PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A Portland scientist is raising alarms about the health and environmental effects of chemical munitions used by law enforcement agencies, despite local and state environmental agencies saying the contaminant amounts measured in the Willamette River are at normal levels for a city environment.
Dr. Juniper Simonis has a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University. Having specialized in biogeochemistry, environmental toxicology and organic chemistry, they are using their expertise to help track the use of chemical munitions’ impact in the urban Portland ecology, with a particular focus on aquatic ecology, Simonis told KOIN 6 News.
Simonis, who is also an activist, is calling for an all-out ban in the U.S. from any police agencies — including state and federal — from being able to use chemical munitions.
As part of that effort, Simonis helps maintain the Portland Chemical Weapons Library website — along with other scientists and activists who volunteer for the cause — to help track, identify, and disseminate to the public the different types of chemical munitions used since the beginning of racial justice protests that sparked in Portland in May 2020 following the Minneapolis police in-custody death of George Floyd. There’s also a section on the website where individuals can submit photos of chemical weapons recovered at the scene of a Portland protest.
The munitions library is part of a larger effort called the Chemical Weapons Research Consortium (CWRC), which is “a collection of researchers and advocates around the world focused on understanding the impact of chemical weapons used by law enforcement on humans and the environment,” according to the website.
Aside from the volunteer effort of tracking chemical munitions, Simonis is also the owner and lead scientist of research and consulting agency DAPPER Stats. In addition, Simonis is one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in November in conjunction with Disability Rights Oregon over policing tactics at protests that have allegedly failed to consider the needs of those with disabilities.
Simonis and others with the CWRC continue to track usage of these weapons as protests intermittently continue at places like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in South Portland, a spot where federal agents and protests have clashed. The tracking involves fieldwork, often collecting remnants of spent munitions, such as tear gas canisters, pepper balls and smoke grenades, during or in the immediate aftermath of protests. Simonis has recovered munition remnants from outside an outfall pipe into the Willamette River and at a schoolyard next to the ICE building.
Simonis said chemicals from those munitions can bioaccumulate in the environment and that’s why it’s important for the public to know about the specifications and safety data of those munitions.
“These chemical weapons get used in parts of the city that drain directly into the Willamette River and in a particular habitat where Chinook salmon nest or rear,” Simonis said. “It’s a major concern, right, that we have pretty significant pollutants, things that come with warning labels saying they should be kept out of the aquatic ecosystem and that they have toxic impacts on the aquatic ecosystem with long-lasting effects being dumped into the water and being taken up by a variety of organisms.”
Simonis added that includes molecules — in particular chlorides, chlorates and heavy metals — that become incorporated into the biosphere.
The chemical library contains photos of the spent munitions found in Portland, along with the make and model, manufacturer, safety data and specifications.
Among Simonis’ findings for their research:
- Forty-eight types of either projectile or grenade chemical munitions (24 of each type) were used by various law enforcement agencies since the beginning of racial justice protests in late May 2020
- Munitions came from seven different manufacturing companies
- Individual projectiles or grenades deployed numbers “in the thousands,” Simonis said
According to estimates conducted by Bureau of Environmental Services, using Portland Police Bureau’s available use of force data as of August 10, 2020, there were 114 deployments of Chemical Agent CS and 58 deployments of Chemical Agent OC from May 29 to August 10, 2020.
A couple instances in recent memory where a particularly heavy amount of chemical munitions were used were Jan. 20 — Inauguration Day for President Joe Biden — and the Saturday following that, Jan. 23, both at the ICE detention center in South Portland, Simonis said.
Simonis said a variety of methods were used by a federal law enforcement agency, what they observed to be Department of Homeland Security, including thermal foggers, hand cans to spray people, grenades, pepper balls and 40 mm Skat Shells that ejects discs of CS.
Simonis said based on the collection of those shells alone on Inauguration night, they estimate about 1/2 a kilogram — more than one pound — of pure CS active ingredient was used within a block and a half of South Portland, which is also near some residential apartment buildings and a school.
Simonis said they located and recovered multiple chemical munitions at Cottonwood School of Civics and Science, a K-8 school located next to the ICE building during the protest that occurred the weekend after Inauguration Day, on Saturday, Jan. 23.
One was an OC pocket grenade that wound up in the yard of the school after a law enforcement officer rolled it down the street and which Simonis immediately recovered at the time, they said. Simonis, who was wearing a body camera at the time, shared with KOIN 6 News a video of the incident:
Another munition, called a Triple-Chaser, was melted onto the plastic roof covering a picnic table at the school, which they had to cut out of the roofing to remove, Simonis said.
“It’s still a major fire hazard. It is full of ignitable chemicals that, if exposed to sunlight, which it would’ve been even the next day. Even the amount of sunlight that you get through clouds can be enough to heat up something like that to where it ignites again. And is literally sitting on a roof covered in leaves, next to a tree,” Simonis said.
