Hundreds Exposed to Tear Gas During Portland Protests Have Reported Abnormal Menstruation: Study

Tear gas envelops demonstrators at ICE headquarters during a protest against ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in Portland, Oregon, United States on January 23, 2021.
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2,200 adults who had been exposed to tear gas last summer were surveyed.

Britta Torgrimson-Ojerio, a nurse researcher at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, noticed there were several reports of protestors who’d experienced abnormal menstrual cycles following being exposed to tear gas. So much, in fact, that she couldn’t dismiss them as a coincidence.

Per The New York Times, she set out to find some correlations. So 2,200 adults who reported being exposed to tear gas in Portland last summer were surveyed. They were found through social media and various websites. And subjects were permitted to participate anonymously.

According to the study published this week in the journal BMC Public Health, 899 (over 54 percent) experienced abnormal menstrual cycles. The outlet does point out, though, “This study has limitations. It is not a random sample.”

Dr. Torgrimson-Ojerio said, “Even though we cannot say anything scientifically definitive about these chemical agents and a causal relationship to menstrual irregularities, we can definitively say that in our study, most people who had menstrual cycles or a uterus reported menstrual irregularities after reporting exposure to tear gas.”

Several Portland residents shared their experiences. Some complained of usual spotting, increased cramps, or periods lasting longer than normal. One woman said if she inhaled a significant amount of gas, she gets her period the next day. And one Transgender man reported sudden periods that defied hormones that usually kept menstruation at bay. Other side effects, like the possible impact on fertility, are not yet known.

Since the study began, several others doing similar research and studies have spoken out in support of the finds. Some have also had similar findings.

Kira Taylor, a professor of epidemiology and population health at the University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences, conducted a similar study. She says that Dr. Torgrimson-Ojerio’s study “Provided some of the first solid evidence,” and it’s the “first study to document the longer-term effects of tear gas exposure in a large population.”

But she does point out that the numbers might not be accurate. “It is possible that people who feel that their health was damaged by tear gas might have been more likely to respond than people who were also exposed, yet did not feel such harmful effects,” she said. “This means that some of the numbers might be exaggerated.”

Sven-Eric Jordt, a professor of anesthesiology, pharmacology, and cancer biology at the Duke University School of Medicine, praises these findings. He also talks about the research available on this subject and points out that it is outdated and primarily done on men. “Most of these studies were conducted in young healthy men at the time, either police or military, and not in women, or in a general civilian population representing protesters.”

According to Dr. Jordt, suspicions about tear gas and how it affects menstruation first came up during the Arab Spring protests over a decade ago. But for the current studies, he adds that stress and anxiety in the moment could be the cause the abnormal physical responses. “It is possible that pain, stress, dehydration, and exertion play a role.”

The New York Times lastly adds that in 2011, Chile banned the use of tear gas after a study suggested it caused harm in young children and even miscarriages. But three days later, local police lifted the ban and said the tear gas was perfectly safe.

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