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Pepper Spray, A Chemical Weapon With Uncertain Risk

By       Message John Barimo     Permalink
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Habanero Peppers

Over the past few decades, the mainstream media sporadically reported of tear gas use by the police or National Guard troops to quell violent or criminal unrest.   These allegations of violence were often supported by video footage of looters or burning buildings.   More recently, smart phones technology allowed many individuals to document newsworthy events.    Emerging from this new paradigm are startling images such as an 84-year-old Seattle activist whose face was drenched with pepper spray or the execution style spraying of the University of California Davis students engaged in nonviolent protest.   These recent incidents demonstrate a need to carefully examine the human health issues and philosophical ramifications associated with oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray devices (aka, pepper spray or mace) which are routinely deployed as a chemical weapon by government agencies against nonviolent civil actions.  

The full human health implications of OC spray are with many regards unclear.   We can, however, start by examining a 2000 study funded by the US Department of Justice which examined the physiological symptoms associated with OC exposure (1).   This study concluded that there was "no evidence of pulmonary dysfunction, hypoxemia, or hypoventilation when compared to placebo in both the sitting and restraint positions."   An obvious shortcomings of this study is that and the experimental subjects were well-conditioned police academy cadets.   Hence, these findings cannot be extrapolated to the general public which may include the elderly, children, pregnant women, or individuals with health issues.   Additionally,   it was demonstrated in an independent study that the concentration of oleoresin capsicum found in commercially available pepper spray products have a wide degree of variability (2), thus it is impossible to know the precise dosage in the DOJ funded study.   Similarly, there is no way of knowing if that dosage was consistent with those administered to the UC Davis students mentioned above.      

The health risk of OC spray on more vulnerable subsets of the human population has been examined with various degrees of scrutiny.     A review of 30 people who died in police custody following OC spraying between August of 1990 and December of 1993 was presented to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.   The report concluded that, "Sudden death in custody is neither a new phenomenon nor attributable to the use of OC" and was attributed to delirium from drug/alcohol abuse or obesity (3).   That report failed to realize the potential for drug/alcohol abuse and obesity as risk factors among those 30 pepper spray related mortalities.   Alternatively, an academic study of in-custody deaths implicated OC spray in cases of excited delirium, particularly in association with heart or lung disease (4, 5).     Additionally, pepper spray exposure was linked to custody related deaths when obese victims were restricted the prone position or when blood cocaine levels were consistent with those found in recreational drug users (5).      

Those independent studies without linkage to either the DOJ or IACP demonstrate that there is significant uncertainty surrounding OC exposure and its related effects on human health.   Those studies also suggest that OC could be considered a lethal chemical weapon depending upon the physical condition of the victim.   Additionally, we must also consider the impact of OC projectiles when directly striking a victim.   Iraq War Veteran Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull and temporary loss of speech after being stuck by such a projectile in October of 2011 at Occupy Oakland.  

It is also important to consider the philosophical issues associated with state administered violence to maintain security and order.   Politicians often engage in familiar rhetoric that demonizes nation states for behaviors which are deemed unacceptable and criminal.   For example, in February of 2001, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared:

  "We are against violence and we would call to account the Iranian government that is once again using its security forces and resorting to violence to prevent the free expression of ideas from their own people."

And similarly President Barack Obama stated in August of 2011 that:

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"True justice will not come from reprisals and violence. It will come from reconciliation and a Libya that allows its citizens to determine their own destiny."  

Often enough, the US government neutralizes an enemy regime over alleged crimes that are simultaneously overlooked by an allied regime as exemplified by the double standard of Libya and Bahrain with regards to human rights abuses.   Furthermore,   government practices in the US do not appear bound to the same standards imposed on other nations with regards to the use of violence against nonviolent demonstrators.   

Technically speaking, OC stimulates nociceptors in exposed mucous membranes to produce intense pain.   These nociceptors are sensory receptors in the nervous system which send nerve impulses to the brain which are experienced with extreme discomfort (4).   Given this physiological description, how can civil authorities even remotely claim that the point blank application of OC is benign or nonviolent?   How can the US Government continue to claim the moral high ground given such double standards with regards to the violent suppression of its citizens?   The ethical and philosophical issues associated with the routine use of chemical weapons by police on nonviolent protestors are significant and there is considerable uncertainty associated with human health risks.   Therefore, US lawmakers and policymakers should take moral responsibility and ban the use of Oleoresin Capsicum as an initial step in de-escalating the use violence against its citizens who desire to freely express their ideas in public places.    

John Barimo

Veterans for Peace

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Member At Large

Literature Cited

(1)   Chan TC,Vilke GM,Clausen J,Clark RF, Schmidt P, Snowden T,Neuman T.   The Effect of Oleoresin Capsicum "Pepper" Spray Inhalation on Respiratory Function.   J Forensic Sci 2001; 47(2): 299-304

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John is actively involved with a variety of social issues and has been working with Veterans for Peace since the early 1990's. He received this doctorate in Marine Biology & Fisheries in 2006 and enjoys helping students develop their minds in a (more...)

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Pepper Spray, A Chemical Weapon With Uncertain Risk