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What the Health Effects of Pepper Spray Are and How to Treat Them

| November 22, 2011
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pepper spray

(Lauri Rantala/Flickr)

One version of the video of UC Davis campus police dousing protesters with pepper spray has almost 1,800,000 and counting views on YouTube. UC Davis student David Busco was one of the students sprayed that day, saying the pain felt like “thousands of pieces of glass shooting into your eyes.”

Busco says the pepper spray covered his face and mouth, meaning he could not avoid inhaling it unless he stopped breathing. Concerned students poured bottled water over him, but this only exacerbated the effects by further spreading the spray around his face and body. Busco says friends soon carried him to the nearest house and, after a quick Google search about pepper spray removal, washed him with dishwasher soap in the shower.

Pepper spray is legal for use in most states by anyone over age 18 who is not a convicted felon. It is frequently being used during Occupy protests nationwide. People who have been sprayed say that it hurts, but what exactly are the health effects? And what’s the best way to treat it?

Pepper spray derives from a chemical found in peppers, called capsaicin. Deborah Blum writes about the science of pepper spray in her blog Speakeasy Science. She cites a 2004 study, Health Hazards of Pepper Spray, which found that high doses of some of the chemicals in pepper spray can produce respiratory, cardiac and neurologic problems, and even death. Blum writes:

Research tells us that pepper spray acts as a potent inflammatory agent. It amplifies allergic sensitivities, it irritates and damages eyes, membranes, bronchial airways, the stomach lining –- basically what it touches. It works by causing pain – and, as we know, pain is the body warning us of an injury.

In general, these are short-term effects. Pepper spray, for instance, induces a burning sensation in the eyes in part by damaging cells in the outer layer of the cornea. Usually, the body repairs this kind of injury fairly neatly. But with repeated exposures, studies find, there can be permanent damage to the cornea.

The more worrisome effects have to do with inhalation – and by some reports, California university police officers deliberately put [pepper] spray down protestors throats. Capsaicins inflame the airways, causing swelling and restriction. And this means that pepper sprays pose a genuine risk to people with asthma and other respiratory conditions.


David Busco and his friends found that the kind of dishwasher soap they used to remove the pepper spray worked. What a person should not do is use an oil-based soap – that makes the chemicals stick to the skin even more.

Students may carry pepper spray for self-defense, according to the UC Berkeley Campus Police website, which includes information about first-aid tips for direct exposure to pepper spray and tear gas:

  • Avoid panic.
  • Do not rub the face. This will aggravate the pain already being experienced.
  • The best immediate treatment is to expose the person to fresh air, a breeze if possible. A fan can also be used.
  • Flush the affected area with cool water either from the tap or a garden hose.
  • Clean the affected area with non-oil or cold-cream based soap. Do not use salves or greases on exposed area because it will trap tear gas particles or OC resin onto the skin.
  • If eyes are exposed, flush copiously with cool, fresh water for 15 minutes.
  • If you wear contact lenses, remove them carefully once hands are thoroughly clean.
  • An ophthalmic examination should be performed by a physician if irritation or pain persists after 15 minutes of flushing with water.
  • Clothing which is contaminated with tear gas should be removed immediately and, if indoors, placed in a sealed plastic bag or container.
  • Persons assisting the subject should wear rubber gloves to avoid residual contamination.
  • If any irritation or pain persists after decontamination procedures, a physician should examine the exposed area.

Jake Wayne of Livestrong.com also has tips on how to safely remove pepper spray. He says people should “remove any clothes contaminated with the pepper spray. If you would have to pull clothing across you face, seriously consider cutting the clothing off with scissors instead.”

  • Related video: UC Davis Students talk about getting pepper-sprayed (from KGO)

     

    This post was originally published in “State of Health,” KQED’s new health blog.

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Category: Law

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About the Author ()

Shuka Kalantari is a reporter at KQED, focusing on health and culture among immigrant and refugee communities. She formerly produced The California Report's occasional series, Whats Your Story? The series shared perspectives from under-represented communities across the state. She's a Philosophy and Spanish & Latin American Studies graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and received a Masters degree in Multimedia Health and Medicine Reporting from The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism in 2007. You can view her stories shukakalantari.com. Reach Shuka Kalantari at skalantari@kqed.org.
  • EnDash

    Oh, you poor, poor kids! Do you expect to confront and defy police without a reaction? If you behave yourselves lawfully, you won’t get sprayed.

