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(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Tear Gas

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What started as a protest against the demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park has boiled over into broad anti-government unrest in cities across Turkey. Almost everywhere, the protestors have been met with heavy resistance from riot police and torrents of tear gas. Here’s a crash course in the chemical weapon of the moment.

What is it?

Tear gas isn’t one specific chemical, and it’s usually not even a gas, despite the name. There are a few different compounds that are used as “lachrymatory agents.” Most of them are solids at room temperature, and get mixed with liquid or gas dispersal agents for use.

The variety favored by the Turkish police is known as CS gas, which is made from a powdery compound called 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile and a liquid solvent (often methylene chloride), mixed into an aerosol spray.

Where did it come from?

Tear gases in general are something that militaries have been messing around with since World War I. Both France and Germany developed and deployed lachrymatory irritants in battle, but there was evidently a bit of a learning curve. According to the U.S. Army’s Combat Studies Institute, the Germans fired some 3000 tear gas shells during one day of fighting in 1914, but the British troops on the receiving end “suffered no ill effects and never suspected they were under chemical attack.”

In just a few years, the Germans had gotten a handle on things and were using tear-inducing gases to great effect. In 1916, they fired 2000 shells into a French trench system and 2400 French soldiers—blinded, coughing and crying—quickly found themselves surrounded by German troops in protective goggles.

CS gas would come a few decades later. Its active component, 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, was synthesized by American chemists Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton in 1928 and tear gas using it (CS = Corson + Stoughton) was developed and tested during the 1950s and '60s.

What does it do?

Tear gases irritate the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs, and cause tearing, coughing, burning, and stinging sensations, chest tightness and difficulty breathing. At higher concentrations, exposure can cause stomach irritation leading to vomiting and diarrhea.

According to German toxicologist Uwe Heinrich, dispersing the gas at a concentration of one milligram per cubic meter will cause symptoms of irritation. From there, things go sour pretty quickly. A concentration of 10 mg per cubic meter can force trained soldiers to retreat from an area. Ten to 20 mg/m3 or higher can cause serious injury or, depending on the victim and conditions of exposure, death. In one incident reported in a Swiss medical journal, an otherwise healthy adult man was exposed to a tear gas grenade containing just one gram of CS while inside a building. He quickly developed toxic pulmonary edema, a condition where excess fluid collects in the air sacs of the lungs and causes difficulty breathing, and recovered only after weeks of medical treatment.

Sounds nasty. Shouldn’t stuff like this be illegal?

It is. Kind of. Tear gases were used in warfare through most of the 20th century until 1993, when the Chemical Weapons Convention banned the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons in battle. The international treaty doesn’t apply to nations’ domestic law enforcement, though, so police officers from Turkey to Texas are free to spray it at civilians.

Repressive Middle Eastern governments really love the stuff, don’t they?

Boy, do they ever! During a protest just last month, Turkish police used 14 tons of water mixed with CS components, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has earned the nicknames “Chemical Tayyip” and “Gasman” thanks to police and security forces’ rampant use of tear gas.

Bahraini police also have a gas problem, to the point where the foreign policy writer Steve Fake says the country has “raised the global bar on the usage of tear gas to unprecedented heights. It has become the Tear Gas Regime.” A report released by the organization Physicians for Human Rights last year says, “Preliminary analysis of data suggests that the majority of Shi’a neighborhoods (comprising 80% of all neighborhoods in Bahrain) have been exposed to toxic chemical agent attacks at least once per week since February 2011.” [Emphasis theirs]

How do you treat tear gas exposure?

If you’re outside, the best antidote to any breathing problems is fresh, untainted air, and time. For high dose exposure or exposure in enclosed spaces, bottled oxygen or certain asthma medications may be administered to ease difficulty breathing. Any exposed skin should be washed with soap and water and eyes should be flushed with sterile water or saline solution. A flyer circulated at the Occupy Wall Street protests also recommended spraying the eyes, mouth and throat with a 50/50 mix of water and Maalox. (Though this specifically mentions capsaicin-based tear gases. Not sure if it works for other types, and I’m  not looking to test it out.)

Is there anything else you wanna know about tear gas? Have other questions about current events or sciencey things? Email askmatt@mentalfloss.com. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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