The global tear gas trade is booming. It's complicated.

Feature for PRI’s The World, November 29 2018

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On the surface, Noor Noor and Terry Burns don’t have much in common. The former is a 28-year-old student at Cambridge, getting a degree in environmental conservation that he plans to use back home in Cairo, Egypt. The latter sells lawn ornaments and homegrown vegetables out of her house in the rolling farmlands of Jamestown, Pennsylvania, population 617. They’ve never met.

But Noor and Burns are linked by the global trade in nonlethal weapons, a growing industry that burst into the headlines this week when the US Border Patrol tear gassed asylum-seekers on the country’s southern border. It’s the most recent, high-profile incident in a decade that has seen rising use of tear gas around the world.

Noor’s first interaction with the weapon was on Jan. 25, 2011, the first day the Egyptian uprising took hold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. At 20 years old, he’d been at political demonstrations before, but he’d never seen this many people in the streets and never a group this diverse. The regular use of tear gas — that was new, too.

“At the beginning, it was greeted almost with curiosity: ‘Will this gas really make you cry?’” Noor said.

Getting gassed by security forces trying to dispel the protesters didn’t just make him cough and cry, though. It made his stomach clench up. He saw others pass out; some fell to the ground, convulsing.

“I thought it was called tear gas; I had no idea it was called ‘choke you to death and run around blindly gas,’" he said.

Security forces gassed protesters on the first day of the uprising and continued for months. Noor made it his mission to try and pick up the tear gas canisters and throw them away from the crowds, wearing a thick glove he brought to Tahrir Square just for this purpose. He got to know the canisters well.

“The tear gas canisters kind of look like soda cans from a distance — silver, round,” he said. “A pastime activity for some people during the clashes was to pick up these tear gas canisters and read who is the country that has supplied these weapons to try and kill us. So, ‘Ah, look, this is American tear gas,' or, "This is British tear gas," or, 'Oh no, they're cheap, and they’re using Chinese tear gas now; they want to kill us.’”

Some of the canisters, he noticed, bore the brand name Combined Tactical Systems, an address in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, and the words, “Made in the USA.”

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radioJen Kinneyreporting