    But, boo-hoo for you whiners. I had many a snootful of real tear gas during my military training, and I know it won’t kill you — or even burn for long; but it’s a great non-lethal way to secure your compliance when you are acting out against civic authorities.

    Your parent should have spanked you once in a while when you were growing up, and maybe you’d have learned to behave.

    • Concerned Citizen

      Is it too much to expect our people in uniform to uphold themselves to the very highest standards of human decency? Furthermore, what about upholding the First Amendment? Police are there to protect us, including those who voice their dissent peacefully and nonviolently. Nothing is more uniquely American, in my opinion, than civil disobedience. We should cherish and protect the act… especially yourself, EnDash, a member of the U.S. Military!

      I suspect that, for a substantial number of people, it *is* too much to ask. As EnDash has already illustrated, this is more about “compliance” and blind obedience to authority — something that is all too often fiercely and repetitively taught to our good military and police personnel. This leads to statements like the one above and in countless other discussions taking place about the UC Davis incident and other incidents involving questionable police force.

      Police are people too — they make forgivable mistakes, some will end up having poor judgment, and yet others will knowingly abuse their power and hurt innocent people. It truly saddens me to know that there are so many people in uniform who fail to notice let alone speak out against or publicly raise questions about these serious acts of force against peaceful citizens. It is an embarrassing testament to the lack of courage of many who serve today — particularly those who serve alongside officer John Pike and others — to *speak out* about wrongdoing, and fervently assert and fight for what is fair and decent.

      So very many display courage on the battlefield and in our communities, but so very few display courage when those within their ranks abuse power and defy human decency and common sense. Why?

      “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.”
      – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

      • Abcdefg

        Are you as much of an idiot as you sound. 
        These brats broke the law….they were dealt with. If they were in China, Russia, Middle East and numerous other countries….they would have disappeared and never been heard from again.  
        WOW, thats a thought…..that the Democrats / progressives / socialists / marxists who currently have control of the Government would like to have take place.

        • Keithmbw

          @Citizen Kain, as a conservative myself, I have to say I’m embarrassed for you. Calling the poster above an “idiot” simply because you disagree with the views s/he espoused makes you no better than an eight-year-old.

          • Anonymous

            This is a COMPLETE misrepresentation of Pepper Spray AND the procedures in place on how/when Police are to use it.  Why don’t you look up a recent interview with Kamran Loghman, the man responsible for creating weapons grade pepper spray, in which he clearly states: pepper spray CANNOT BE EATEN.  Just because the active ingredient is a derivative of food ingredients, doesn’t make it edible!  Once a “natural” ingredient has been chemically altered for potency AND combined with other chemicals (propellants, alcohol etc) it no longer exists in its “natural” state.  Additionally, this weaponized pepper spray specifically targets any/all soft tissue by inducing inflammation, which could lead to permanent cornea and/or respiratory damage as well as serious issues (maybe death) for those with asthma and/or respiratory allergies.  I would LOVE to see you spray your dinner with pepper spray and attempt to eat it with no consequence other than “spicy taste.”  And another thing, you being subjected to these chemical agents VOLUNTARILY as part of your training has NO bearing on it being used illegally against peaceful protestors.  Police are NOT to inflict pain on citizens exercising their rights to protest.   It is also a fact that Pepper Spray is NOT to be used (per training procedures) on non violent/aggressive persons, rather strictly as a non-lethal alternative should somone become violent or aggressive towards police or public property. This is all very backwards, even from you Sir, for police to be supporting the controling elite instead of the PEOPLE.  Are you not aware that the people we are in protest against are the same individuals cutting police pensions and benefits?  Are you so caught up in your badge and confused sense of authority that you believe anyone defying police to be criminals?   Don’t you see that the controling elite are illegally USING police to silence dissent, freedom of speech and democracy?! What are civilians to do against police officers who break the law?  Afterall, you cops are nothing more than average citizens (and in MANY instances fall well below AVERAGE in terms of physical fitness, intellect, integrity, honesty, etc) with weapons.  I personally believe that normal citizens should be detaining and arresting any/all police officers who are unlawfully detaining, assaulting and impeding the rights of LAW ABIDING CITIZENS. One more interesting fact:  CS (tear) Gas and Pepper Spray are BOTH ILLEGAL to use in WAR by the terms of the geneva convention.  Anyone have any explanations as to why our “peace officers” feel it is warranted to use on unarmed peaceful CITIZENS if it has been deemed unlawful to use against military combatants?  Oh and one more thing JOE, regarding pepper spray. Perhaps you maybe read something more than the information your training officers provide you and form an original thought for once in your indoctrinated life.PS. I served in the USMC, so don’t lecture me on civic duty.

