More than 200 WTO demonstrators have been diagnosed with health problems ranging from spontaneous abortions to neurological disorders, after police sprayed them with toxic chemicals.
Seattle Police admit spraying demonstrators with a carcinogenic toxin at the World Trade Organization demonstrations last fall.
According to Material Safety Data Sheets provided by the Seattle Police Department and analysed by the Washington Toxics Coalition, police used methylene chloride, a dangerous solvent suspected of causing cancer, tumour growth, birth defects, reproductive system effects, cell mutations and central nervous system depression.
Dr. Kirk Murphy, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA medical school, was part of the medical collective that treated people at the protests.
Murphy, a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, told the Georgia Straight that he has since compiled anecdotal reports from more than 200 people who reported either neuralgic symptoms or disruptions of their menstrual cycles after being exposed to chemical agents, as well as "a couple of reports of what would appear to be spontaneous abortions".
"What we saw in Seattle was the uncontrolled use of chemical-warfare agents against civilians," Murphy said. "There is a pernicious silence almost a psychotic amount of denial about the discharge of chemical weapons against our own civilian populace, who, after all, were assembled to try and advance their petition for the redress of grievances."
The symptoms that have been reported to Murphy, especially the central-nervous-system disorders and menstrual changes, parallel many of the side effects of exposure to methylene chloride. Although he said his data is still incomplete, Murphy said the longer-term physical consequences fall into two broad categories: symptoms on surfaces that came into contact with the chemical agents, such as skin, eyes, and respiratory and digestive tracts; and symptoms of central-nervous-system disorders.
He said some people had gastrointestinal disturbances for weeks following the exposure. Some reported sustained muscle-twitching, tingling, or numbness in exposed areas, and sometimes in areas not directly exposed. In most cases, these symptoms decreased within a few days to a few weeks following the protests.
A subset of respondents reported lethargy, confusion, disorientation, and diminished concentration for several days to weeks following exposure. One graduate student couldn't remember her thesis topic. In addition, Murphy said, others reported ongoing disruption in their ability to taste or smell, and some experienced visual difficulties caused by a disruption in the dilation and constriction of their pupils. Murphy said disruptions of uterine function, spontaneous onset of menstruation, and the reports of what appeared to be spontaneous abortions are consistent with exposure to methylene chloride and are not the types of things he has seen before while treating people who've been exposed to pepper spray and CS.
"Another possibility for which we have no direct evidence at this time and which I pray turns out not to be the case is that these symptoms arose from the inclusion of other agents," Murphy noted. He said he hopes to issue a final report on April 13, just before protests begin at the International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington, D.C.
The Seattle Police reported the use of an OC gas (active ingredient is oleoresin of capsicum), Pyrotechnic CS agent (o-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) and Liquid Agent CN (chlorolactetophenone) at the World Trade Organization protests the week of November 29.
One disturbing find was the solvent used in the CN agent. The MSDS indicated that the agent is 50% active ingredient and 50% methylene chloride as a solvent. Methylene chloride is a possible/anticipated carcinogen as reported by the U.S. National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The National Library of Medicine's Toxnet website reports it to be an experimental carcinogen, tumorigen, teratogen (causes birth defects when it reaches egg or sperm cells of the parents, or the developing fetus) with experimental reproductive effects. The site also indicates that human mutagen (causes mutations in cells) data exists.
In addition to these serious effects, central nervous system depression is reported. Many of the nervous system effects given on the Toxnet site are similar to those experienced by protesters. Some of the symptoms listed by Toxnet are lethargy, mental confusion, headache, tingling of the limbs, acoustical and optical delusions, liver and kidney damage, increased risk of spontaneous abortion, coma, and death.
Another dangerous effect of methylene chloride is described in Gosselin's Clinical Toxicology of Commercial Products. The compound is metabolized to carbon monoxide in humans, which could be dangerous to persons with asthma or cardiovascular problems.
Giles Grierson, 26, was one of scores of local activists tear-gassed during last year's World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. Just after dusk on November 30, a canister exploded right beside him, spewing dense smoke into his face. His hands were burned so badly, he said, that he couldn't touch anything for the next 24 hours.
Before the WTO protests, Grierson often cycled from East Vancouver to Simon Fraser University at the top of Burnaby Mountain. In the month after he was tear-gassed, he suffered serious breathing problems, stopping to gulp for air every 10 minutes. "If I was walking around with heavy bags of groceries, I would have to sit down and catch my breath," Grierson recalled.
Two weeks after being tear-gassed, he fainted at a party, banging his head against a counter. "Everyone thought I was drunk, but it was only my second glass of wine," he said.
Grierson said a friend, who was tear-gassed in Seattle on December 1, suffered intense anxiety afterward and inexplicably bled out of her nose and mouth over the Christmas holidays.
The Council of Canadians arranged transportation to the WTO meetings for 41 busloads of activists, many of whom were tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed. Countless members of the media also got caught up in the melee. They might be interested to know that the Seattle police department used a type of tear gas not sold to Canadian police forces.
Recently, the Washington Toxics Coalition obtained the "Material Safety Data Sheets" from the Seattle police department for all chemicals used in crowd control. The coalition's executive director, Carol Dansereau, told the Straight that one type of tear gas used in Seattle, liquid agent CN (commonly known as mace), is 50 percent active ingredient (chlorolactetophenone) and 50 percent methylene chloride, a common ingredient in paint strippers and varnish removers. "It's a really nasty chemical," Dansereau said.
The coalition also obtained confirmation from the Seattle police department that standard pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum) and a common form of tear gas, known as pyrotechnic CS agent, were also used. Neither of these products contains methylene chloride.
Rob Cook, sales manager for M.D. Charlton Co. Ltd. of Brentwood Bay, B.C., which sells tear gas and pepper spray to Canadian police forces, told the Straight that liquid agent CN isn't used by the RCMP or, to his knowledge, by any municipal police force in Canada. "In fact, very few departments in the U.S., to my knowledge, use CN," Cook said. "They use CS."
Dansereau emphasized that the coalition hasn't obtained information on what chemical crowd-control agents were used by county, state, and federal agencies in Seattle. Seattle police-department spokesperson Officer Pam McCammon told the Straight that she wouldn't answer questions about tear gas while the department's handling of the WTO protests is still under review.
With files from The Georgia Straight, March 16-23, 2000