It really is depressing to watch Hong Kong officials trying to act as if they were part of a democratic government… and failing. Consider the latest performance from Mr Law Chi-kwong, who rejoices in the title of Secretary for Labour and Welfare. Mr Law was asked in the last Legislative Council meeting whether the government had conducted any assessment of whether tear gas could affect people with disabilities.

The short answer might well have been “no,” but we must not expect miracles. Mr Law said that tear gas “only causes mild respiratory and skin irritation” and no serious cases had been reported to the relevant government departments. He then cited academic papers finding that dioxins rarely cropped up in tear gas, and offered the resounding red herring that the amount of toxins released during a barbecue is “much higher” than in tear gas.

This led rather predictably to headlines suggesting that there was more dioxin in barbecue smoke than in tear gas, which is not true. The health hazard from barbecue smoke is things called Volatile Organic Compounds, which are a result of meat being raised to a high temperature. There is a great deal of variation in the danger from barbecuing, depending on your fuel and choice of equipment and food. Some writers get astonishing figures for barbecue pollution by including the environmental effects of raising beef cattle. However, dioxin does not come up.

november 11 Central riot police tear gas
Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

According to the US Environmental Protection Authority consumers in that country get about 119 pico grams a day of dioxin, nearly all of it from consumed food. Inhalation of all kinds only amounts to 2.2 pg per day.

Anyway, whatever you make of the science part of this there is an important difference in principle, which Mr Law is overlooking, between risks voluntarily run by an individual, and risks imposed on helpless citizens by the actions of a government agency. If people wish to poison themselves with barbecue smoke that is their business. It does not excuse the government itself poisoning them. Perhaps dioxin is rare in tear gas. On the other hand, according to the EPA there is NO safe level for exposure to dioxin.

Mr Law went on to say that “protesters burning road barriers would have been a big cause of dioxins in the air recently”. Burning road barriers would produce dioxins hundreds of times more than burning other objects, he said, because the barriers were PVC.

Law Chi-kwong
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong. File Photo:

This observation would be deeply offensive to the PVC industry, which maintains that “When PVC does combust, its contribution of toxins is “insignificant,” according to third-party organizations that have conducted research on the combustion toxicity of vinyl products. According to the Vinyl Institute, ‘most fire scientists recognize that the largest hazard in a fire is carbon monoxide… The mix of gases produced when vinyl products burn, including hydrogen chloride, is very similar in terms of combustion toxicity to those of other common building materials when they burn.’ Though hydrogen chloride is an irritant gas, it is nowhere near as dangerous as the chemical dioxin or carbon monoxide, the release of which is often, and wrongly, attributed to vinyl.”

Again this is not really relevant. If protesters are poisoning us it is a bad thing. It does not excuse the government doing the same thing.

Here we come to a follow-up question from impeccably pro-government lawmaker Kenneth Lau — representing the Heung Yee Kuk rotten borough — who suggested that the government could “sweep away public concerns” by telling us all exactly what is in tear gas.

Hung Hom Tsim Sha Tsui protest China extradition pro-democracy "December 1" tear gas Salisbury Garden
Hong Kong police fire tear gas on Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui to clear protesters on December 1. Photo: May James/HKFP.

But Mr Law was having none of this. “The composition of tear gas is part of police operations and the government has no plans to reveal such information.” And this is really not good enough. Of course we know the main ingredient of tear gas, or tear smoke as we are supposed to call it because gas brings back unhappy memories of Wilfred Owen:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

This might remind some people that the stuff our policemen throw about with such enthusiasm is actually banned for military purposes.

"November 10" Tsuen Wan shopping tear gas protest
Photo: May James/HKFP.

The main ingredient is a chemical with a long technical name usually abbreviated to CS. There is no reason to suppose that much else is in there. Nor is it likely that after so many years some amateur will dream up a combination of ordinary household chemicals which will make tear gas innocuous. So the idea that the actual content needs to be kept secret because it is a part of police operations is nonsense. Police operations would not be affected in any way if the exact composition of their tear gas was known to the public.

Mind you I think Mr Lau may be a bit optimistic in supposing that publication of a detailed recipe would allay all fears. Quite a lot of people, including me, suspect that if you have an existing allergy then tear gas residues are likely to bring it leaping into action. Cases which generate “serious reports” to Mr Law’s colleagues are not the only possible medical effect.

But there is a larger principle involved here. In a society enjoying the rule of law, we expect the police to be supervised by and accountable to our elected representatives, such as they are. Refusing them basic information on the basis of flimsy excuses about “part of police operations” suggests that the police are accountable to nobody and our government is quite happy with that state of affairs. This is an increasingly widespread view, alas.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.