Just outside of San Diego on Sunday, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) used tear gas on people who were approaching the border to seek asylum. Pictures show women and children running to escape the gas. Given the age of some of the asylum seekers, the effects of tear gas on children are of concern not just for parents — who traveled thousands of miles in search of a safe life — but also for many Americans who have seen the pictures and video.
The immediate effects of tear gas are a burning and watery sensation in the eyes, and also an irritation of the skin, pharmacology experts told National Geographic. Exposure can result in difficulty breathing and chest pain; heavy exposure induces vomiting. It's so severe that tear gas is actually forbidden in warfare under the Geneva Convention, but — seemingly at odds — it is allowed to be used on civilian populations.
That doesn't mean CBP's use of tear gas was appropriate for medical safety, though, Dr. Rohini Haar tells Bustle. She's a medical expert for Physicians for Human Rights and a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. "Is it worth using something that is less lethal than guns, but certainly not non-lethal?" Haar asks.
Haar, who co-authored a report for the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations and Physicians for Human Rights on the health consequences of crowd-control weapons, tells Bustle that children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of tear gas — including the pain. "You have to think if these kids pose the kind of threat that's worth this kind of force," she says.
Studies on the short- and long-term effects of tear gas exposure have not focused on women and children. "There's remarkably little research," Haar says. But, she adds, it's possible to postulate that such groups are going to be more vulnerable than the general population. She says that since kids have more sensitive skin and fragile respiratory systems, they can be at particular risk.
Even not knowing how to react puts them in greater danger. "Kids are not the best at having good reactions. They don't know that they're supposed to close their eyes and get out of there," Haar tells Bustle. "They don't tend to close their mouths, they have a tendency to scream their heads off, so they open their mouths nice and wide. Everything about them is more fragile, so it's going to penetrate more in them."
There's also possible mental health implications from the trauma endured, too. Haar says that such experiences for children can cause lifelong issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder. What's more, these children likely have already been dealing with other sources of trauma before being exposed to tear gas by CBP. Most of the families from Central America are fleeing street gangs or other violence, according to ABC News. With each repeated trauma, the likelihood of mental health issues grows, Haar says.
"These are not your average kids who were playing down the street and got accidentally tear gassed," Haar says. "There's layers of trauma on these poor kids because they're running away from something, the mafia, gangs and a lot of violence. They've probably witnessed, if not experienced, a lot of violence and trauma en route to the border."
"It seems to me that responsible members of the U.S. government would want to mitigate the trauma that these children have experienced rather than worsen it," Haar adds.
President Donald Trump and his administration, though, have been working to make applying for asylum more difficult. The administration has tried to limit asylum applications to those who have entered at a port of entry like San Ysidro — the same place where CPB just tear gassed families from the migrant caravan. For now, a judge has blocked the policy.
KPBS' Jean Guerrero reported on Twitter that at least one woman from Honduras now finds entering the United States to seek asylum so hard and frightening that she's going to bring her sons back home.
Others, though, are determined to push on — even if that means waiting. "I’ll just wait my turn, because I can’t go back to my country," Fani Caballero told The New York Times. She traveled from Honduras and is with her 7-year-old daughter in Tijuana.
Haar pointed out that the asylum seekers are following the law, and that the government should respect that. "They're applying for a legal status," Haar tells Bustle. "It's not exactly an even match between them and the U.S. government."