[Editor’s Note: Dr. Juniper L. Simonis is a quantitative ecologist studying aquatic ecotoxicology, biogeochemistry, conservation biology, quantitative ecology, and they are pretty good with stats as well. I’m glad they are down for the cause because there is no way I could afford their expertise. – Mac Smiff]

“An honest witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies.” Proverbs 14:5

Waking up to some semblance of hope for a different (if not better) year on January 1 2021, Portlanders were greeted with the customary Police News Report [1] detailing the bureau’s Official Impressions TM of the protest-associated events the night before, when a few hundred gathered downtown to stand for racial justice, ring in the new year, and – despite everyone’s flashbang PTSD – light off fireworks.

In response to said fireworks and a dumpster fire that melted the dumpster itself to the street (what a better metaphor for the capstone of 2020 is, I do not know), a multi-jurisdictional force of Homeland Security, County Sheriffs, and Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers used grenades and projectiles to indiscriminately blanket multiple city blocks with chemical weapons, threatening the health of residents as well as protesters, littering the landscape with unspent munitions, and polluting the Willamette River via the city’s ancient stormwater system.

A cloud of chemical agents engulf the open-to-traffic intersection of SW 4th and Main, flanked by a line of Portland Police Bureau officers. Photo: J L Simonis.
A cloud of chemical agents engulf the open-to-traffic intersection of SW 4th and Main, flanked by a line of Portland Police Bureau officers. Photo: J L Simonis.

Ever desirous to get their minced-word version of events out before the year’s first morning news cycle, PPB posted their report at 2:57 am, as the last protesters were heading home and major news outlets were arriving on the scene to document broken windows [2]. Following a well-trodden path, purportedly reputable news sources repeated PPB’s statement as factual descriptions of the night’s events and perpetuated demonstrably false information [3].

For example, journalists who had actually been on the ground were quick to point out that the thrust of PPB’s justification for their actions was questionable at best, as protesters did not throw “Molotov Cocktails” at officers [4].

Of concern to public health and safety was PPB’s description of their own actions in response to the imagined Molotov Cocktail attack:

“No CS gas was deployed by PPB during this event, but inert smoke and some impact munitions were used.” [1]

The phrase “inert smoke” was parroted by news outlets [3,5] yet is so blatantly false to be laughable if it did not endanger human health. PPB appears to internally believe that munitions smoke is safe, as evidenced by Assistant Chief (AC) Jami Resch’s comments to the Citizen Review Committee stating that “the smoke is simply just smoke with no gas”. Not only is no munitions smoke “inert” (unreactive), the smoke grenades and projectiles used by Portland Police Bureau are explicitly reactive and produce toxic gasses [6,7].

This information is not hidden or obscured, but rather provided by the Bureau and the City to the public as part of their disclosure documents [6,7]. It would appear, however, that officers using smoke munitions and those engaging with the public about their use have not read their own literature.

Acting on behalf of the Bureau to deceive the public, new Public Information Officer Reverend Lt Greg Pashley declined to clarify what was meant by “inert smoke” and instead directed questions to the City’s Attorney’s Office. Reinforcing the obfuscation, City Attorney Jenifer Johnston offered no information, but pointed documents already disclosed, specifically calling out “a power point on the Riot Control Agents PPB uses”, which declares that “the Portland Police Bureau has deployed one [type of] smoke grenade: Defense Technology Triple Chaser Saf-Smoke Model 1027.” The same model is listed in the “MSDS links” document (MSDS: Materials Safety Data Sheet) [8], which notably does not include links to MSDSs.

Thankfully, the safety document for this item is available for the interested reader. From the get, it lays out that despite its branding as “Saf”, the smoke is neither safe nor inert, but a mixture of caustic and lethal gasses [7]. Indeed, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) rates the smoke as “Hazardous to Human Health”, and for good reason [7,9]. Upon ignition, a grenade heats potassium chlorate (KClO3) to provide oxygen for a self-perpetuating chemical fire, similar to the “Screaming Gummy Bear” demonstration used in chemistry classrooms around the world [10]. Even this simple demo needs to be done in well ventilated space, however, as it will produce chlorate vapors caustic enough to degrade metal.

Three components of a Defense Technology Triple Chaser Saf-Smoke grenade recovered from police actions, showing clear signs of caustic breakdown from chlorates. Photo: J L Simonis
Three components of a Defense Technology Triple Chaser Saf-Smoke grenade recovered from police actions, showing clear signs of caustic breakdown from chlorates. Photo: J L Simonis

As you might expect, munitions smoke mixtures contain more than just KClO3 and sugar, and so their vapors are not just caustic, but also include a bevy of toxic compounds such as benzene, cyanide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, lead, barium, and hexavalent chromium. You might remember that last one from Erin Brockovich.

