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FACT CHECK: Is Tear Gas a Chemical Weapon?



As the United States dispenses tear gas at the southern border, trying to deter migrants from crossing over into the U.S., there has been a lot of talk about whether or not tear gas is actually a chemical weapon. Many right-wing pundits, commentators and Twitter trolls have been claiming that tear gas “is not a chemical weapon”.

Tear gas, also known as lachrymator agent, is a chemical compound formulated to cause irritation to the eyes of humans and other animals.  It also causes extreme pain and temporary blindness.  Additionally the CDC says that prolonged and intense exposure can cause long term and potentially permanent side affects and/or injury.

So is tear gas a chemical weapon?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the definition of a “chemical weapon” is:

“Any of several chemical compounds, usually toxic agents, that are intended to kill, injure, or incapacitate enemy personnel.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it less specifically as:

“a weapon (such as mustard gas or sarin) used in chemical warfare”

According to these definitions, specifically the one published by Encyclopedia Britannica, tear gas, which inarguably is a chemical compound intended to incapacitate individuals, would be defined as a chemical weapon.

One could possibly argue with Merriam-Webster’s definition of ‘chemical weapon,’ if they are trying to avoid classifying tear gas as such, by questioning what constitutes “a weapon”.  That argument becomes flawed though, when you consider the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 should put this potential argument to rest. Tear gas is a chemical agent that is banned in warfare per this 1993 agreement which was signed by nearly every country, including the United States.

While this agreement defines tear gas as an illegal chemical weapon of war, it still remains legal for appropriate domestic use, meaning that governments are permitted to use it within their own borders. With this said though, that does not declassify tear gas as a chemical weapon, but rather makes it a “legal” chemical weapon for domestic use.

According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, riot-control agents like tear gas “are considered chemical weapons if used as a method of warfare”.

Surely some could argue that the legal use of a weapon declassifies it as a weapon altogether, but that would seem to be a flawed argument.  Firearms are considered weapons regardless of if they are used for illegal purposes or not.  The use of a weapon is not what defines the weapon, but rather the design and purpose of it does.

Conclusion:  Tear gas is a chemical weapon that is deemed legal for appropriate domestic use and is considered a riot-control agent by the U.S. government, within the U.S.