PhD in biology, Alexander Samuel investigates dangers of tear gas, used massively in France against “yellow vests”. His method : entering in the tear gas cloud and analyzing blood and urine.
Published on July 24th 2019 at 2.00 p.m.
We already saw him, multiple times, going into the white cloud and coming out minutes later, his long redhead mane in a hot mess, scarlet eyes and face, crying, coughing, tottering and almost fainting. Alexander Samuel, 34 years old, PhD in molecular biology, maths teacher in a public professional high school in Grasse, France, and philosophy dabster, would never have imagined breathing voluntarily tear gas in the middle of demonstrations. Neither crossing France with tubes of blood and urine in his car trunk, like a drug dealer, looking for a lab which could accept his cargo. Even less being convened by French justice for “endangering people’s live”. Him, whose only assumed violence consists of yelling regularly into a microphone, surrounded by his metal bandmates.
Alexander engaged by accident, on March 23rd 2019. On that day, the “politically very left wing tending” teacher comes as an “observer” to a “yellow vest” protest in Nice. He gets in touch with SOS UN, who are inventorying police brutality. “When I told them I was PhD in biology, they asked me if I could help them analyze the tear gas effects. They described me numerous symptoms : stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, severe migraines, but also loss of consciousness, pulmonary problems, heart problems, liver problems … “Yellow vests” had been hospitalized. They evoked potential cyanide poisonings. Cyanide ! I thought they were nuts ! But since there were many testimonies, I decided to dig it…”
Alexander Samuel, PhD in biology, experimenting during a « yellow vest » protest in Paris. (Bruno Coutier pour « l’Obs »)
Alex loves to dig. Already at the University of Nice, the brilliant PhD student half French half German had stood out for his propension to put his obstinate nose into affairs – misappropriation of subsidy, syndicate corruption, and other favoritism. “Alex is a researcher who finds, testifies Guillaume, a former comrade back in time. He accumulated evidences, gathered documents, recorded conversations. He combined methods of an investigator and a scientist”.
The teacher immersed himself into “literature”, as scientists say, reading everything that got published on the subject in scientific papers. And he methodically reports on his website. He discovers that “CS” gas used by police officers does not directly contain cyanide, but that one of its components, malonitrile, is metabolized into cyanide in the human body.
A public health issue
One can endure cyanide at low levels : smokers, people who eat cabbage, almonds or cassava. At higher doses, cyanide can cause hypoxia, lack of oxygen. It can kill in some cases, even if it did not happen yet in France. Alex explains :
“The person who got gassed endures some kind of strangulation. What is the health consequence of being strangled once a week ? We are told that tear gas are not dangerous, but we don’t know the long term health effects.”
The researcher spends days and nights on what he considers as “a public health issue : tear gas used nowadays massively by police forces, and not only on “yellow vests” : the “pont de Sully” ecologists, the young people at the music fest party in Nantes and people or businesses close to the demonstrations, all were exposed to tear gas. And even policemen, who are the first exposed !
Most of the time, they wear gas masks protecting them, but on June 28th, on the Sully bridge, a commander lost consciousness because of tear gas.
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Cyanide disappears in less than thirty minutes after tear gas exposure. But it leaves a marker in the body, thiocyanate, which can be detected during a few weeks after exposure. “I saw some “yellow vest” analysis results twice or even three times higher than normal values !” says Alex, who then contacts many toxicologists, doctors, scientists in France and abroad. Reactions are contrasted, some tell him he is totally wrong, like Jean-Marc Sapori, from the antipoison center in Lyon, and some encourage him to go on his “remarkable” work like André Picot, president of the Toxicology – Chemistry association, others even tell him
“Be careful, you are addressing a too dangerous subject”.
He calls a lot, and he gets called ore and more. A secret agent wants to give him confidential documents about tear gas victims during the Algerian war. Dozens of “yellow vests” want to testify, and send him their results.
“We are compiling their symptoms in a table, and we notice some new weird symptoms. For instance, many women, even menopaused, are having heavy menstrual bleeding”.
A doctor from the University Medical Center of Lyon writes him about a patient, gased multiple times, having a heavy liver disease from unknown cause : “I wonder if that could explain his pathology” she says.
How to prove the link between pathology and tear gas ?
What should we answer ? How could we prove irrefutably that link ? Since health authorities don’t address the issue and the interior ministry repeats “Move along, nothing to see”, Alex, three doctors – Renaud, anesthesiologist resuscitator, Josyane, generalist and Christiane, ophthalmologist -, nurses and some “yellow vests” decided to do blood uptake directly on demonstration site.