        • Anonymous

          Yes, an individual who identifies themselves as Abcdefg…you must be a very confident outspoken individual.  Police aren’t allowed to force people to stop their RIGHTS of protesting and demonstrating.  By your logic, any cop can literally just say “leave this area” and if you don’t, you can be arrested.  

          That would be fine if we did live in other countries perhaps, but we don’t.  and most Americans are proud of how we differ, in terms of civil liberties, from places such as China, you half-wit.  So anyone with a differing opinion to the people in control should “disappear” because thats how old world cultures still deal with it?

          well guess what? my opinion of people like you, is that you be sterilized so that you cannot further contaminate the human gene pool.  probably wouldn’t hurt to cut out your tongue either, as you have nothing to say worth hearing.

      • Joe

        Since you seem to know so much about this case to be able to judge that this is a questionable use of force, was the crowd ordered to disperse?  Were those sprayed arrested or was there an attempt to arrest after they were sprayed?  I understand that some were assisted away from the scene by friends etc…  My understanding is that they were told to disperse and they didn’t at which time they were subject to arrest.  Is that not the case?  If you don’t like the law that allows this to take place, then work to change the law.  Don’t go around saying it is a questionable use of force.  The use of force the way it was APPARENTLY handled was not questionable at all…it was perfectly appropriate and was done the way LE trains to do it. 

        And don’t give me crap about blind obedience to authority.  Officers are constantly weighing what they do, not in light of what they are ordered to do by whatever authority is giving the order, but by the LAW.  Officers know if they don’t have the LAW to back them up, no matter who orders them to do anything, they are going to get burned.  We always tried to weigh things based on LEGALITY…if a superior gives an unlawful order, it is your duty not to carry out that order.  If there is a moral objection to a lawful order, sure, you might raise it, but if your supervisor takes it under advisement and tells you to carry out the order anyway, then you have an issue…

        And just out of curiosity, have you ever been in the military or LE?  Have you ever had to make a decision in a flash about whether or not to take someones life or lose your own?  Or make the decision to hold what you have and try to deescalate the situation when you could have taken someones life legally, but you had a gut feeling you might be able talk them down and resolve the situation without having to use deadly force?  Have you ever had to make a decision that takes away someone’s liberty by arresting them and taking them to jail?  These aren’t decisions that are taken lightly and officers constantly have to think their way through these sorts of problems.  They don’t just follow orders blindly.

        • Anonymous

          This is a COMPLETE misrepresentation of Pepper Spray AND the procedures in place on how/when Police are to use it.  Why don’t you look up a recent interview with Kamran Loghman, the man responsible for creating weapons grade pepper spray, in which he clearly states: pepper spray CANNOT BE EATEN.  Just because the active ingredient is a derivative of food ingredients, doesn’t make it edible!  Once a “natural” ingredient has been chemically altered for potency AND combined with other chemicals (propellants, alcohol etc) it no longer exists in its “natural” state.  Additionally, this weaponized pepper spray specifically targets any/all soft tissue by inducing inflammation, which could lead to permanent cornea and/or respiratory damage as well as serious issues (maybe death) for those with asthma and/or respiratory allergies.  I would LOVE to see you spray your dinner with pepper spray and attempt to eat it with no consequence other than “spicy taste.”  And another thing, you being subjected to these chemical agents VOLUNTARILY as part of your training has NO bearing on it being used illegally against peaceful protestors.  Police are NOT to inflict pain on citizens exercising their rights to protest.   It is also a fact that Pepper Spray is NOT to be used (per training procedures) on non violent/aggressive persons, rather strictly as a non-lethal alternative should somone become violent or aggressive towards police or public property. This is all very backwards, even from you Sir, for police to be supporting the controling elite instead of the PEOPLE.  Are you not aware that the people we are in protest against are the same individuals cutting police pensions and benefits?  Are you so caught up in your badge and confused sense of authority that you believe anyone defying police to be criminals?   Don’t you see that the controling elite are illegally USING police to silence dissent, freedom of speech and democracy?! What are civilians to do against police officers who break the law?  Afterall, you cops are nothing more than average citizens (and in MANY instances fall well below AVERAGE in terms of physical fitness, intellect, integrity, honesty, etc) with weapons.  I personally believe that normal citizens should be detaining and arresting any/all police officers who are unlawfully detaining, assaulting and impeding the rights of LAW ABIDING CITIZENS. One more interesting fact:  CS (tear) Gas and Pepper Spray are BOTH ILLEGAL to use in WAR by the terms of the geneva convention.  Anyone have any explanations as to why our “peace officers” feel it is warranted to use on unarmed peaceful CITIZENS if it has been deemed unlawful to use against military combatants?  Oh and one more thing JOE, regarding pepper spray. Perhaps you maybe read something more than the information your training officers provide you and form an original thought for once in your indoctrinated life.PS. I served in the USMC, so don’t lecture me on civic duty.