The hazardous nature of these smoke grenades is evident throughout the MSDS, where the ingredients list boasts three acute toxins, one reproductive toxin, one carcinogen, an aggressive oxidizing agent, and three aquatic toxins [7]. Subsequent sections contain dire statements about the danger of these smokes, such as

Section 5: Firefighting Measures “Burning material may produce toxic and irritating vapors.”
Section 10: Stability and Reactivity “Toxic fumes may be released if heated…”
Section 11: Toxicological Information “When … used, particles … generated … may be irritating to the eyes and the respiratory tract.”
Section 12: Ecological Information “Available data on … bioaccumulation [indicate] prolonged …damage of the environment …”

And despite AC Resch’s belief that “used munitions can safely be thrown in the garbage once they have cooled”, Section 13: Disposal Consideration states that munitions “should be treated as hazardous [and] must not be disposed together with household garbage.”

The author’s first-hand observations of PPB officers kicking munitions into storm drains and garbage trucks reeking of chlorates leaving PPB buildings support PPB’s assertation smoke grenades are “inert” all the way through to the spent munition. And analyses by Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services demonstrates that products from these munitions are reaching the stormwater system, as there are massively elevated levels of chlorates (30-fold), chloride (3-fold), lead (9-fold), chromium (10-fold), and barium (72-fold) in the stormwater system at the site of police actions [11]. These compounds will have significant negative impact on Chinook and Coho Salmon that rear where untreated stormwater is released into the Willamette River [12], and will transfer via bioaccumulation to species that eat salmon, such as humans and sea lions [13].

And yet here we remain, with a Police Bureau whose understanding of chemical weapons is more inert than the munitions they litter the urban ecosystem with and City officials whose willful ignorance deceives the public with the help of ostensibly diligent media that fail to do even the simplest of background research for their reporting or hold their journalists accountable for printing patent lies [3,5]. All the while, the police continue to release toxic smokes throughout Portland, endangering the health of the city, its denizens, and the urban environment all to show how much they do not like fireworks and protests for racial justice.

1. Portland Police Bureau. News Report 271438. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/police/news/read.cfm?id=271438. Accessed 13 January 2021.

2. Z. Sparling. Tweet. https://twitter.com/PDXzane/status/1344947893908639744. Accessed 13 January 2021.

3. Z. Sparling. Portland rings in new year with shattered glass, riot. Portland Tribune.  https://pamplinmedia.com/pt/9-news/493313-396039-portland-rings-in-new-year-with-shattered-glass-riot- Accessed 13 January 2021.

4. G. Davis. Tweet. https://twitter.com/hungrybowtie/status/1345108371855212544. Accessed 13 January 2021

5. H. Borrud. Molotov cocktails, other violence at downtown Portland New Year’s Eve gathering prompt police to declare riot. The Oregonian. https://www.oregonlive.com/crime/2021/01/molotov-cocktails-other-violence-at-downtown-portland-new-years-eve-gathering-prompt-police-to-declare-riot.html. Accessed 13 January 2021.

6. Portland Police Bureau. Riot Control Agents. https://portlandor.govqa.us/WEBAPP/_rs/(S(agvzqrghi5paqpo5frzg5fdf))/DownloadFile.aspx?sSessionID=&aid=146285&fid=180512. Accessed 13 January 2021.

7. Defense Technology. Materials Safety Data Sheet. 1027 – Triple-Chaser Separating Canister – Saf-Smoke. http://sds.chemtel.net/webclients/safariland/finished_goods/Defense%20Technology%201027%20-%20Triple-Chaser%20Separating%20Canister%20-%20Saf-Smoke.pdf Accessed 13 January 2021.

8. City of Portland, Oregon. Information on chemical agents. MSDS links. https://portlandor.govqa.us/WEBAPP/_rs/(S(agvzqrghi5paqpo5frzg5fdf))/DownloadFile.aspx?sSessionID=&aid=150192&fid=188003. Accessed  13 January 13, 2021.

9. American Chemical Society. National Fire Protection Association Hazard Identification System. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/chemical-safety/basics/nfpa-hazard-identification.html. Accessed 13 January 2021.

10. D. Fleming. Royal Society of Chemistry. Education in Chemistry. It’s a scream! https://edu.rsc.org/exhibition-chemistry/the-screaming-jelly-baby/4012799.article. Accessed 13 January 2021.

11. City of Portland, Oregon. Environmental Services Sampling Report.   https://www.portland.gov/bes/news/2020/9/10/environmental-services-releases-results-cs-gas-residue-sampling-city-stormwater. Accessed 13 January 2021.

12. B. Owens. What tear gas does to fish. Hakai Magazine. https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/what-tear-gas-does-to-fish/. Accessed 13 January 2021.

13. Lance Fisher. Willamette River salmon fishing. https://lancefisherfishing.com/willamette-river-fishing/willamette-river-salmon-fishing/. Accessed 13 January 2021.