Pepper Spray Is More Dangerous Than You Think

pepper sprayOh Megyn Kelly, telling your Fox News audience that pepper spray is "a food product, essentially." You win for Wacky Understatement of the Week. There is now an online petition demanding that Megyn actually "eat or drink pepper spray on national television." (To be fair to Megyn, she acknowledges that the UC Davis video "looks bad.") So what's the deal -- is pepper spray really no biggie? Apparently some protesters at UC Davis did go to the hospital after getting sprayed. How harmful is that stuff?

Megyn is actually correct -- pepper spray is derived from pepper plants. But that does not make it harmless! I have always assumed pepper spray is mostly irritating and a little painful, but I was surprised to find out it's actually more harmful than I thought!


First of all, let's look at the "Scoville units." That's how the "hotness" of peppers is measured (no, you can't use it to measure the hotness of Anthony Mackie, sorry). Habanero peppers get 200,000 to 350,000 Scoville units. According to science writer Deborah Blum, pepper spray gets between 2 million and 5.3 million units. YEECH! So that's a wee bit beyond "irritating."

And it's not like you're adding "just a pinch!" like you would when cooking with pepper. The UC Davis officer sprayed LOTS of concentrated pepper oil directly on the protesters, near their heads. Pepper spray does most of its work by causing a burning sensation wherever it touches: that can be skin, eyes, and the lining of your respiratory system. But those effects are temporary. Scarier than that is the potential nerve damage and respiratory damage.

If you have asthma and you get sprayed with pepper -- Lordy, good luck. Pepper spray can inflame air passageways in anyone, so imagine how much worse it is for someone who has asthma. Very dangerous. People with pre-existing conditions have died after exposure.

Deborah also says that according to a North Carolina Medical Journal paper called "Health Hazards of Pepper Spray," those sprayers don't just send out pepper oil. They may also spray additives like alcohol, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and halogenated hydrocarbons (maybe Freon or tetrachloroethylene) -- chemicals that can cause terrible heart, breathing, and neurological effects, even "sudden death" if inhaled in high doses.

I heard a radio interview this morning with a long-time protest veteran who said the UC pepper spray incident would only bring on more protesters. But as someone who has asthma, I'm not eager to join their ranks. Y'all knock yourselves out. I'm adding "protests" to my list of "things I avoid because of my asthma."   

Should people with asthma avoid ever protesting or joining large crowds? Or should police stop using pepper spray?


Image via wstryder/Flickr

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