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#WitsHungerStrike: Four tips to protect your eyes during a protest

Police often use tear gas as a method of crowd control. Here are some tips to keep safe when those tear gas canisters start flying from our archives.

#FeesMustFall protests at South African universities look set to continue. Bhekisisa speaks to two eye care specialists, ophthalmologists Eben Laubscher and Junaid Zondi, to give you four ways to protect your eyes during a protest.

1. Stock up on water-based lubricant

Laubscher explains that the chemicals in tear gas work to irritate the epithelium, a thin layer of tissue on the eye’s cornea lined with tiny nerve endings. When teargas comes in contact with this sensitive tissue, it leads to heavy tearing and redness.

During a tear gas attack, you want to find a substance that can help protect your epithelium.

Your safest bet is a water-based lubricant like that found on condoms often marketed under the brand names K-Y Gel and Assegai. These are safer bets than Vaseline.

Apply the lubricant around your eyes before the tear gas starts flying to keep the chemicals from teargas or even pepper spray out of your eyes.

2. Condoms might do – in a pinch

Can’t get your hands on tubes of water-based lubricant? Rubbing condoms on your eyes might do in a pinch but be warned. Zondi says the lubricant will create a barrier between tear gas chemicals and the cornea. But he warns that lubricant for some condoms, like government’s new scented Max condoms, may contain more than just water-based lubricant. These might have extra additives, for instance to give condoms their scent, that may not have been tested for safety on people’s eyes.

3. Wear protective eyewear

Zondi advises protesters to consider carrying protective eyewear like safety goggles to help protect their eyes from tear gas.

Safety goggles can be purchased at various hardware stores, and range between R35 and R100 for a basic pair.

4. Carry water

Couldn’t find water-based lubricant or goggles? If you’ve been tear gassed, Zondi says you should try to wash your eyes out immediately with water and avoid rubbing them.

“Flush your eyes with copious amounts of water immediately, while cooling them with a face cloth dipped in cold water. If you can, move away from the source,” he says.

Although Laubscher says that the epithelium usually recovers within about 24 hours, Zondi warns that excessive exposure to tear gas or pepper spray can damage the cornea and that this requires medical attention.

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