During his research, Alex found a Swiss company, Cyanoguard, selling kits to detect instant cyanide levels in blood : “It works like a breathalyzer. If the color turns purple, there is a dangerous level of cyanide. They are very serious, they published in the excellent journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry and FBI uses their tools!”. Alex and the doctors buy ten kits, 15€ each, and plan to send some other blood samples to a laboratory to make the classical thiocyanate analysis : “Combining both results, the reliability of our results will be reinforced”. And that’s how, on Saturday April 20th in Paris, “yellow vests” could see, in the middle of the smokes, spitting, flashball shots and crowd movement, a little group equipped with helmets, glasses, syringes and tubes to do blood uptake on the pavement.
Results were deceiving : color change with cyanokit was difficult to interpret. “Cyanoguard told us “it’s positive” but I wasn’t sure”. Other surprise : the thiocyanate results, analyzed by the only French lab performing them in Lyon came back negative. “Even for smokers, which is impossible ! » says Alex sniggering. He often sniggers, giggling and narrowing his nose, like kids do. The teacher does not want to believe that those results are being faked voluntarily, but he thinks it would be appropriate to perform new analysis abroad in foreign “independent” labs.
Doctors are presented like murderers
On May 1st, during a very agitated demonstration in Paris, the little group backslides, this time in a building lobby, behind closed doors. “Yellow vests were waiting outside to duff us up”. The group was worried. In a background interior war inside SOS UN, Alex and the doctors left, a controversy started. Videos from blood uptakes were circulating on social networks where doctors were presented as murderers.
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Medias relay words from a “yellow vest” whose blood got collected, accusing the team for having abused of her weakness; the council of the Order of Doctors, asked about it, explains that it is not forbidden to do a blood uptake in the street, but it has to follow certain conditions. “Our blood uptakes were done respecting all security conditions, and everyone who gave his blood signed an informed consent” assure the three doctors from the team. A preliminary investigation is opened. At Alex’s high school, the director received messages calling him “illuminated”.
With this tempest, some in the groupe got scared and gave up. Not Alex, who decided to start from scratch with a reckless kernel of his team. They are reproached taking blood from others ? They will take their own blood. Not in the streets, but in the first floor of a fast-food in Montpellier, transformed into a clandestine field hospital (with the complicity and help of the manager, a “yellow vest” supporter”). That day, “l’Obs” was present, and the maker of the cyanokits too, he came in person to supervise the operation. This time, the cyanide level is quantified. Alex analyses :
“We are passing from a 0 or 0,1 mg/l value before tear gas exposure to 0,7 mg/l, the dangerousness threshold being at 0,5mg/l. It’s the sign that cyanide and tear gas are linked !”
But for toxicologists, the numbers from that non homologated kit will not be an official evidence. Alex went in person to a prestigious Belgian university to analyse the thiocyanate levels of the blood samples. 24 hours driving. The professors, very interested, received him for a long time but their laboratory declared itself incompetent. “They do not want to get involved, they know the French state will be confronting them” interprets Alex. Fear or not, he had to look somewhere else. Germans hesitated, sent him to a British lab which accepted. But when the tubes arrives, it was too late : “Pff… they are hemolyzed”, sighs Alex. Translate it : dated.
They risk correctional court
The series continued, but we will pass the episodes. We will just note a mass spectrometry analysis with distribution of urine collection pots to “yellow vests”. “They are very mistrustful. We collected only two samples, mine included” confesses Alex. Two, it’s very few. But, for 50€ each analysis, he couldn’t have paid much of them anyways. Including cyanokits, sending costs, analysis costs, lawyers, car transport, the teacher says he paid about 5000€, a big part of what he spared for his installation work in his new apartment.
He tells it with his unchangeable smile, nose and eyes narrowed. He says he doesn’t care. What he cares more about, is this preliminary investigation opened for “endangering people’s lives” and “prohibited interventional research”. Beginning of July, himself and three doctors got convoked by justice and thoroughly interrogated. They risk correctional court. They should quit ? Why go on in such a mess of hassles ? “We will not drop it until a serious epidemiologic study starts”. With the three doctors, Alex will call the High Authority of Health. Until then, he goes on digging.
About tear gas
Tear gas is a chemical compound causing eye and respiratory irritations. Like every chemical weapon, its usage is forbidden in the context of armed conflict by the international convention of Geneve (1993). Paradoxically it does not apply public order maintenance.
There are different kinds of gases. In France, police uses CS (chlorobenzylidene malononitrile) more and more massively, like the demonstrations showed it during the past years. The dangerousness of those gases is proportional to their concentration and depends on the conditions of their usage. Officially it is not lethal, but deaths have been reported by its usage in closed rooms, like during the Waco siege 1993 in the United States, or in Egypt and in Bahrein during population uprising.
In France, « CS concentration in grenades is 10%” tells us the general direction of the police, precising “It has been over 20 years that we are using this gas, if it was dangerous, we would have been the first victims, and police syndicates would have denounced it”.