The precursor to HC smoke was developed by E.F. Berger for the French army to deploy during World War I. Berger combined powdered zinc with carbon tetrachloride to generate opaque clouds of zinc chloride smoke intended to conceal troop movements. Between the world wars, scientists stabilized the smoke canister by replacing carbon tetrachloride with Hexachloroethane (“HC”). The HC smoke canister generated zinc chloride gas but also the chemical warfare gases carbon monoxide, chlorine, and phosgene—which reacts with moisture in the lungs to become hydrochloric acid and carbon monoxide.
HC smoke munitions were used extensively during World War II for signals and concealment. Reports of fatal exposure to HC smoke soon surfaced. In 1943, exposure to HC smoke munitions caused 70 people to become violently ill with coughing, chest tightness, nausea, and vomiting. Ten of them died.
HC smoke was especially dangerous in enclosed spaces. A study from 1954 reported an 18-year-old man being hospitalized for six weeks following a 10-minute exposure to HC smoke indoors. A 1963 report described a firefighter who perished following exposure to HC smoke.
Numerous deaths and injuries caused by HC smoke were reported in the 1980s. Two elderly women fell violently ill after 75 minutes of exposure. One of them died. Two soldiers who were exposed required ventilation. A 21-year-old man was ill for two months after inhaling HC smoke. Five soldiers had severe symptoms after exposure, two of whom developed acute respiratory distress syndrome and died. Another zinc chloride incident killed two men.
In 2017, scientists published a survey of academic documentation reporting HC smoke exposure. They found that, out of 31 reported cases eight victims died and three had permanent lung damage.
In 1983, the known dangers of exposure to HC smoke caused the U.S. military to issue guidelines for its deployment. The guidelines required the use of gas masks and instructed personnel to “restrict HC deployment to areas of the installation as far as practically possible from … populated areas” and to take “special precautions to protect higher risk individuals such as those highly allergic, children and the aged.”
According to Dr. Juniper L. Simonis, a Portland-based ecologist and evolutionary biologist, federal agents deployed HC smoke munitions at least 26 times in downtown Portland. Black Lives Matter protestors and area residents have reported long- and short-term symptoms of exposure to HC smoke munitions.
“While the canisters were deployed outside, which certainly prevented many deaths, diffusion was limited by crowds of thousands of people, closed tree canopies, cars and tents,” said Simonis. “I plead with all law enforcement agencies who have HC in their arsenal to decommission it immediately. There is no reason for any police agency to possess it.”
Simonis and other scientists are also worried about the effect of HC smoke on the environment since, in addition to zinc chloride—which causes deformities in young fish—it releases toxic heavy metals such as barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, and lead. Samples from soil and sewers have shown toxins at ten times normal levels.
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