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#FeesMustFall: Why are protestors rubbing condoms on their eyes?

This week, tear-gassed #FeesMustFall protestors took to rubbing condoms on their eyes. Bhekisisa investigates why.

This week, police officers lobbed stun grenades and teargas at protesting students from the University of the Witwatersrand. In a surprise move, teargassed students used free government condoms available on campus to soothe their eyes. On social media, a Wits journalism student tweeted that students urged each other to use protection before and after getting gassed:

Students are using condoms to soothe tear gas irritation. “Condoms your eyes comrades” #FeesMustFall #Wits

— Tebogo Tshwane (@TshwaneTebogo) October 10, 2016

As students and journalists continue to claim the method worked to fend off the burning caused by the gas, Bhekisisa spoke to two doctors that specialise in eye care, ophthalmologists Junaid Zondi and Eben Laubscher.

Laubscher explains that the chemicals in teargas work to irritate the epithelium, the tissue in front of the cornea lined with tiny nerve endings. When teargas comes in contact with this sensitive tissue, it leads to heavy tearing and redness.

According to Zondi, the most common ingredient in teargas is a chemical compound called o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile.

Laubscher says the water-based lubricant found on condoms may be acting as a barrier between this tissue and teargas.

Zondi says that in ophthalmology, doctors often use specialised cellulose-based lubricants as part of examinations. Condoms are a water-based lubricant and although this means it easily be washes off with water Zondi cautions that there may be other additives.

Students wanting to avoid damage to their eyes from teargas would be advised to stock up on water-based lubricants such as K-Y Gel or Assegai.

If students have been teargassed, Zondi recommends they flush their eyes with water.

Pontsho Pilane is the communications manager at Soul City Institute for Social Justice. Pilane was a health journalist at Bhekisisa from 2017 until 2019.