warfare?

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The Malaysian security forces use what one expert in the field calls a “truly popular but expensive” tear-gas grenade. Sharaad Kuttan picked up some hot evidence.


“The price of a 515 Grenade at retail averages between USD 25.00 and USD 36.00 and depends on the quantity ordered,” says Donald Peace, President  of M P Laboratories, Inc. This is what our government, which is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, spends everytime it shoots a tear-gas grenade at demonstrators, peaceful or otherwise. Has there been a public discussion of the use of such chemical weapons, of what is considered legitimate force and in what circumstances? This present crisis and the wide spread use of chemical weapons to ‘disperse’ demonstrators seems to be an appropriate occasion for such a public discussion.

The Triple Chaser Grenade was used at Sri Perdana on the night of 20 September and is likely to be the one used on subsequent occasions. I picked up a very hot shell that night and made inquiries based on markings on the canister.  Donald Peace, who shared his knowledge of the “munition” said that he and his company works closely with security forces, but agreed to share the information with me a journalist, because he had a responsibility as a member of the “scientific community”.

How the tear-gas grenade works

“This particular Grenade when given the model number 515 contains CS Irritant Agent [link] and is in use throughout the world as the choice crowd control and riot control chemical munition. The device in it’s present configuration has be continuous use for at least 40 years. It is designed to split into three sections after being released by the thrower. Each of the three pieces ignite and produce the heavy white agent filled cloud for about 15 seconds.  The pieces should spread out about fifteen to twenty feet distant from each section. The three sections function within 1 and 1/2 second after leaving the grip of the thrower. Each section becomes very hot to the touch whilst functioning and becomes less likely to be thrown back at the police line. It is truly a very popular but expensive grenade, and is used in many locations throughout the world and here in the USA as well.”

Dangerous if not used as instructed

“This grenade when used as it was designed is to be placed in front of an advancing crowd to restrain their advance,” answered Peace when I noted that it seemed to me that the tear-gas was being shot into the crowd on the night of 20 September. Its dangers, however, are not confined to the physical danger of being hit by these exploding grenades. There is some controversy over the chemical composition – CS – of the tear-gas and its purported capacity to produce a deadly cyanide gas.


“CS irritant agent does indeed have a CN radical but it is tied up on the chemical chain and would not act like cyanide,” argues Peace.  “The agent is ‘less than lethal’ and is probably one of the safest methods for crowd control outdoors.” Others argue differently. One report suggests that while CS gas “is not known to have caused any deaths or permanent injuries, however its use has been banned in some American military operations.” Why we ask; this might have something to do with the Chemical weapons Convention which in its general principles calls for the elimination of crowd control weapons as a method of warfare. This curiously means higher standards for warfare as opposed to civil conflict.

There is a lively debate on the internet about the use and effects of CS gas. One critic of the use of the munition wrote: “CS manufacturers such as Aldrich Chemical Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin state in their official company literature on CS, that when burned CS emits toxic fumes, such as hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen chloride. The Aldrich company also states that if water is poured on burning CS, a lethal cloud of hydrogen cyanide can be released. …  Also, a report by Amnesty International confirmed that CS and CN gas had lead to the deaths of over 40 Palestinians, including 18 babies, who had all been exposed, like the Davidians, to tear-gas in enclosed spaces (my emphasis). As a result of this report, American manufacturers halted sales of tear-gas to the Israeli government.”

The security forces protect themselves

Walking through a line of riot police from behind them I was able to take note of markings on a satchel carried by one of the men. Peace informed me of the origins of the protective gear, bound up with one of the most devastating wars in this region both for human life and the environment, that is the US war against Vietnam.

“The mask you saw in the carrying bag is of US Military design but was retired during the military operations in ‘Nam (sic) many years ago and was made available to the police here in the USA and around the world. I believe some of the tooling was sent off to the Republic of Korea and they continue to manufacture the device. Cost (if one can buy one today) is about or between USD50.00 and USD 80.00. The mask filters out particles of almost microscopic size and does have a charcoal filter to remove certain organic chemical vapours. The modern replacement is much more sophisticated and is strictly for the military and costs upwards of USD 125.00.

Because of the costs, both financial and in terms of public heath and safety, the call for a public debate on the use of chemical weapons and for public scrutiny of this weaponry must be made as soon as possible. No longer can the citizen assume that these are questions solely for government.

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