The photo of the munition that Simonis took appears to match the black labeling of the CS variety of Triple-Chaser from the munitions website (the non-CS, smoke variety of Triple-Chaser has yellow labeling). It is notable that the manufacturer specifically states Triple-Chasers “should NOT be deployed onto rooftops.”
There were other remnants of spent chemical munitions recovered besides the two aforementioned examples, amid the protest overnight on Jan. 23, and additional pieces recovered during a school clean up day on Jan. 25, Simonis said.
All of this occurred while the school was still under distance learning due to the pandemic. However, school officials said they’re concerned with the chemical munitions, saying students are scheduled to return sometime in March and that the school now needs to mitigate the soil in the play yard before they can return.
“We need them to stop using chemical weapons in front of our school,” said Amanda McAdoo, the director of the Cottonwood School, in a statement to KOIN 6 News last month.
CS gas is a known endocrine disruptor, or an agent that can interfere with a person’s hormonal systems, Simonis said. Endocrine disruptors are linked with developmental, reproductive, brain, immune and other problems, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, short term symptoms of exposure to riot control agents like CS gas can include excessive tearing, runny nose, a burning sensation at the eyes, nose or mouth, tightness in the chest, coughing, shortness of breath, burns or rashes on the skin and nausea or vomiting, among other symptoms. After the person has been removed from the source and cleaned off, the effects of exposure to a riot control agent are usually short-lived, between 15 to 30 minutes.
The CDC says if symptoms go away soon after a person is removed from exposure to riot control agents, long-term health effects are unlikely to occur. That being said, prolonged exposure, especially in an enclosed area, may lead to long-term health effects such as eye problems, including scarring, glaucoma, cataracts, blindness, and may possibly cause breathing problems, such as asthma or respiratory failure possibly resulting in death.
In addition, Simonis said even the non-CS, smoke-producing munitions can be dangerous in certain situations, especially in enclosed spaces, on account of those type of munitions emitting carbon monoxide, among other things.
“Even if something is called safe smoke, SAF smoke, it’s not safe. It’s very toxic and can be lethal depending on how and where it’s used. They’re using some of these things right around and in homeless encampments and people are in tents and if somebody’s in a tent and one of these things comes in, if it doesn’t burn the tent down, if it gasses into the tent, you could get knocked out and killed very easily from being overwhelmed from carbon monoxide,” Simonis said. “That can very easily happen and it’s really, really scary.”
Simonis said the only way to be truly safe around these riot control agents is to use a self-contained breathing apparatus, the kind firefighters use.
“These gasses, like hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, those don’t really get filtered out by gas masks,” they said.
Many chemical munitions, including CS gas and smoke munitions, have warnings on their safety data sheets that the chemicals used are toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects. For instance, the safety data sheets for both the Skat Shell 40mm Multiple Projectile Round CS and 40mm Skat-Shell Round Smoke state as much.
According to Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, two places in the city where protests frequently happened and where storm water drains deposit directly into the Willamette River are the areas near the ICE center in South Portland and the areas near the Justice Center downtown, in Southwest Portland.
Simonis said not enough monitoring of these areas is being done by environmental agencies. They also questioned whether officials are properly disposing of the spent munitions, which according to multiple safety data sheets from manufacturers, are hazardous. Such material needs to be removed and processed by hazardous waste processing companies, Simonis said.
“The way to clean that up is with expensive vacuuming equipment. The stuff literally needs to be dry-vacced off of the ground everywhere. The soils in these places like Lownsdale and Chapman [downtown squares near the Justice Center] and the elementary school next to the ICE building, those all need to be removed and replaced with fresh soil,” Simonis said. “There needs to be significant dredging done in and around the outfall pipes of the areas where I have looked and found some munitions. I know that there are gaps in the storm water drains that are large enough for grenades to go down.”
Simonis added that the chemical munitions used by police agencies during Portland protests are not designed for use in crowded urban environments, and certainly not ones next to a river. Instead the munitions are meant to be used in open fields, like in battlefields or training grounds, Simonis said.
The CDC states, after being exposed to riot control agents, a person should wash then dispose of the clothes they wore. The discarded clothing should be placed into a sealed plastic bag, that is then placed into another sealed plastic bag and that “the health department or emergency personnel should arrange for further disposal. Do not handle the plastic bags yourself.”
When asked for their reaction/response to police’s use of chemical munitions near a schoolyard, in which munition remnants were found, Oregon Department of Education spokesperson Marc Siegel said ODE “is aware of this situation.” And that “Cottonwood School of Civics and Science is taking appropriate steps by working with Department of Environmental Quality.”
Environmental agencies on the use of chemical munitions in Portland
KOIN 6 News reached out to various environmental agencies on the local, state and federal level for comment on the use of chemical munitions by law enforcement agencies in Portland.
Diane Dulken, a spokesperson for City of Portland BES, said the state’s Department of Environmental Quality directed BES to do sampling of the storm water before it entered the Willamette River and as near as possible to an outfall to the river. The samples were collected on August 6 at the area near the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse and Multnomah County Justice Center downtown, according to a press release. They also cleared out the storm water drain during that time.
