Watch Out! Rubber bullets cause eye injuries – Here are 6 ways to protect your eyes while you are at a protest

June 5, 2020

A new danger is in the air that can leave anyone blind — rubber bullets, paint balls, tear gas, all mechanisms used by the police for crowd control. Life-altering eye injuries are a common result of urban warfare and rioting. We have seen it around the world and we now see it in the United States. In just 24 hours, I’ve read about 3 people who have lost an eye because of rubber bullets. Americans have the right to speak and congregate publicly and should be able to exercise that right without the fear of blindness. People should not have to choose between using their voice and losing their vision.

Rubber bullets can blind or maim people for life

A study published The BMJ medical journal in 2017 found that 3% of people hit by rubber bullets died of the injury. Fifteen percent of the 1,984 people studied were permanently injured by the rubber bullets. According to a USA Today article, police are not required to document the use of rubber bullets or kinetic impact projectiles. There is no national data to show how often they’re used and no nationally agreed-upon standards for their use. It is not known how often police use rubber bullets or how many people are harmed every year, according to researchers at California-Berkeley School of Public Health and medical experts with Physicians for Human Rights. Many victims just don’t go to the hospital.

In this past week along, several people have lost an eye due to the use of rubber bullets at various protests across the country, including a reporter. And in less than 24 hours these individuals are now waking up to the trauma and life-altering reality of being partially blind or visually impaired. To put this into context – in the US, close to 20 millions Americans are visually impaired due to the progressive sight degenerative conditions like Macular Degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, etc. In most cases, patients living with degenerative vision loss have years to adjust and adapt to their vision impairment.

The lethal history of rubber bullets

Rubber bullets were first introduced by the British army in 1970 to control protests in Northern Ireland. Soldiers killed three protesters with rubber bullets, one of them an eleven-year-old boy and blinded another child before the UK switched to supposedly safer plastic bullets in 1975. These kinetic impact projectiles are designed to be shot at the lower half of the body or the ground.

Many countries, including the US are still using rubber bullets, mostly for crowd control at riots and protests. Hong Kong police have been seen shooting protesters directly in the head with rubber bullets. In Chile, a bandaged eye is now a rallying symbol amongst protesters. In November, a twenty-one-year-old college student, Gustavo Gatica, was shot by rubber bullets in both eyes, leaving him completely blind. The problem is especially rampant in Chile where 285 Chileans had suffered from severe eye damage from the police’s use of rubber bullets.

Various guidelines on the use of rubber bullets have been published since 2018 by the Geneva Human Rights Platform, and by the United Nations in 2020. Yet, police departments across the Unites States have not released their guidelines. It is now time that they do so.

How to protect your eyes (and yourself) against rubber bullets

Like any activity, you should learn and be aware about how to protect yourself if you are attending a rally, march or protest. Various articles are providing good advice on how to appropriately respond to authorities and protecting your legal rights should you encounter police activity or arrested. I’ve collected a few important tips on how to protect your person, especially your eyes in the event you find yourself in situation where rubber bullets and other less than lethal devices are being used against the crowd.

  1. Protect your head – ballistic-rated safety glasses and goggles with an airtight seal are crucial. These can protect your eyes not only from rubber bullets but also tear gas, water cannons, smoke, and debris.
  2. Avoid wearing contact lenses – tear gas can get trapped between the contact lens and your eye which can cause more damage in the long-run.
  3. Avoid wearing safety goggles or face shields that can shatter upon impact – Reduce the risk of further injury. Before using any goggles, make sure that they are rated to support an impact.
  4. Wearing a helmet will increase your safety – Wearing a motorcycle, and even a bicycle helmet will protect against head injuries.
  5. DIY body armor – Makeshift shields made of plywood or other similar materials can also be useful for blocking rubber bullets. It’s recommended that whatever you wear does not look to military or police-like.
  6. Avoid wearing creams, cosmetic, paints etc on your face – These can react with the tear gas and sweat, and can cause damage if it goes into the eyes.

What to do if you get an eye injury from a rubber bullet

The American Academy of Ophthalmology calls on domestic law enforcement officials to immediately end the use of rubber bullets and similar projectiles to control or disperse crowds of protesters. If your eye is injured, you should protect the eye immediately. Seek immediate medical assistance!

  • Do not touch the eye
  • Do not rub the eye
  • Stay upright
  • Place a hard shield around eye. Even a temporary eye shield, such as paper cup or Styrofoam cup, may work in an emergency
  • If the eye ruptures, the contents inside must be preserved, seek emergency room and ophthalmology consultation immediately

What to do if your eyes are exposed to tear gas and pepper spray

The American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests that you take the following steps if you are exposed to tear gas or pepper spray. Remember you should seek medical attention and have your eyes checked by your ophthalmologist.

If exposed to tear gas, you should:

  1. Remove yourself from the contaminated area as quickly and safely as possible.
  2. Flush the eyes with lots of clean water or eyewash (available at most pharmacies).
  3. Remove clothing near the face.
  4. Seek fresh air.
  5. Seek higher ground (aerosolized tear gases are heavier than air).
  6. Blink frequently (to promote tearing).
  7. Do not rub eyes (may spread crystals within the eye).
  8. Remove contact lenses.
  9. Seek emergency ophthalmic evaluation.

If exposed to pepper spray, you should:

  1. Don’t touch the eye area. Pepper spray is oil-based. Touching the area will spread the oil.
  2. Blink to help flush the eyes.
  3. Flush the eyes with lots of clean water or eyewash (available at most pharmacies). A small, randomized, controlled trial compared these five treatments (Maalox, 2% lidocaine gel, baby shampoo, milk, water) and found no difference in pain relief. Milk is NOT recommended for flushing the eyes; it’s not sterile.
  4. Wash the skin around the eyes with baby shampoo; it will breakdown the oil without irritating the eyes.

Know the risks of ‘less than lethal’ weapons employed by police

Many “less than lethal” police weapons can cause serious harm, according to Physicians for Human Rights.

  • Acoustic weapons, such as sound cannons that make painfully loud noises, can damage hearing.
  • Tear gas can make it difficult to see and breathe.
  • Pepper spray, while painful and irritating, doesn’t cause permanent damage, Lazzaro said.
  • Pepper spray balls, which have been used to quell recent protests, can be deadly when used incorrectly. In 2004, a 21-year-old Boston woman was hit in the eye and killed by a pepper spray pellet fired by police to disperse crowds celebrating the city’s World Series win.
  • Disorientation devices that create loud noises and bright lights, known as concussion grenade or flash-bangs, can cause severe burns and blast injuries, including damage to the eardrum. Panicked crowds can cause crush injuries.
  • Water cannons can cause internal injuries, falls and even frostbite during cold weather.
  • Physical force, such as hitting someone to subdue them, causes about 1 in 3 people to be hospitalized, said Dr. Howie Mell, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians and former tactical physician who worked with SWAT teams.

Final thoughts

‘We the People’ continue to listen, speak and raise up our voices for social justice, against racism and any forms of systematic oppression – regardless of where you live in the world, it is our human right. And in the US, Americans have the right to speak and congregate publicly and should be able to exercise that right without the fear of blindness. People should not have to choose between using their voice and losing their vision.