Rubber bullets may sound harmless, but they’re not. Far from it. During the protests of the past two and a half weeks, rubber bullets — or similar kinds of “less-than-lethal” bullet-shaped projectiles — have seriously injured a number of protesters and journalists across the country.
Several of those people — including Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer and activist from Nashville who was hit in the eye by a bullet-shaped projectile while covering the street protests in Minneapolis on May 29 — have been permanently blinded.
These incidents led the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), the country’s leading professional organization of eye doctors, to issue a statement last week in which they called on law enforcement officials to immediately stop using rubber bullets to control or disperse crowds of protesters. The group also asked physicians, public health officials, and the public to condemn the practice.
“Americans have the right to speak and congregate publicly and should be able to exercise that right without the fear of blindness,” the AAO says. “You shouldn’t have to choose between your vision and your voice.”
The very real danger posed by rubber bullets can be seen in the results of a 2017 paper published in the journal BMJ Open. For that paper, researchers analyzed more than two dozen studies from around the world that had examined evidence on injury, disability and death associated with the use of rubber or plastic bullets, also known as kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs). Of the 1,984 people in these studies who were hit by KIPs, 53 (3 percent) died of their injuries and 300 (15 percent) experienced permanent disability, mostly blindness or removal of the spleen or part of the bowel (as a result of abdominal injuries).
Protecting your eyes
Wearing safety glasses and goggles can protect your eyes from KIPs, but, as the AAO points out, they don’t offer 100 percent projection. (Tirado said she was wearing goggles shortly before her eye was injured, but they slipped off her face while she was running away from tear gas.)
If your eye is injured, say the ophthalmologists, you should protect it immediately and treat the situation as a medical emergency:
- 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
Although tear gas and pepper spray do not usually cause irreversible injuries to the eyes, the damage can still be serious. If you are exposed to either of these chemical irritants, the AAO recommends the following.
If exposed to tear gas:
- Remove yourself from the contaminated area as quickly and safely as possible.
- Flush the eyes with lots of clean water or eyewash (available at most pharmacies).
- Remove clothing near the face.
- Seek fresh air.
- Seek higher ground (aerosolized tear gases are heavier than air).
- Blink frequently (to promote tearing).
- Do not rub eyes (may spread crystals within the eye).
- Remove contact lenses.
- Seek emergency ophthalmic evaluation.
If exposed to pepper spray:
- Don’t touch the eye area. Pepper spray is oil-based. Touching the area will spread the oil.
- Blink to help flush the eyes.
- 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.
- Wash the skin around the eyes with baby shampoo; it will break down the oil without irritating the eyes.
FMI: You’ll find the statement from the AAO’s statement calling for an end to law enforcement’s use of rubber bullets on the organization’s website.