As tear gas floods the Gaza Strip, international attention has once again been turned toward the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Protests have erupted against the U.S.’s relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem, a move approved by the American congress in the 90s, but not enacted until now. Reports say over 60 have been killed, one of which was a baby who perished upon inhalation of tear gas. The baby, eight-month-old Leila Anwar Ghandoor, may have had a pre-existing condition making her more susceptible and vulnerable to the tear gas, though that has not been confirmed yet.

What is tear gas?

Tear gas is a chemical weapon that is generally non-lethal (notwithstanding cases like Leila Anwar Ghandoor), used to incapacitate its targets. Despite the name, the gas is actually an aerosolized solid, and depending on the type it can have a number of negative effects on the human body. It profoundly irritates the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, lungs and mouth. People exposed to the weapon are sent violently coughing, sneezing with labored breathing and crying. Often sight is temporarily lost.

Pepper spray is different from tear gas, depending on where you’re getting your pepper spray. They are both known as lachrymator agents, but the main difference lies in pepper spray’s active ingredient, capsaicin — a component of chili peppers.

While there are some variants of tear gas that utilize capsaicin, the most popular is CS Gas, which new military recruits are often exposed to during basic training in the U.S. military. This is typically used for combat operations or in many cases, riot control; it was also used during the Waco Siege in 1993. CS gas is made using synthetic organic halogen compounds, unlike naturally occurring capsaicin. Just because something occurs naturally doesn’t necessarily make it any less deadly or effective in combat, however in this case CS gas is certainly more potent than pepper spray.

Mace often contains a combination of elements from CS gas (or the older CN gas) and pepper spray. However, sometimes people casually refer to any kind of irritant like this as mace, though that would be technically inaccurate.

How is it typically used?

The use of tear gas depends on the circumstances. It could be a riot, a shooter barricaded inside a building, or some kind of hostage situation.

If the decision to use tear gas to disperse a riot is made, there are some unique considerations to be made. First of all, riots typically occur outdoors and so any use of tear gas is going to be affected by the wind. A windy day could blow the tear gas back into the faces of the police or military forces using the gas, or it could blow it downwind into unsuspecting civilians who are not even involved in the riot.

Riots are often dispersed using canisters, that can be thrown by law enforcement personnel or even launched from certain types of weaponry, to include a 40mm launcher like the M320. In the cases where there is a mechanical launching of canisters, there can be severe risk of injury or death from the canisters themselves, on top of the gas as it begins to plume. There have been several documented cases of police officers or military members around the world intentionally firing canisters at people and killing them. Anyone who intends to stay non-lethal needs to fire these canisters near their targets, but not directly into them.

When attacking an interior target (like in the case of a hostage situation or a barricaded shooter), the wind may need to be taken into account, but the focus is going to be more on how to safely deliver the tear gas while minimizing risk to everyone involved. It is also important to know where in the building to ideally place the tear gas, especially if your resources/options are limited. Firing a canister into an upstairs bedroom will not do much good if the assailant is in the downstairs pantry.

As with any tactical situation, there are a myriad of considerations that can be standardized and trained upon, and a good deal more that require the police officer or service member to adapt and overcome whatever problem they face.

It is important to remember that, despite whatever the intentions of law enforcement or military may be, any non-lethal weapon has the chance of killing someone. Tasers, rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas are all non-lethal weapons that have killed someone at some point in time — some more often than you might think. Pepper spray has even resulted in death before.

Non-lethal weapons are named as such because their intent is to subdue a certain individual or individuals without ending their lives, but they are still a weapon used in a volatile situation. And those situations can, and often do, lead to deaths one way or another.

A Palestinian demonstrator runs through a cloud of tear gas during clashes against Israel’s operations in Gaza Strip, outside Ofer, an Israeli military prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012. | AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press. Video from Pasu Au Yeung [CC 3.0].