      • Anonymous

        why aren’t the PEOPLE doing something beyond standing their bearing witness to abuse of power and police brutality?  tackle the fat bastards and hold them at citizens arrest already!  cops breaking the law is far worse than a civilian doing it.

    • Rick

      EnDash, you are the kind of viscous prick that would thrive in a police state. Don’t tell me, let me guess, you’re a cop right?

      The rest of us don’t want to live in the school yard, and there are more of us than there are of you.

    • Anonymous

      EnDash, you lame ass.  This isn’t about who’s the bigger bad ass and who can or cannot deal with pepper-spray and/or tear gas.  Firstly, what we go through in military training is limited and controlled and you are TRAINED on how to handle the situation.

      Secondly, they didn’t confront police, they stood their ground and insisted on the police recognizing their AMERICAN RIGHT to organize and PROTEST on a school campus as residents and students of the school.

      I was in the USMC myself, and I don’t think for a second that men and women in uniform have the right to force people to do what they say, when it is in direct violation of civil liberties.

      Cops are not allowed to break the law just because they hide behind a badge and a riot shield.

      I say, the next time people witness police brutalizing elderly women, or military veterans or any other citizen, the witnesses RESTRAIN and hold the law breaking fellon police officer at citizens arrest.  Maybe then the occupy movement would actually accomplish something.  As long as everyone is willing to stand by and chant “same on you” instead of DOING something, the more emboldened the dirty, foul police will become.

      Ignorant cops, thinking they are separate from us, like a different breed….just government indoctrinated brainwashed lemmings.  How do you pigs sleep at night knowing you are using chemical weapons on peaceful demonstrators simply because the wealthy elite told your handlers what to do.

      I took an oath when i joined the USMC, and I believe that oath obligates me and other veterans to stand AGAINST the misuse of police force, with FORCE…as our constitution guarantees.  A corrupt government can and must be challenged by an organized people’s militia.  I only hope the occupy movement grows a pair and FIGHTS back against these foul cops.

  • bobby

    They weren’t confronting cops, the police confronted PEACEFUL a peaceful protest…. isn’t that the whole reason you fight in the military ? for our freedom? :D

  • JIll Baker

    EnDash, what a good German you are.

    • Mrs. Info

      WOW!!!!  Quite the racist you are…  Not a cool comment what so ever!  There are a lot of us AMERICANS who have “German” in their blood as well as Irish, Scottish, Asain (etc.)!  It doesn’t matter what someone’s heritage is!  You are an example why other cultures hate us! 

  • Citizen Kain

    They were asked to leave and then told they had to leave. They refused both times, they refused to follow instructions from the police and there by broke the law. The police officer disarmed them to protect the police officers from retaliation. By the way, you do not have to have a weapon to be disarmed, they out number the police and therefore were a threat to their safety.
    These rich brats need to get a job and see what the real world is all about before protesting what they have no idea of. They are the mindless masses Stalin wrote so eloquently about.

    • Hernandez

      This is America. or  isn’t it,it is amazing  looks  like  there is no rights no more. Are we tuning it inyo a millitary campus?

    • Anonymous

      why don’t you do some research…..overwhelming percentages of the occupy movement are highly educated and skilled persons who have been left behind by way of the corrupt government and lobbyist groups.  ARE EMT’s rich brats?

      And once again, the police have no right to make peaceful protestors leave, it is OUR RIGHT to protest…they are breaking the law infringing upon our civil liberties…what this is ok because they have a badge and no brain?  

      its ok that in philly that a cop pulled a knife on a demonstrator, or that cops choked out two others?  FUCK YOU and the cops you like to teabag.

