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Protesters report menstrual changes after tear gas exposure

A protester wears a gas mask during a standoff with Rochester police outside City Hall on Sept. 16.
Max Schulte/WXXI News
A protester wears a gas mask during a standoff with Rochester police outside City Hall on Sept. 16.

As Black Lives Matter protesters in Rochester and other cities have found out in recent months, exposure to tear gas can cause watery eyes and shortness of breath, but some are also reporting unusual changes in their menstrual cycles.

A protester wears a gas mask during a standoff with Rochester police outside City Hall on Sept. 16.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News
A protester wears a gas mask during a standoff with Rochester police outside City Hall on Sept. 16.

Janine is one of thousands of local activists who took to the streets in the days following the release of a video of Daniel Prude suffocating while being restrained by Rochester police.The 32-year-old, who asked that we not use her last name, said she participated in several protests demanding justice for Prude.

On two occasions, including the night of Sept. 4, she said she was there when police used tear gas and pepper bullets to disperse the crowds.                           

"All of a sudden, one of them just lobs a canister in the middle of the ground and it landed right on my foot," she said.

It was the first time she was exposed to tear gas. 

"It does what it's supposed to do," she said. "It makes you cough and gag and barf and your eyes run and all of that."

But since then, the mother of two has noticed something else. She said her menstrual cycle started for the first time in years since she delivered two babies and had an intrauterine (IUD) device implanted.

Janine, who breastfeeds her 2-year-old daughter, also said her breast milk production has been low. This has her especially worried.

"If I absorb (these chemicals) into my body and my body is producing milk for this kid," she asked, "are they absorbing any of this?"

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s not known if agents used in tear gas can be found in breast milk.

The CDC says breast milk is not routinely tested for environmental pollutants because there are no established “normal” or “abnormal” levels of chemical agents to help in clinical interpretation. 

In fact, there is scant research on the potential effects of tear gas exposure and reproductive health in general.

Dr. Loralei Thornburg, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said early studies of the effects of the common tear gas agent CS (2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile) on rats suggested no definitive reproductive effects.  Other research indicated potential hormone disruption."But that would be years to months to take effect rather than an instantaneous clinical effect,” she added.

CS gas is the chemical agent in the tear gas canisters used by Rochester police, according to investigator Frank Camp.

Despite the lack of conclusive data on exposure to the chemical and menstrual changes, Thornburg believes women who report symptoms should be taken seriously and other factors, such as stress, should be considered.

"We know that stress does affect the menstrual cycle and can either delay or bring on menses,” she explained, “so it is completely possible that in these high-stress situations with protesters and tear gas, it may be the stress as much as anything else that is leading to these anecdotal reports."

But Stephanie Vargas doesn’t believe stress triggered her symptoms.

The 29-year-old activist said she has known the stress of street protests before, but it wasn’t until after the Sept. 4 protest in Rochester, where she was exposed to tear gas for the first time, that she noticed a sudden change in her menstrual cycle.

"The very next day,” she said, “I experienced my period but it was extremely heavy and very, very painful and I had just had my period the week prior."

Vargas said the pain was so intense that she took a week off from the nightly protests.

"The pain I experienced made me unable to walk some days,” she said.

It’s not only Rochester protesters who are reporting menstrual irregularities.

Activists in Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, have also said they had similar symptoms.

Asha Hassan, associate research manager at Planned Parenthood North Central States, said she heard a number of anecdotal reports from friends and neighbors in South Minneapolis after the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd.  

Police used tear gas to clear the crowds.

“I was especially surprised when I would hear an anecdotal story over and over again from trans men who were on testosterone and have not had a period in several years, all of a sudden experiencing uterine bleeding,” Hassan said, “or people who have a long lasting reversal contraception and have not experienced a period in several years, all of a sudden having spontaneous bleeding."

Hassan believed the issue warranted further study, so she asked Planned Parenthood to allow her to conduct asurvey. A research team has been assembled to learn more about what people are experiencing.  

Hassan expects to release early data in a month and a final report in about a year.

Rochester activists Janine and Stephanie are concerned about potential long-term health impacts of breathing tear gas, but both women said their fears are not strong enough to keep them from future protests.

“It’s scary,” said Janine, “but it would be scarier to continue with a system of injustice."

 Stephanie said she recently bought a gas mask and goggles.

"Because we really can't anticipate how the police will respond when you're marching,” she said, “so I'm taking every precaution that I can."

New York Attorney General Letitia James has said she may expand her investigation of the city's handling of Prude's death to include the police responses to protesters.

Rochester City Councilmember Mary Lupien said she plans to work on legislation to ban the use of chemical weapons by city police.

Elliot Shields, an attorney representing the family of Daniel Prude, said he plans to take legal action to stop the use of excessive force by police toward peaceful protesters.

The most recent confrontation between activists and Rochester police ended peacefully, and on Monday night, Free the People Roc issued a statement saying the group is taking time to take care of their collective health and wellbeing as “a revolutionary act.”

Copyright 2020 WXXI News

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester, where she was recognized for her work by the New York State Associated Press Broadcasters Association and the New York State Humane Society. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York to Miami, Florida.