Lesions and trauma: Some Brooklyn Center residents still affected by tear gas

Gino Fiebelkorn recounts his experience living across the street from Brooklyn Center Police Department during the protests following the police killing of Daunte Wright from his porch Thursday, May 13, 2021. “It was like a war zone,” he said. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

When Gino Fiebelkorn woke up on Thursday morning April 15, he knew that something was seriously wrong. A lesion that he had first noticed on his body the day before had grown substantially bigger. 

“It started on Wednesday, but it was so subtle I didn’t know what it was,” Fiebelkorn said. “The day after, the largest one just started getting bigger and bigger to the point where I knew that I had to seek medical attention.”

Fiebelkorn lives in the Sterling Square apartment complex across the street from the Brooklyn Center Police Department. For the past four nights, he had watched crowds gather to protest the killing of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer and watched police meet them with an array of less lethal munitions, including tear gas and rubber bullets. 

For many of the protesters, the law enforcement response was traumatic. For people like Fiebelkorn — who were in their apartments under curfew across the street — it was a full-blown crisis. 

“There were bright lights and just huge plumes of smoke and explosions, drones and helicopters above,” Fiebelkorn said. “It was like a warzone.”

One day, Fiebelkorn woke up coughing, his apartment filled with tear gas. He spent much of the next day taking steps to try to keep more tear gas out, taping plastic around his windows, hanging up wet towels, encouraging his neighbors to do the same. Then he started getting dizzy and breaking out in lesions. 

As the lesions multiplied and the pain and dizziness intensified, Fiebelkorn went to a doctor. By the time he got there, his leg was shaking so badly that the doctor assumed he was severely cold. 

Fiebelkorn underwent a battery of blood tests over two seperate days before he got definitive news about what was ailing him: He had tested positive for chloroacetophenone, an irritant often used as an active ingredient in riot control munitions, and had a staph infection. 

Doctors believe that Fiebelkorn may have had an allergic reaction to the irritant, remnants of which likely remain in his apartment unit and throughout his complex. He was told to take antibiotics every four hours to restore his health. 

Fiebelkorn’s case may be extreme, but it is not unique. Multiple residents of the apartment complexes on Humboldt Avenue across from the Brooklyn Center police station said recently they are still coughing and experiencing headaches from tear gas exposure, weeks after the law enforcement last fired on protesters in the area.

“I’m not allowing my children to access certain parts of my home,” said Kia Welch, who lives in a ground level apartment across the street. “You can still smell the tear gas in the curtains.”

Brooklyn Center Police Department remains fenced in, with “Daunte Wright” spelled out in car air fresheners among fabric roses along the fence Thursday, May 13, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

When tear gas was first deployed in Brooklyn Center, two of Welch’s children had asthma attacks. Another got a bloody nose. The family was forced to relocate to a hotel, and now, weeks later, Welch said, they are still sneezing and dealing with light and noise sensitivity and headaches.

Even residents of the apartments who are no longer experiencing the negative health effects of tear gas exposure are feeling its impact in other ways, from their mental health to the physical condition of their homes. 

“We all have [experienced damages],” said Tabitha, a resident who declined to give her last name.

“These are the problems with these indiscriminate weapons,” said Rohini Haar, a professor in the school of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. “They hit bystanders who are doing nothing. They hit people who weren’t even in the protest. How could this be the right way to police a protest — especially in a pandemic, where breathing is already the prime, urgent issue for everybody?”

It is a question that cities across the country, including in Minnesota, are increasingly asking. 

Though Gov. Tim Walz initially backed the use of tear gas on protesters, the Brooklyn Center City Council passed a resolution calling for its disuse by its police department in the midst of the protests — though the police tear gassed protesters that night anyway. The Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution several days later opposing the use of tear gas and other less-lethal munitions, as well.

Walz recently called on the state’s Board of Peace Officers and Standards Training to establish protocols for the handling of large demonstrations, including how and when tear gas and other less lethal munitions should be used. 

The use of tear gas has long been banned in international warfare, by both the Geneva Protocol and the United Nations’ 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says “long-lasting” exposure can lead to blindness, respiratory failure and even death.

But law enforcement officials continued to use chemical weapons like pepper spray throughout the week of the protests, and several agencies have declined to disclose exactly what was in the chemical weapons they used — leaving medical experts guessing about their possible effects on protesters and residents. 

“It’s really difficult for physicians to treat patients if they don’t know the exact chemicals they were exposed to, for how long they were exposed to them and in what fashion,” said Jennifer Brown, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Minnesota Medical School who co-authored a paper on tear gas usage last year.

Neither the Brooklyn Center Police Department nor the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office responded to requests for comment. 

Much of the research on tear gas has been focused on the short-term effects of exposure, particularly on young men in the military, but long term effects are less clear.

Some recent studies, however, point to a range of longer-term effects of exposure. A peer-reviewed study conducted by researchers in Portland, for instance, found that over half of respondents who menstruate experienced menstrual irregularities after being exposed to tear gas at racial justice protests last summer.

Welch said that she has experienced menstrual irregularities herself since her exposure to tear gas, and that a neighbor is extremely concerned about the effect that exposure may have on her pregnancy. 

Experts believe that while specific effects may vary, tear gas generally becomes more dangerous the more often a person is exposed to it.

“It will get in your vents and everywhere else, and so I would expect to see that people have more symptoms or worsening symptoms in those communities in which people are chronically exposed,” said Haar, the Berkeley public health expert. 

The indiscriminate use of tear gas has exacted not just a physical toll on people, but also a steep financial toll. 

Welch estimates that all told, the tear gas exposure will have cost her more than $10,000, once accounting for a two-week hotel stay, new clothes for herself and her children, new furniture and bedding, cleaning supplies, and replacing ruined materials for her business, 

“Hadn’t it been for things like the stimulus that hit, I would have went down in smoke,” Welch said. 

Brooklyn Center has committed to reimbursing residents for damage to personal property and hotel expenses, but Welch does not yet know exactly how much that reimbursement process will cover. A representative for Monarch Investment and Management Group, which manages the Sterling Square apartments, declined to comment. 

Then there are the emotional costs. Upon returning home recently Welch was forced to throw away a teddy bear that her mother had given her first-born daughter Shekiyla when she was two years old. It still smelled like tear gas. 

Facing the potential of more trauma depending on the outcome of criminal proceedings against former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter, a number of residents of the Sterling Square apartments are considering moving.

“I just gave my two-month notice yesterday,” Fiebelkorn said. “I won’t move across the street from a police station. That’s for sure.”

Welch is trying desperately to move, as well. Despite running four air purifiers and shampooing her carpet, parts of her apartment are still uninhabitable due to the tear gas. Spending too much time there makes her want to “vomit.” 

“The police station is protected,” she said. “There are fences around there. But the tenants are not protected. There’s no safety for the tenants.”