  • Mrs. Info

    Seriously!????  Look at an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Talcom powder!  You will find that it too can cause respiratory problems and this is “Baby Powder” that we put on our children!!!!  Do this on just about every household cleaner on the market and you will find that these too have the same possible side effects as Pepper Spray!  You would be surprised what you find out!  I would say, without knowing the active ingredients in pepper spray, that your common household cleaners are far WORSE than pepper spray…  How about bleach?  Don’t blame Megyn Kelly because she stated how she felt!  Blame YOU!  Before reacting and responding to someone’s opinion, do your homework!  Even Magic Erasers have an MSDS!  Here’s a fact for those people who love to “jump on the band wagon” and criticize without having full knowledge of what happened or possible outcomes…  Most ice creams on the market contain Polysorbate 80, which is a highly flammable and hazardous material in it’s original state!  Stop judging a book by its cover or its title and do the research before coming to your conclusion! 

  • Joe

    It really amazes me as a former police officer how little most people know about the use of force continuum.  OC (pepper) spray is one of the lowest level uses of force a police officer can use and is less likely to cause any injury than laying hands on someone.  My understanding of the incident in question is that the crowd was given a lawful order to disperse.  Generally once a crowd is warned to disperse and refuses to do so, they are subject to arrest.  If they were not warned to disperse, then I don’t know why they were sprayed.  OC spray usually takes the fight out of most people unless they are on certain drugs.  Therefore, usually people become compliant and may be handcuffed, lead away, and taken to jail. 

    If a crowd is linking arms or resisting that arrest an officer could also utilize pain compliance techniques to separate protesters from each other, but there is MORE risk of injury to both the protester and the officer when laying on hands.  I have been sprayed in training several times and I have been exposed to OC spray in fight and riot situations as well as CS and CN gas during SWAT team call-outs.  It is not that big of a deal, though I can understand how someone with no training and no knowledge about OC would panic and think it is far worse than it is.  The OC we used is 100% USDA food, meaning I could spray it on my food to spice it up and it would have no harmful affect on me other than being really hot and spicy.   

    The protesters complaining about OC are acting like the children their behavior shows them to be.  If they are going to defy a lawful order from the civil authority, then they are subjecting themselves to possible arrest.  Officers utilize the tools of their trade, including OC spray to make those arrests.  If you don’t want to get sprayed, don’t defy the lawful authority at crunch time.  I am sure the protesters had their little protest, but finally the civil authority ordered the police to disperse the crowd and end the protest.  They did as instructed. 

    If the lawful order to disperse was given and the officers then attempted to take those they sprayed into custody, then the officers did everything by the book and did nothing wrong.   

    • Mrs. Info

      Thank you Joe!  Your knowledge needs to be shared!!!!

    • Hernandez

      you should spray  in your eyes,  may even better try it on one of your relatives   or siblings  and then  ask them  about it

      • Joe

        If you were replying to me, IF you actually read what I wrote, you would notice that I have been sprayed both in training and during real incidents, and yes, that means we have to stand there with eyes open and take full hits to the face and eyes.  It is not pleasant, it isn’t intended to be, but it does not cause any permanent injury.  Hitting someone with a baton or utilizing pain compliance techniques can result in broken bones, torn ligament and other such injuries, which can have lasting effects.

      • Joe

        Is your only complaint the fact that they were sprayed and it OC spray hurts?  That is pretty naive and childish.  Are you arguing any of the FACTS?  As I stated, I wasn’t there.  I don’t know the exact circumstances.  You will notice the words if and then in what I wrote…therefore, if any of the presupposed facts that I assumed were true turn out not to be true, then my opinion of this incident could change.  The person that gave the police the order to disperse the crowd is the person to whom any questions should be directed.  Not the officers for doing their job and what they were ordered to do and lawfully accomplished.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_75VKCXMDS7IR3QIMWUU67BEWLI Joseph

    @4c51f529d00ea8c1614956e3b1b43992:disqus 

    @Jill Baker:

    NO, it is not a question of being a good German. It is more being a good Schumer,Reno, Gore or Clinton. After all, they all said (Reno testified) this type of chemical was safe to use on toddlers and small children in Waco; children who were exposed for hours to extreme concentrations of the stuff without the benefit of masks.

    Come to think of if Msssssssss. Baker, being a good German from the 1930′s and 1940′s is looking more and more like being a liberal Progressive American in this decade.

    http://bostonreview.net/BR22.5/stone.html

  • http://www.shop4herbalincense.com/ spice incense

    After reading his tragedy I think that protestors are doing good against pepper spraying as David Busco problem the tips are really important for us we should keep them in our mind because i can be happen with any of us.