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The dangers of teargas


On the morning of the 3rd September last year, the police threw two teargas cannisters through the windows of house number 3818 in Sharpeville. Inside the house was the Nzunga family — with their old granny and a seven month old little baby girl called Maude. Little Maude died a week later.

“It all started at about 11 o’clock that morning, ” says Mrs Nzunga. ‘The police were chasing a group of people down the road. The people all ran in different directions. Some of these people ran into our yard. But they did not come into our house because all the doors were locked. We were very scared.

“When the ‘hippo’ stopped outside, the people ran off again in different directions. The police got off their hippo and surrounded the house. They broke the dining room window and threw a teargas cannister into the house. Then they broke the kitchen window and threw in another teargas cannister.

“We all choked and burned inside the house. The house was full of smoke and the couch was on fire. But we did not run out the house straight away. We only ran outside after the police got into their hippo and left. When we got outside, we all ran straight to the tap. We threw water over our faces. Later the neighbours helped us take out the couch and the cannisters.

“That night I slept at one of the neighbours with my baby Maude. But Maude was very restless. She did not sleep well. The next day I could see that Maude was not well. But I could not take her to the doctor. There was no transport. And I was too scared to walk in the street. There were police everywhere.

On Saturday morning I took my baby to a doctor in Sharpeville. By this time she was vomitting blood. The doctor gave her an injection and some medicine. He told me to bring her back on the Monday.

On Monday she was much weaker and she was still vomiting blood. We took her to the hospital. But she died soon after we arrived.


Mrs Nzunga believes that teargas killed her baby. But she is not the only one who is in mourning because of teargas. There are others — like the children and grandchild­ren of Martha Ndabambi of Sharpeville. Martha died on the 3rd October last year. Her family too blame teargas for her death.

Like the Nzunga and Ndabambi families, all the doctors Learn and Teach spoke to said the same thing: teargas is poison and it can and does kill people.

The doctors also blamed the police for using teargas without caring about the health of people – and especially innocent people like Maude Nzunga. The doctors all say that teargas must be banned.

“The police say that teargas is safe but this is not at all true,” one doctor told Learn and Teach. “We do not know what teargas the police are using – but even if they are using the safest teargas, it is still a very dangerous poison.

“Teargas is only safe when it is very weak and when it is used outside in sunny, dry weather on healthy adult males. But the police, as we all know, don’t use teargas in this way.

“They have thrown teargas into churches, schools, houses and even clinics . When teargas is used in this way, it is very poisonous – espe­cially to babies. Babies can easily get skin and chest infections. And if a person stays in the room or can’t leave the room quickly enough, the teargas can kill them.

“Teargas is also harmful in other ways. Anybody who has been gassed knows what it’s like. The eyes are the first to suffer. The eyes become itchy and painful at the same time. Many people can’t see in bright light for a long time. And sometimes the teargas will damage their eyes for good.

“After the burning of the eyes, the teargas will cause a stinging pain in your nose, ears, and chest. Many people will have difficulty in breathing. Many people will start vomiting – and because of this, they may suffer from bad stomach pains.

“And teargas always hurts your skin. There will always be a stinging pain on the persons face mostly around the lips. When a person is hot and wet, the teargas does more damage. The person will get blisters and their skin will crack open. Sometimes this may turn into a bad infection.”

Another doctor, Dr Joe Variawa also believes that teargas should be banned. Dr Variawa works at the Coronation Hosptial. He is also on the Azapo Health Secretariat and he is a member of the Black Health and Allied Workers Union.

“I have seen many people both in Lenasia and in the Vaal Triangle who have suffered from teargas,” says the doctor. “I believe that teargas is dangerous and that it can kill people. I believe that teargas should be banned altogether.

“The police are not careful when they use teargas. When they use teargas against a group of people, it is not only those people who suffer. The whole community suffers because the teargas poisons the air. And many people already have lung or heart problems. The teargas can only make these people more sick -and it can sometimes kill them”.

A doctor at Baragwanath Hospital, Dr Errol Holland, also believes the police are using teargas in a very dangerous way. Dr Holland is a member of the Health Workers Association and he also has seen many people suffering from teargas poisoning.

“The police in this country use teargas without thinking about the harm teargas can do,” says Dr Holland. “And teargas does do a lot of harm. I’ve seen the harm it has done to a great amount of people. One of my patients suffered from a fit after he was gassed.

“I believe the police have no right to use teargas the way they do. I myself suffered from a teargas attack. I was working in a clinic in Lenasia when the police threw in teargas. We were working upstairs at the time – and we had to run downstairs through the thickest part of the gas.

But before we could do that, we had to go and fetch one of our nurses. She is a cripple and she could not move very quickly.

“How can the police throw teargas into a clinic? Even in time of war, people don’t do things like that. And the police don’t just throw at people. They often shoot teargas from powerful guns. When they do this, the gas can burn people very badly.

“Maybe the police have a right to use teargas against hardened criminals who are a danger to society. But they have no right at all to use teargas against unarmed people who are protesting in a peaceful way. I think everybody has the right to protest when they are angry or unhappy – without getting teargas poisoning when they do so.”


Learn and Teach sent some questions about teargas to Lieutenant Colonel Haynes — a policeman in Pretoria.

He said that the police do not think that teargas is dangerous — or that it can kill. He said the police have no ”record” of teargas killing people anywhere in the world. He said that before the police use teargas inside a building, they will decide how much teargas to use.

He said little Maude Nzunga from Sharpeville did not die from teargas — but of “natural causes”. He said the death certificate said she died from “haemolytic anaemie.”

We asked him to tell us how the teargas is made — because this will help doctors when they treat people from teargas attacks. He said the police use the same teargas that is “used for riot control in all other parts of the world.”


Learn and Teach asked a doctor what people can do when they are attacked with teargas. This is what he said:

1. Do not panic. If you panic, more people may get hurt.

2. Try to get out of the teargas cloud. Check the direction of the wind and try to get to th& other side of the cloud.

3. Breathe slowly and not too deeply. But do not hold your breath. If you hold your breath, you will then breathe deeply for air. A deep breath will cause pain and burning.

4. Do not rub your eyes. It can only make your eyes worse.

5. f you no longer smell the gas, it does not mean that the gas has gone away. Teargas often makes you lose your smell.

6. Once you are in the fresh air, try to find a cool, shady and dry place. This will help to fight off the chemicals in the gas.

7. Take off all your clothes. This will lessen the damage of the gas.

8. Try to wash your face with vegetable oil and then wash it off with soap and fast flowing water. Then dry yourself immediately. IF YOU JUST WET YOUR FACE AND BODY, THE TEARGAS CAN BURN YOU EVEN MORE. Water by itself does not take away the gas. It is better to blow on your skin than to just use water. If it is raining, dry your skin immediately.

9. Do not swallow your spit. If you do, you will vomit. Rather spit it out.

10. If you think you may get teargassed, you may want to get ready for it. You can wear special clothes like overalls, gloves tucked into sleeves, a shirt with a high collar and a hat. If you want to look after your eyes, you could even wear goggles. Imagine many hundreds of people going to a meeting or a funeral all wearing goggles!

11. If you suffer from asthma, hayfever, allergy or any other sickness, try not to get gas­sed. If you are gassed, you should see a doctor soon afterwards. Teargas can be very dangerous for these people.

12. If the police use a large amount of teargas against you, try to see a nice doctor. The doctor will give you eye drops for your eyes and they will treat skin burns. They will check for infection and other damage. And some­times they will even save lives.

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