The result of those samples was that BES found elevated levels of barium, copper, lead and zinc at the federal courthouse site, with levels of all four metals dropping before reaching the river.
Those contaminant levels “dropped to within a normal range before reaching the Willamette River,” according to the release.
In addition, Dulken said BES installed liners in storm drains around the Justice Center downtown and around the ICE building, the two areas where storm drains lead to the Willamette River directly.
“Those liners add an extra layer of protection to capture pollutants and prevent them from reaching the Willamette river,” Dulken said.
Dulken compared the liners to a coffee filter, though made of different materials, in that it separates the solids in the storm water from the liquids, catching them before they can deposit into the river from an outfall pipe.
“We had hoped quite frankly that it wouldn’t be needed, that there wouldn’t be further deployment. But there were deployments on January 20th,” Dulken said.
Dulken said the liners are regularly maintained, including being cleaned out as needed. She said during inspections, workers have noticed some of those liners have been damaged, from apparent tampering.
“We received reports of individuals actually removing the grates on storm drains. And that just….that diminishes the ability those liners to work. That actually interferes with our pollution prevention efforts,” Dulken said.
“Oregon DEQ is concerned about the use of tear gas and chemical agents throughout Portland and near schools in particular. Part of this concern is residue reaching the Willamette River,” DEQ spokesperson Lauren Wirtis told KOIN 6 News via email.
Wirtis went on to say that DEQ has been meeting with the Oregon Health Authority and other agencies to develop guidance for the public about safely addressing tear gas and munitions materials, of which more information can be found on OHA’s website.
KOIN 6 News reached out to Oregon Health Authority to see if they had any guidance about the toxicity levels from chemical munition pollutants in fish and whether people should avoid eating aquatic life from the Willamette River because of that. Here was a response from Jonathan Modie, an agency spokesperson:
- The release of tear gas related chemicals into the environment is a short time span (as compared to historic, decades long releases of industrial pollution).
- Tear gas chemicals released into the environment and subsequently washed down storm drains would end up in the Willamette River. The chemicals would quickly become diluted in such a large river.
- Due to the short time span of chemical release and large amount of dilution, we would not expect a health risk from fish consumption due to tear gas related chemicals.
- We do not think any additional sampling will change our conclusions on time span or dilution.
- We are hesitant to interpret the data from the storm drains. The storm drains are a catch-all from many different sources. For example, for some of the metals, these chemicals could have come from several different sources such as fireworks, automobiles, or native soil. We cannot directly relate those chemicals to tear gas or other chemical incapacitants from storm drain samples.
KOIN 6 News also reached out to the federal Environmental Protection Agency to see whether there were activities or plans to clean up or address spent chemical munitions and residue in Portland but they did not give a response in time for publication.
Law enforcement agencies on chemical munition use
On Sept. 10, 2020, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the city’s police commissioner, announced an executive order banning Portland Police Bureau’s use of tear gas for crowd dispersal.
KOIN 6 News reached out to PPB to asked whether they tracked the use of crowd control munitions used since protests in Portland beginning late May and what the agency’s disposal policies are with spent munitions.
“I can say that every deployment of munitions, like any use of force by officers, is required by policy to be documented and fully justified in a police report and reviewed by supervisors on multiple levels. Crowd control uses of force are reviewed up to the Chief’s office,” Portland Police Sergeant Kevin Allen told KOIN 6 News via email.
However, Allen said they don’t keep a running tally of force instances used, but offered that the bureau’s website does have a page about protest information and updates, including known locations of protests.
KOIN 6 News submitted a public records request to collect such a tally of PPB’s instance of uses of force, but a response from the city stated since a single document with that information didn’t exist, the request was unfulfilled.
In addition, KOIN 6 News also submitted a public records request to PPB about the agency’s latest inventory of military-style weapons, but did not receive a response in time for publication. An inventory of military weapons that PPB currently has is required to be submitted to Portland City Council quarterly, per a city resolution passed in December, with the first inventory list due on Jan. 27.
Upon making a similar inquiry to Oregon State Police, Capt. Timothy Fox said: “OSP has assisted PPB 40+ and deployed gas 8 times.” He added the gas used was CS.
KOIN 6 News also reached out to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asking about chemical munitions used by the agencies since the beginning of racial justice protests in Portland in late May; However, neither one of them gave a response in time for publication.
Portland saw more than 100 consecutive days of protest following the Minneapolis Police in-custody death of George Floyd in late May 2020. Since then, protests have occurred on occasion, intermittently.
On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2020, multiple protests occurred in Portland which turned violent. Windows were smashed at the Democratic Party of Oregon headquarters in Southeast Portland, a scuffle between police and a crowd of 150 or so occurred at Revolution Hall, and later an unlawful assembly was declared by federal officers during a gathering at the ICE building in which it was reported that crowd control agents were used. Multiple arrests were made.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to included Bureau of Environmental service’s estimate of deployments of CS and OC agents conducted as of August 10, 2020.