The casual and close-range use of pepper spray on nonviolent protesters: It's not just morally bankrupt, it's also not evidence based!
Judy Stone is a doctor, infectious disease specialist, and the author of a book on how to properly conduct clinical research. She's got a guest post on Scientific American blog network looking at the scientific research that's been done to document the effects and safety of pepper spray, and how to treat exposure to pepper spray.
Shorter version: The evidence basis behind the use of pepper spray, especially in the sort of contexts one is actually likely to encounter in the real world, is woefully limited. (It's a lot like tasers that way. In both cases, the research that does exist has mostly been done using physically fit, healthy, adult subjects who are not emotionally or physically distressed in any way at the moment they are hit. They're also being hit using manufacturer recommended dosages and distances of application. Real-world data suggests there's a MASSIVE difference between the effects of that sort of scenario and, say, a terrified teenager being shot in the face at point-blank range. Or an old woman who has been walking quickly, trying to get away from police. Just to throw some hypotheticals out there.) Meanwhile, the evidence that does exist strongly suggests that police forces are currently using pepper spray in ways that are inappropriate and unsafe. Evidence. Not opinion.
Also: Liquid antacids seem to be the best way to alleviate the effects of pepper spray. Perhaps it's time to stock up on Maalox.
There are reports of the efficacy of capsaicin in crowd control, but little regarding trials of exposures. Perhaps this is because pepper spray is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, as a pesticide and not by the FDA.
The concentration of capsaicin in bear spray is 1-2%; it is 10-30% in “personal defense sprays.”
While the police might feel reassured by the study, “The effect of oleoresin capsicum “pepper” spray inhalation on respiratory function,” I was not. This study met the “gold standard” of clinical trials, in that it was a “randomized, cross-over controlled trial to assess the effect of Oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray inhalation on respiratory function by itself and combined with restraint.” However, while the OC exposure showed no ill effect, only 34 volunteers were exposed to only 1 sec of Cap-Stun 5.5% OC spray by inhalation “from 5 ft away as they might in the field setting (as recommended by both manufacturer and local police policies).”
By contrast, an ACLU report, “Pepper Spray Update: More Fatalities, More Questions” found, in just two years, 26 deaths after OC spraying, noting that death was more likely if the victim was also restrained. This translated to 1 death per 600 times police used spray. (The cause of death was not firmly linked to the OC). According to the ACLU, “an internal memorandum produced by the largest supplier of pepper spray to the California police and civilian markets” concludes that there may be serious risks with more than a 1 sec spray. A subsequent Department of Justice study examined another 63 deaths after pepper spray during arrests; the spray was felt to be a “contributing factor” in several.
A review in 1996 by the Division of Epidemiology of the NC DHHS and OSHA concluded that exposure to OC spray during police training constituted an unacceptable health risk.
Remember kids: When you think "pepper-spraying cop" and "unacceptable health risk," you should also think, "Lt. John Pike."
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.