After Hong Kong police fired 800 tear gas canisters at umbrella-wielding demonstrators on a single day this week, hundreds of empty aluminum shells littered the streets in the wake of the protests. Many of those shells were made in the Keystone State.
Pennsylvania is a leading manufacturer of tear gas, exported all over the globe. Combined Systems Inc. of Jamestown, south of Erie, and Nonlethal Technologies of Homer City, east of Pittsburgh, are among the top five companies in the world producing “riot control systems,” according to Visiongain, a market research firm based in London. Activists call the products “chemical weapons.”
The Hong Kong police’s use of tear gas has become a flash point as security forces battle daily against demonstrators, who for more than two months have protested a plan to enable the extradition of citizens to China. Hong Kong is part of China but has separate legal and governmental systems.
From June 1 through July 31, Hong Kong security forces fired about 1,000 tear gas canisters as a form of “riot control,” police told local journalists. On Monday alone, police shot off at least 800 shells.
Tear gas is so prevalent in Hong Kong that dark-humored protesters call themselves “teargas sommeliers,” claiming they can tell when a gas was manufactured, said Thomas Yau, a Shanghai-based videographer working in Hong Kong. “Those made in 2017 have an ‘earthy aftertaste,’” Yau tweeted.
Three American lawmakers were shocked by the toxic fog blanketing the Asian economic powerhouse and reports of tear gas being fired directly at unarmed protesters and journalists.
On Aug. 2, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Commerce Wilber Ross, asking them to suspend the future sales of riot control equipment — including tear gas — to Chinese police and to publicly announce that the United States would not contribute to the repression of peaceful protests in Hong Kong.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) had taken to Twitter on July 29 to stop tear gas exports.
“USA banned exporting tear gas crime control equipment to China after the Communist Party massacred dissidents in Tiananmen Square,” wrote Cruz. “If [Chinese President] Xi Jinping doesn’t stop eroding Hong Kong’s sovereignty & halt attacks on protesters, the US must consider applying the same policy to Hong Kong.”
A Massachusetts congressman echoed the demand.
“Escalating & unnecessary violence by #HongKong police worsens the situation,” tweeted Rep. Jim McGovern. “The U.S. should immediately suspend any transfers of police products including tear gas to #HongKong until adequate safeguards are in place.”
The legislators’ letters and tweets followed a petition that garnered a little over 110,000 signatures, calling for the suspension of so-called nonlethal exports to Hong Kong to prevent human rights abuses and a July 24 appeal by Amnesty International “to suspend all transfers of less lethal ‘crowd control’ equipment,” including tear gas and rubber bullets, to Hong Kong.
Britain suspended sales of tear gas and other munitions to Hong Kong police last week.
A spokesperson for Combined Systems, which also makes high-capacity Venom brand grenade launchers, did not return calls for comment. Combined Systems is owned by the Carlyle Group, which manages $13 billion in global assets. Michael Scott Oberdick and James A. Oberdick, the owners of Nonlethal Technologies, also declined to comment.
The Department of Commerce, which regulates exports of tear gas, did not reply to multiple requests for comment. On Wednesday, the Department of State issued a warning to travelers planning to visit Hong Kong to “exercise increased caution due to civil unrest.”
Since it was first deployed in a 1921 experiment on volunteers from the Philadelphia Police Department, tear gas has been increasingly used to disperse crowds. That’s despite a ban for use in warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Though the U.S. military has not officially used tear gas since 1975, local law enforcement is exempt from restrictions, said Stephen Semler, a Beirut, Lebanon-based researcher who has worked with Armament Research Services, a specialist intelligence consultancy.
Tear gas recently was deployed in the U.S. in mid-July by police in Puerto Rico, who were facing thousands of demonstrators demanding the resignation of then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. U.S. customs agents at the Mexican border fired tear gas Jan. 1 on migrants near a fence in Tijuana and in November on migrants near San Diego. Arizona police fired it last August during protests directed at President Donald Trump.
It often has been used by forces in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, and Israel.
The market for tear gas and other crowd-control munitions is expected to grow by about 6% each year in the coming decade, according to analysts at Visiongain.
“Considering that it causes asphyxiation and vomiting, ‘tear gas’ strikes me as a euphemism,” said Semler. “You hear it categorized as ‘nonlethal,’ but people die from it all the time — usually when it’s fired indoors or when a canister fired from a launcher hits someone in the head. Referring to it as a ‘riot control agent’ implies there’s a riot, and not a demonstration or just a bunch of refugees fleeing a horrible consequence.”
What police and protesters call tear gas is not a gas at all, said Anna Feigenbaum, a professor at Bournemouth University in England who wrote Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today. Rather, the chemical compounds are toxic powders that are aerosolized as a fog or spray.
“They are designed to attack the senses simultaneously, intentionally producing both physical and psychological trauma,” said Feigenbaum. “It acts as an irritant on multiple sites of the body at once, primarily affecting mucous membranes and respiratory system.”
There is no legal obligation in any country to record the number of deaths and injuries from tear gas, Feigenbaum said. Unlike other dangerous and toxic products, tear gas is not well regulated. There are no organizations that effectively monitor sales, exports, or stockpiles.