Protesters in Turkey are combating police tear gas with homemade gas masks, which in recent years have become an essential part of the activist’s tool kit.
Turkey’s government has spent $21 million on 628 tons of tear gas and pepper spray over the past 12 years – mostly from the U.S. and Brazil, according to Turkish newspaper Sozcu, quoted by RT (also known as Russia Today). In response to barrages of tear gas, protesters have been forced to improvise. One of the more common homemade gas mask designs seen in Turkey is made from a plastic bottle cut in half, tied round the face and sealed with tape. Similar designs were circulated during the Occupy protests. Sometimes the face-shielding bottle is paired with a dust or environmental mask, or a rag soaked in water or vinegar:
Other protesters have had to improvise with even fewer resources. One photo circulating on social media shows a woman using her bra as a gas mask:
Tear gas works by irritating a person’s mucous membranes, which are located in the nose, eyes, mouth and lungs. They can be made with a variety of ingredients: pepper spray, which is made from the chemical capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot chilis; CR gas, also known as dibenzoxazepine; or phenacyl chloride, also known as Mace. The first tear gas, used in World War I, was made from a compound called xylyl bromide.
While tear gas often does not result in lasting damage, it can be dangerous to children, the elderly or those with breathing problems. One 1972 case report describes a 4-month-old infant who developed inflamed lungs after exposure to tear gas. Asthmatic patients have reported extended shortness of breath for weeks after tear gas exposure as well.
The generic dust mask – the kind you might see people wearing while doing yard work or light construction – is designed to trap particles like dust or pollen. It acts like a sieve with very fine holes, letting air in but keeping particulate matter out. Such masks are not designed for use against gases or vapors, and should never be a person’s only line of defense against tear gas.
Manufactured gas masks use specialized filters to trap or neutralize harmful chemical compounds. Activated charcoal, which is charcoal treated with oxygen, is highly porous, and can bond and entrap certain chemicals. Other gas masks contain other chemicals designed to react with a chemical weapon and neutralize it – WWI masks often contained sodium thiosulfate, which neutralizes chlorine.
But as long as there has been chemical warfare, there have been improvised gas masks.. A homemade gas mask described by Time Magazine in 1942 required the procurement of a “bathing cap, a small tin can, the transparent cover from a powder-puff box, a bit of wire net (from fly swatters), two handkerchiefs, elastic ribbon, adhesive tape, and (from the drugstore) a few ounces of activated coconut charcoal and soda lime.”