Updated 23 October 2015

Alert: Rubber bullets can harm students

An independent toxicologist tells Health24 how the use of rubber bullets on protesting students can cause considerable harm.


Rubber bullets, used in crackdowns on students protesting high tertiary education fees, are far from safe and harmless and can lead to serious injury.

Police have responded to students on a nationwide protest campaign against fee increases for 2016 with what is termed “non-lethal” weapons. These may include, water canons, tasers, tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.

Police open fire on students

During the course of the protests police fired rubber bullets at students at Nelson Mandela Bay University in Port Elizabeth and students at the University of Limpopo.

Rubber bullets are meant to incapacitate targets without causing serious injury or death but certainly are not harmless.

"A direct hit by a rubber bullet may crack a rib or inflict a very painful tissue bruise," professor Gerhard Verdoorn told Health24. "Obviously a direct hit in an eye is totally damaging to the eye."

He said that when he was in the army, he was taught that rubber bullets should never be fired directly at a crowd, irrespective of how serious the situation.

"We were taught how to fire 308 caliber and 12 gauge rubber bullets on the ground to create a ricochet bullet that will still hurt the person, but with a significantly reduced level of damage due to the loss of momentum after hitting the ground."

He added: "Even if they take a direct hit from rubber bullet, it is extremely unlikely to kill a person."

Although not designed to kill, according to Health24 resident doctor, Dr Owen Wiese, rubber bullets can cause injuries that eventually lead to death. "Fatalities from rubber bullets have been reported all over the world, yet they are commonly used in riot control."

Dr Wiese said when shot at close range or even from a distance, rubber bullets can lead to injuries like bone fractures, as well as significant injuries like the loss of an eye.

He said abrasions and contusions are common injuries. He also advised that ice packs be bused to relieve swelling, with more serious injuries requiring medical attention.

Call for a ban on rubber bullets

Doctors warned in a widely publicised study in 2000 that rubber bullets should be banned and not be used by authorities to control riots.

Professor Michael Krausz at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa, analysed the medical records of 595 casualties admitted to hospital during the October 2000 Israeli-Arab riots.

The study, Blunt and penetrating injuries caused by rubber bullets during the Israeli-Arab conflict in October, 2000: a retrospective study, revealed that 201 injuries by rubber bullets were detected among the 151 Palestinians that were shot at by the Israeli military.

Writing in the medical journal, The Lancet, (Volume 359, Issue 9320), the doctors indicated that wounds were distributed across the bodies of the victims. They pointed out that firing the bullets at civilians made it “impossible to avoid severe injuries to vulnerable body regions such as the head, neck and upper torso, leading to substantial mortality, morbidity and disability”.

They added: “We reported a substantial number of severe injuries and fatalities inflicted by use of rubber bullets when vulnerable upper-body regions such as the head, neck and upper torso were struck.

“This type of ammunition should therefore not be considered a safe method of crowd control.”

Types of injuries may vary

ER24 told Health24 that there many varieties of rubber bullets that may cause different types of injuries. Depending on the type of ammunition used, one can expect to see circular imprints, rib fractures, lung contusions, lacerations, abrasions or bruises, skull fractures.

"However, rubber bullets in general result in blunt force trauma to the body. There is no doubt that a being hit with one of these projectiles will cause pain, swelling and/or bruising.

"With blunt force trauma, internal injuries are the most worrying. Again this depends on which type of ammunition is used and how it is used. If a person is shot at close range, in the face or head, the chances are much higher that internal injuries would be present. Tearing of underlying tissue or damages to vital organs and vessels may be present."

Treatment is symptomatic, but it is recommended that anyone suffering a blunt or penetrating injury as a result of a rubber bullet seek medical attention.

The South African Police Service did not respond to Health24 for comment at the time of publication.

Watch how police respond with stun grenades and riot shields to forcibly remove student protesters from Parliament. (Credit: Shaun Swingler/Chronicle)


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