Is Pepper Spray Dangerous To Health?

By Briana Rognlin, for

Over the weekend, Lieutenant John Pike was photographed casually pepper spraying peaceful Occupy Wall Street protesters at UC Davis, turning himself into a full-blown meme and symbol of police brutality. Thanks to artist James Alex, the subjects in paintings have probably become his most famous victims, but the truth is, there's growing concern for what pepper spray -- casual or not -- might do to the health of real-life protesters.

By many accounts, the name "pepper spray" is overly benign for a substance that can cause death and be used as a torture device. Deborah Blum wrote at Scientific American:

...we've taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.

But take Jeniffer Fox, a 19-year-old Seattleite who recently suffered a miscarriage, less than a week after she sustained injuries during police action at an OWS protest earlier this month, including the use of pepper spray. (The photograph on the right, taken by Josh Trujillo, shows Fox being rushed to an ambulance on November 15.) Her situation makes it clear that pepper spray shouldn't be held in the same class as hot sauce. She seemed fine the night of the police actions, but miscarried her baby on Sunday the 20th. Fox told Seattle's Stranger:

"Everything was going okay until yesterday, when I started getting sick, cramps started, and I felt like I was going to pass out," Fox says.

A friend called for an ambulance near the community college campus. (Fox says she has been camping with Occupy Seattle since it first began in Westlake Park. She is homeless and says, "I don't have a place. This is the place I call home.") When she arrived at Harborview at 11:00 a.m., she says, a doctor told her that "there was no heartbeat" from the baby. "They diagnosed that I was having a miscarriage. They said the damage was from the kick and that the pepper spray got to it [the fetus], too."

As for joining the protests, she says, "I was worried about it, but I didn't know it would be this bad. I didn't know that a cop would murder a baby that's not born yet... I am trying to get lawyers."

While there's no hard proof that her miscarriage was directly caused by pepper spray, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think that it could be harmful to a developing fetus, given the dangers it brings to fully grown adults.

To start, here's a quick primer on the ingredients in pepper spray that could be harmful to your health:

- Pepper spray's main active ingredient is oleoresin capsicum (OC) -- oil extracted from a genus of peppers known as capsicum (the same kinds of peppers used in salsa, spices, and even some analgesics). But the strength can vary widely between pepper spray brands (the health effects can vary just as much).
- Depending on the brand, pepper spray can also contain water, alcohols, or organic solvents as a carrier for OC. They can also contain nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or halogenated hydrocarbons as propellants. Some of these chemicals can have serious cardiac, respiratory and neurologic effects when inhaled in high doses.

And here's a quick rundown of what OC can do to various parts of your body (information mostly taken from this University of North Carolina and Duke University research paper):

- Skin - Skin exposure to pepper spray can cause intense pain, burning and even blistering of the skin. It worsens skin conditions like allergic dermatitis, and in severe cases, it can cause hypothermia.

- Eyes - OC causes a burning pain in the eyes, inflammation and involuntary closing of the eyelids. In extreme cases it can cause temporary blindness. It can also cause longer-term eye damage thanks to sustained loss of blink reflex and/or anesthesia, which can cause corneal abrasions from contact lenses or other foreign material.

- Respiratory System - Pepper spray often causes a burning throat, wheezing, gagging, and difficulty breathing. In extreme cases, it can cause "laryngospasm," which leads to an inability to speak or breathe. For those with asthma, exposure to OC can even cause death.

While many of the effects are short-term, some of them are serious enough that the American Civil Liberties Union asked the California Court of Appeals to consider the use of pepper spray as dangerous and cruel, following its use in a 1999 protest. ("The ACLU believes that the use of pepper spray as a kind of chemical cattle prod on nonviolent demonstrators resisting arrest constitutes excessive force and violates the Constitution," wrote an ACLU lawyer.)