Reports of bizarre menstrual cycles emerge after tear gas exposure from Seattle protests
Amid ongoing civil rights demonstrations in Seattle, protesters, journalists, and even people blocks from the action have reported abnormal menstrual cycles after being exposed to tear gas.
On the night of June 1, Jessi Murray, 32, was in her first-floor apartment on Capitol Hill when her eyes and throat started to sting. She closed open windows and sat in front of a fan with her dog to get relief.
At that moment, a tense confrontation between Seattle Police and protesters was underway near 11th Avenue and Pine Street — eight blocks from Murray's residence. She could hear the thundering sound of flash-bang grenades going off, she said.
Murray soon confirmed, through conversations on social media and with neighbors, that she had been exposed to CS gas, a type of tear gas deployed against demonstrators by Seattle Police officers. The same thing happened to Murray again on June 8.
Then something bizarre happened to her over the course of several weeks.
Two weeks after the first instance in which tear gas leaked into her home, Murray experienced the first of three periods she had within a roughly 28-day window — the average time it takes to complete just one menstrual cycle.
"Usually, I either, like, don't have a cycle or it's been really long," said Murray, who uses the Nexplanon arm implant birth control. "It just struck me as weird that I had these kind of quick periods in a row."
Murray, who has been involved in local protests but wasn't at the time the chemical got into her home, is among more than a dozen Seattleites who told KUOW they recently experienced abnormal menstrual cycles in the wake of being exposed to the Seattle Police Department's tear gas.
Their symptoms include having several periods in the time they would typically have just one, heavy bleeding, agonizing cramps, and menstruating for the first time after a gender transition.
A missing link
As anti-racism demonstrations around Seattle and other parts of the country have continued, puzzling anecdotes like Murray's have emerged. Currently, however, there isn't much scientific research available about the link between tear gas exposure and reproductive health impacts.
"The reason why there is no data about this is that these chemicals started out as agents of war and were studied — if at all — in a male population," said Dr. Emily Norland, a gynecologist with Seattle's Polyclinic.
"In medicine, we look to studies in order to understand the causal relationship of an exposure to an effect," she said. "It is very challenging and takes large numbers and carefully constructed groups to exclude confounders."
CS gas, released via aerosol canisters, is widely favored among law enforcement agencies when it comes to riot control agents. The chemical is known to induce irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs, and its incapacitating effects are typically temporary. But suffering more serious consequences, including blindness, chemical burns, and even death, is possible.
In a 2017 article, Italian researchers cited potential gastrointestinal complications as a result of CS gas exposure, including vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. They also pointed to evidence suggesting CS gas may cause mutations and structural changes to genetic material.
Dr. Norland added, however, that the lack of scientific confirmation of a connection to reproductive health doesn't negate people's experiences, and pointed to a survey being conducted by Planned Parenthood.
The five-question, "yes" or "no" survey seeks responses from people ages 18 and up, who have a uterus and have ever been exposed to chemical crowd control agents. That includes tear gas, pepper spray, mace, and flashbang grenades, which emit smoke.
Banned for war, okay for law enforcement
The Geneva Convention, an international set of mandates on armed conflict, declared the use of chemical and biological warfare, and thus tear gas, unlawful in 1925. Even so, it wasn't until 1997 that the Chemical Weapons Convention went into effect, outlawing the production and stockpiling of such munitions "to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons."
Those mandates, however, do not apply to the use of chemical weapons by law enforcement agencies.
"Governments that are at war are not terribly concerned for the most part, until held accountable by outside entities, with the effects that they have on people that they're gassing," Norland said. "And so this use of wartime agents against a citizenry — that was never the way these things were designed."
In Seattle, the police department's use of CS gas— short for 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile — rubber bullets, and other "less lethal" munitions against demonstrators has set off a messy court battle between the city, its residents, and various advocacy organizations.
The Seattle City Council unanimously voted in June to ban the use of various crowd control weapons by the Seattle Police Department amid public pressure to demilitarize the department and rein in officers' use of force against protesters. However, a federal judge suspended that law from taking effect, pending a review of the Seattle Police Department's compliance with the federal consent decree, which has governed its use of force practices since 2012.
Separately, another federal judge in June issued a preliminary injunction limiting the department’s authority to use crowd weapons to "necessary, reasonable, proportional, and targeted action" in response to a "specific and imminent threat."
That has left wiggle room for police to continue using chemical and incendiary weapons against protesters, despite the public outcry.
"They're cracking down on protesters while out of the other side of their mouth saying 'Black Lives Matter,'" Murray said. "It is not okay that they're exposing people to harm in many ways."
Safe until proven otherwise?
Amid the Covid-19 emergency, many physicians have spoken out against police departments' use of chemical crowd control weapons, citing concerns that they could exacerbate an already dangerous respiratory pandemic.
Health experts have also begun to express concerns about the potential long-term consequences of such chemicals on reproductive health.
"We're in a unique situation where people who might be protesting on a really regular basis might be exposed to [tear gas] more than we've ever seen before," said Dr. Lora Shahine, a Seattle-based fertility doctor. She researches endocrine disrupters, or chemicals that could disturb one's reproductive health, causing miscarriages, or low egg quality or sperm quality, for example.
"Especially in the United States, chemicals are considered safe until proven not safe," Shahine said. "We should really rethink these chemicals because we haven't studied them in humans. So how do we know that they're safe?"
She cautioned, however, that there could be many variables at play when it comes to people experiencing atypical menstrual cycles.
"We're living in this massive time of uncertainty that can be extremely stressful. And that could certainly throw off our periods," Shahine said. She added that it's hard to tease apart what could be related to chemical crowd control weapons versus hardships brought about by the pandemic, such as job loss.
"We have definitely seen people having irregular ovulatory cycles when they're trying to conceive or having more periods than usual," Shahine said. "But I can't tell you it's definitely from tear gas."
Matthew, who is transgender, said that he had a period this summer for the first time in approximately three years since medically transitioning. That was after attending multiple local protests and being exposed to tear gas an estimated 15 times.
"I was really confused and thinking about reaching out to my primary care physician to get blood work done," said Matthew, who asked that KUOW identify him by his first name only, citing privacy concerns. "But then I saw protesters in other cities talking about it in their [social media] feeds. It was good to see that it wasn’t just me experiencing it— it was a communal problem."
Dr. Norland with the Polyclinic said she encourages anyone experiencing abnormal menstruation amid ongoing protests to contact their health care providers, "so that we can take care of them, and so that we can be a part of amassing more knowledge in these areas."
She added that while it's important to fill the information gaps surrounding tear gas and reproductive health, people who have been exposed should rest easy knowing how resilient human bodies generally are.
"We have been gestating and birthing for millions of years under a wide variety of circumstances," Norland said. "That's not to say, 'Oh, yeah, that's no big deal' — not at all. There are a fair number of evolutionary protections in place.
"The bigger picture is tear gas has been outlawed internationally as a weapon of war, and the use of it against peaceful protesters is questionable."
If you have a health experience to share related to being exposed to crowd control weapons, get in touch with KUOW journalist Liz Brazile by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.