I was working as a legal observer in San Francisco when I was exposed to the chemical agent known as tear gas.
Touted as the safest known “riot dispersion” tactic in civilian uprisings, the compound is categorized as a chemical warfare agent and its use is banned in warfare. Yet it was recently used in Montreal to break up a Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of the death of George Floyd, and has been deployed countless times across the United States over the last month.
My own encounter left me with long-term disruptions to my reproductive health. It happened just after U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration, when I was an undergraduate at Stanford University in California. A pressing need for advocates at rallies and demonstrations had inspired me to obtain training from the National Lawyers Guild. I felt pride donning my neon-green cap and reflective vest, symbols of my desire to support the rights of people protesting by documenting police behaviour, and connecting those arrested with immediate counsel.
The protest was peaceful, but the atmosphere was charged. Soon, riot police were shooting tear gas canisters directly into the crowd, instead of into the air. Far from de-escalation, the gas provoked chaos. Even from near the edge of the fleeing crowd, I couldn’t escape the rapidly dispersing cloud.
Seconds after contact, I felt nothing. Then the chlorobenzylidene malononitrile powder began adhering to moisture on my skin. A severe burning sensation in my eyes, nose and the inside of my mouth followed. My eyes started streaming tears, worsening the pain. Activated pain receptors made me nauseated and short of breath. I escaped the fray and a medic flushed my eyes out with cold water, bundling my vest into a plastic bag. Brief exposure meant the effects lasted only a few hours. I wasn’t hit with a canister or a truncheon. As an Indigenous woman at a protest, I felt I was lucky.
Then two days later I missed my period.
I had no idea what had...