'Highly toxic' smoke grenades deployed at Portland protests
In the early hours of July 29, federal agents outside the Multnomah County Justice Center looked out onto nearly empty streets.
Hours earlier, a sizable crowd had gathered downtown for a Black Lives Matter protest. By 1:40 a.m. the crowd was dispersed and it seemed federal Department of Homeland Security agents were poised to do the same.
As they exited, an agent in a dark uniform tossed a grenade into the street.
The metal can rattled against the pavement, hissing, glowing and sparking as it let out a plume of smoke that blanketed the air. The can burned so hot, it nearly incinerated the label off. A protester standing nearby zeroed in on the flaming grenade with a cell phone. "'HC' ... haven't seen that one before," one murmured to another standing nearby.
Most hadn't seen that particular canister before.
Those who've taken part in the near nightly Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Portland have been subjected to an array of crowd control munitions ranging from pepper spray and tear gas, to rubber bullets, paintballs, a long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, and smoke bombs.
The use of munitions intensified when Homeland Security agents were dispatched to Portland by President Trump in early July in an effort to quell protests and riots.
By the end of the month, the use of weapons had become so routine, protesters and members of the media began donning tactical and protective gear. Some adopted nicknames and colloquialisms for police responses. Loudspeaker announcements were dubbed "DJ LRAD" while nights marked by copious amounts of pepper spray or tear gas were deemed "extra spicy."
But that particular canister — caught on video spewing thick smoke that night in late July — was an unknown part of the protest arsenal. Until recently.
A scientific analysis of gas
In fact, the chemical concoction that makes up HC smoke, or hexachloroethane, was unaccounted for in safety data sheets maintained by local and federal police. The data sheets were requested by the city's Bureau of Environmental Services to track which chemical components were being used and making their way into city storm drains.
Juniper Simonis, a Portland-based environmental biologist who holds a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, has been quick to point out the omission.
Simonis is spearheading a grassroots effort to collect spent munition canisters from protest sites and drainage basins for cataloging and, in some cases, lab testing. With the help of volunteers, Simonis, 36, has collected dozens of detonated canisters and fragments of weapons, including HC smoke. Based on research and reviewed protest footage, Simonis estimates federal police deployed HC smoke at least 25 times during the month of July.
"The gas that comes out of these is highly toxic ... and often has delayed symptoms," Simonis said. "The gas itself does not have an odor or taste, and often in the moment, does not have a reaction. So people don't know they're being exposed to this stuff."
The Southeast Portlander said they suspected a "new" weapon was being deployed sometime in July, when protesters complained of symptoms like vomiting, burning skin and the smell of bleach.
They narrowed the focus to a military-style smoke grenade.
HC smoke is generally distilled in a metal canister that combusts to release a heated combination of hexachloroethane (HCE), zinc oxide and aluminum.
While information about tear gas and pepper spray is readily available, less is known about the tactical smoke.
Defense Technologies, which manufactures the Maximum HC smoke canisters found to have been used in Portland, describes them as crowd control devices for use outdoors.
Data sheets and toxicology reports indicate hexachloroethane is harmful to the environment and could be carcinogenic.
A public health statement published in 1997 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry noted that about half of the hexachloroethane in the United States is used by the military, with other uses occurring in industrial settings.
Documents on file with the U.S. Army's Biomedical Research and Development Laboratory indicate past military testing exercises involving hexachloroethane have been fatal.
"Exposure of unprotected soldiers to high concentrations of HC smoke for even a few minutes has resulted in injuries and fatalities. Therefore, it must be emphasized that this smoke should never be employed in enclosed areas and that all personnel must be compelled to mask when HC smokes are employed," a 1994 technical report titled, "Health Effects of Hexachloroethane Smoke," states. "The major component of the smoke is zinc chloride. There are also several chlorinated organic compound(s) in the smoke, some of which are documented potential human carcinogens."
Impacts hard to pinpoint
The Bureau of Environmental Services, which oversees Portland's storm water and sewer, has conducted tests of water and sediment samples near the sites of protests, including tests for hexachloroethane, said Diane Dulken, public information officer for the bureau. The city's testing was commissioned by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees the permit for the storm drains downtown that have collected the bulk of pollutants. The bureau relied on safety data sheets submitted by local and federal police agencies to determine what to test for. The only problem? Department of Homeland Security didn't submit them.
"Portland Police Bureau was very responsive to our inquiries," Dulken said. "The federal officials did not respond, so we looked at other documentation, including photos form members of the public."
BES relied on submitted photographs and videos to supplement its information about which riot control chemicals were being used downtown. Dulken said her agency noticed HC smoke among the munitions photographed, so it was included in the testing. When DHS eventually submitted data sheets to the city, HC smoke was not included in the list of riot-control agents the agency uses.
