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DATE: October 23, 2020
SNIP: Portland has entered a fifth straight month of street protests, often met with a barrage of police-deployed crowd-control munitions, making Portland the most tear-gassed city in America.

This has environmental groups, public health and human rights advocates questioning the short- and long-term effects of tear gas — not just on those demonstrating for racial justice, but also on the environment.

There is no shortage of information and research about what tear gas exposure does to the human body. The Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Environmental Quality share information on their website from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where the agency lists health effects from riot control agents or tear gas.

But the answers become much murkier when it comes to what those chemical agents do to the environment.

The lack of such information is at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by environmental and civil rights groups. They’re seeking an end to the use of tear gas and other chemical munitions by the Department of Homeland Security, alleging it failed to assess the environmental impact and to take other steps required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

On the west bank of the Willamette River near the ICE building, aquatic ecologist Juniper Simonis secured himself to a rope tied to a nearby tree and climbed down a steep bushy hill full of thorns. Simonis navigated sharp, slippery and steep rocks to get close enough to a culvert to collect water samples.

“I know from my background, a lot of the chemicals that are included in these chemical weapons munitions that law enforcement are using are detrimental to ecological systems, detrimental to other organisms as well as to humans,” Simonis said. “So, what I am particularly interested in is understanding how what gets used up there impacts the organisms down here.”

Simonis is the lead scientist at DAPPER Stats, a Portland-based ecological consultant company. Simonis also has a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

Simonis has been attending demonstrations and collecting munitions as they are dispersed by authorities, to test later for chemicals.

In September, Simonis shared research and results from those samples, as well as from soil, tree foliage and other items taken from different areas from the city. Those test results have identified gaseous zinc chloride from hexachloroethane (HC), which is also found in the smoke grenades used by federal officers in July.

Right now, Simonis’ main focus is collecting samples from two different culverts on the Westbank of the Willamette River, one near the ICE building and the other near the Hawthorne Bridge. Simonis has been sifting through sediment from the river to look for munitions that have made it through the storm drain system.

Simonis said the munitions found in the river present a much bigger problem for the environment as it is a more concentrated packet of the toxic chemicals.

“So rather than being dissolved in the water and more diluted, it’s a very concentrated dose,” he said.

Police-fired rubber bullets and pepper balls that wash down storm drains and into the river create other issues for fish and the ecosystem, Simonis said, because they are around the same size of what fish eat in the river.

Simonis expects more munitions to show up as the rain begins to fall, washing them into the river from storm drains and bioswales.

“These things that are being pumped down into the river right now are full of heavy metals that bioaccumulate. We’re talking about zinc, we’re talking about lead, we’re talking about aluminum, we’re talking about chromium,” he said. “Really gnarly stuff that isn’t just going to move through the ecosystem and move on, it’s going to stay here and it’s going to impact the river and people for generations.”

Duke University’s Sven Eric Jordt has been researching the biological effects of tear gas and how it reacts to the nervous system since the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri. He said he’s concerned about what the residual effects from the chemicals will have in a city environment.

Jordt said the detection of even low or normal concentrations of chemicals like cyanide or perchlorate in the sediment or in the Willamette River would be concerning. He said the city should be sending people in during protests to collect more samples, including air samples, in areas where the tear gas is being deployed — something that has persisted into fall.