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News / Northwest

Feds used toxic smoke grenades during summer protests in Portland, researcher finds

By Kale Williams, oregonlive.com
Published: January 19, 2021, 1:34pm

Federal agents in Portland used toxic and potentially deadly smoke grenades more than two dozen times over the summer as they attempted to disperse demonstrators protesting for social and racial justice, according to a Portland-based researcher.

Juniper Simonis, an environmental biologist and data scientist with The Chemical Weapons Research Consortium, which studies the effects of chemical agents on protesters, noticed mid-July that some demonstrators were complaining of unique and novel symptoms that sometimes lasted for days after exposure to chemical agents. Simonis had been to several protests in Portland over the summer but chose to watch from home after federal agents arrested them in July for drawing chalk lines around the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in downtown Portland.

“I have friends who are seasoned veterans (of the protests) and who have been gassed a ton,” Simonis said. “All of a sudden they couldn’t get out of bed the next day. Some of them were knocked out for a week.”

A protester who went by the name of V, who volunteered in the medic tents in Chapman Square in July, said people on the ground noticed the change as well.

“People came in with really abnormal chemical burns on their skin,” V told The Oregonian/OregonLive, describing a chaotic scene on the night of July 26. “I know that I experienced some very strange burning the next day and that night, and also really severe nausea for about 24 hours. And everyone who I was with, when they went home, they had the same strange burning sensations and really severe nausea in a way that we had never had when we experienced tear gas.”

Simonis and a cadre of volunteers began collecting spent munition canisters from around the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, the focal point of the nightly protests and where the majority of suppression efforts by federal agents took place.

Among the pepper balls and tear gas canisters, Simonis and the volunteers found several canisters marked “MAXIMUM HC SMOKE MILITARY-STYLE CANISTER,” manufactured by a company called Defense Technology, which sells crowd control weapons to law enforcement. The “HC” stands for hexachloroethane, a common ingredient in smoke devices that the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as a likely carcinogen.

The smoke grenades were a new addition to the arsenal local police and federal agents had been using against protesters, and Simonis was concerned about the effects. Using first-hand-accounts, video and photos from protests in July, Simonis found that federal agents used HC smoke grenades at least 25 times during downtown demonstrations and at least once at a protest outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Southwest Portland.

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Simonis took spent canisters, clothing worn by demonstrators, a scrap of tent fabric from a medic tent near the courthouse and a soil sample to a lab in Clackamas County for analysis.

On the spent grenade, the analysis turned up known toxins like benzene and toluene, but, of more concern to Simonis, they also showed the grenades contained chromium, lead and zinc.

All three are heavy metals, which can be harmful to human health and the environment, but zinc, when it’s super heated and turned into a gas, can be incredibly toxic, sometimes fatal.

“Exposure of unprotected soldiers to high concentrations of HC smoke for even a few minutes has resulted in injuries and fatalities,” reads a 1994 report from the U.S. Army Biomedical Research and Development Laboratory. “Therefore, it must be emphasized that this smoke should never be employed in enclosed areas.”

Safety data sheets for the HC grenades listed zinc oxide as a “hazardous ingredient” in both 1994 and 2005, but a 2011 version of the document doesn’t mention the heavy metal. Simonis worries that law enforcement may be using the devices without a complete understanding of the risk they pose.

“This is a complete and utter misuse of a chemical weapon that could be lethal,” Simonis said. “We’re talking about heavy metal poisoning.”

Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor Defense Technology responded to questions about the use of HC smoke grenades, their components or their toxicity.

Simonis, who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against local, state and federal officers for violating the rights of people with disabilities through aggressive police responses to racial justice protests in the city, planned to hold a news conference Tuesday morning to publicize the results of the study.

Simonis hopes the findings would lead law enforcement agencies to reconsider using HC smoke grenades if unrest unfolds after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, especially given federal agencies’ use of the toxic smoke during racial justice protests over the summer.

“The reason we were out there was we were standing up for Black lives and social justice, and DHS used these on the Wall of Moms no problem,” Simonis said. “I want to make sure that nobody dies of chemical weapon usage on Wednesday.”