About 200 peaceful protesters of all ages gathered in Central on Sunday morning to demand an end to police use of tear gas, after more than 10,000 canisters fired during recent anti-government unrest.
Most wore surgical masks and held yellow balloons at the Edinburgh Place gathering, many parents taking young children along.
They chanted slogans including “No more tear gas” and “Disband the police force” as they marched from the square, through Tamar Park to the government’s headquarters.
One of them was 26-year-old engineering surveyor Sonny, who said the widespread recent use of tear gas was a risk to children’s health.
“Tear gas has been fired in too many places in Hong Kong, which affects the surroundings and will influence children’s growth, since the chemical components are toxic,” he said.
There has been renewed concern about the public health impacts of tear gas after a reporter at local outlet Stand News was diagnosed with chloracne, a painful skin condition, after prolonged exposure to dioxins from tear gas. Residents in places where tear gas has been fired have claimed their children suffered allergic reactions to the substance.
There have been suggestions of tear gas spreading dioxins, which can cause problems with reproduction and development, and affect the immune system. But Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee previously said her department and the Poison Information Centre under the Hospital Authority found no literature on, or scientific evidence for, dioxin-poisoning cases caused by the use of tear gas.
November was a particularly heavy month for tear gas use, police deploying it in some of the largest quantities seen since anti-government unrest broke out in June.
Universities citywide have become battlefields for protesters who heeded calls to block roads outside campuses earlier this month, leading to clashes with police and subsequent occupations of some sites.
At Chinese University, radical protesters dropped objects from a bridge onto Tolo Highway on November 11, beginning a five-day occupation. Demonstrators attacked police with petrol bombs, arrows and catapults, officers firing more than 1,000 rounds of tear gas in return. The protesters retreated on November 15.
Police have been relatively restrained since the new commissioner, Chris Tang Ping-keung, took office on Tuesday, firing tear gas only once, in Mong Kok on Saturday evening.
The force has previously said tear gas is usually fired to disperse protesters when officers have no other option, but many protesters at Sunday’s march disagreed.
Suzie Wong, an elderly retiree who lives in Southern district, angrily denounced what she called the excessive use of tear gas, calling for an independent probe into recent police conduct.
“Southern district residents are the most peaceful in the entire city, but even during our peaceful protest they fired tear gas at us. I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
“Even doctors don’t know what all the long-term effects of tear gas exposure are. It could make us sick or give us cancer.”
During almost six months of anti-government unrest, police have fired more than 12,000 rounds of tear gas, covering all districts except Islands. The force confirmed in October that it was using tear gas canisters made in China.
Another marcher, masked high school student Jason, 12, from Kowloon City, also voiced health concerns.
“It affects not only where we live but contaminates our water, food and environment,” he said.
Alexa Wong, in her 40s, said she had been a long-time peaceful supporter of the protest movement. She recalled police firing tear gas near her home in Kowloon Bay, when there were no protesters around.
“They fired four canisters in a row. If they really needed to fire tear gas, they should have stopped at one or two rounds to get people to leave. Because tear gas is for dispersing people, not poisoning local residents,” she said.
Speaking on a Commercial Radio programme on Sunday, Tang said the force had little choice but to use tear gas, because of protesters’ attacks on officers.
“We understand that the use of tear gas may affect public health, but in the face of such life-threatening attacks by the rioters, such as the use of petrol bombs, we needed to use relative force to respond,” he said.
The Post has contacted the force for comment on Sunday’s march.