Portland Police Bureau did not respond to a direct question asking whether the bureau uses HC smoke.
Federal Protective Services — the agency that responded to the city's request for data sheets — denied using the hexachloroethane.
"We don't use it," Rob Sperling, communications director for the federal service, said when reached by phone. Sperling agreed to inquire further and later followed up via email noting, "FPS doesn't have any items that contain HC."
The federal spokesman cautioned that may not be the case for all agencies within the Department of Homeland Security. The department did not respond to repeated inquiries and requests for information.
HC smoke has emerged as a dark horse in the weapons arsenal used against protesters. The Bureau of Environmental Services is aware of its use, but can't say for certain which law enforcement agency is using it.
The bureau's ability to test the storm drains downtown was initially hindered by an illegally erected fence around the Justice Center. Eventually, after threats of mounting fines from the city over the fence's obstruction of a bike lane and storm drain, Homeland Security complied and allowed access to the drain for city workers.
To date, the city tested seven storm drain sites for various chemicals found in riot control weapons.
"We did test for both chloride and zinc," Dulken said, referring to the two dominant combustion elements in HC smoke canisters. "Levels showed higher at the protest site, but by the time it reached the Willamette River, the levels were normal, or what we'd expect. Zinc is a common pollutant, unfortunately."
Her bureau's sampling summary report noted that while zinc — a component in the HC smoke canisters — was detected, hexachloroethane was not. "Hexachloroethane, an ingredient in one of the (riot control agents) used in the vicinity of the U.S. Courthouse, was not detected. Diphenylamine, a common ingredient in RCA products … was also not detected," the BES report states.
Lawmakers demand monitoring; feds don't comply
While the Bureau of Environmental Services signaled no alarm over the findings from water sampling, some called for greater scrutiny.
On July 30, following weeks of repeated use of tear gas, pepper spray and other less lethal weapons, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and state Rep. Karin Power requested "an immediate investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality" into the chemical agents used by police.
"Gases have been deployed on peaceful protesters with little or no prior notice, resulting in exposure to unknown chemical agents," the lawmakers wrote in a joint press release.
By October, neither of those agencies could provide insight into the health or environmental impacts of the munitions, beyond what Portland's environmental services bureau already had provided.
When asked about testing and specifically, HC smoke, a DEQ rep said the agency's air quality monitoring stations are too far away from the site of the protests where chemicals are most concentrated.
"Oregon DEQ has not tested the air quality in downtown Portland and therefore has not tested for HC smoke (hexachloroethane)," said Susan Mills, public affairs specialist for DEQ. "If we were to put air quality monitors in the area to measure tear gas and related pollutants, we would encounter several challenges."
Similarly, a spokesperson for the Pacific Northwest region of the federal Environmental Protection Agency — speaking on background — said the agency does not have information about the environmental effects of tear gas, and instead deferred to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Aside from the tests run by the city, no other local, state or federal agencies seem to be keeping tabs on the munitions used by law enforcement agencies against protesters.
It's part of what motivated Simonis to create the CChemical Weapons Research Consortium, a website largely devoted to looking at weapons used on Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland. The site includes Simonis's own published scientific findings, as well as an open letter cosigned by more than 50 scientific scholars and researchers across the country condemning the use of less lethal munitions on civil rights activists.
According to the emerging research consortium, lab results from spent canisters, environmental samples, and clothing showed the presence of zinc on clothing and mask filters, which indicates zinc chloride gas was let out in the air from the HC smoke grenades.
Brush with the law led to work
Simonis is acutely familiar with the experiences of protesters. Simonis, who uses a service dog named Wallace, was tackled to the ground and arrested July 10 outside the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt federal building after scrawling a message in surveyor's chalk on the sidewalk.
The chalked message was an effort to denote the boundary between federal and city-owned property, to help protesters avoid arrest.
Simonis was arrested, separated from Wallace and held at the federal courthouse, not jail, for nearly nine hours, facing charges of failure to comply with a lawful order and assaulting a federal officer. The assault charge was eventually dropped due to a filing error by Homeland Security, and the other resolved with a small fine.
The stint in custody was marked by poor sanitation, delayed medical treatment and no access to legal counsel, Simonis said.
What's worse, Simonis, a four-time roller derby world champion who was wearing championship medals at the time of arrest, left custody missing one of the medals. To date, it has not been returned.
"The tactics the police are using are not new tactics," Simonis said. "Chemical weapons and bull rushes have been used forever to put down dissent. That means the tactics the police are using have largely been used on Black, brown, Muslim and incarcerated communities, that the vast majority of Portlanders aren't part of."
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