With the pepper-spraying incident at the University of California Davis causing outrage around the country, as well as the several instances of pepper-spraying at Occupy protests around the country, police have been criticized for over-using a harmful technique on nonviolent protesters. But how does pepper spray work?
“Grind up a whole sack full of cayenne peppers and put the juices into a spray bottle that has a propellant. Now imagine this stuff hitting you right in the eyes, mouth and nose. It not only burns these mucous membranes, but it feels as if your skin is on fire.”
That is the description of getting pepper-sprayed by RedHotPepperSpray.com, an online retailer of non-lethal defense mechanisms. In addition to the feeling of extreme burning, the chemical, oleoresin capsicum (which is why pepper spray is also known as “OC spray”) can cause uncontrollable tearing, coughing, choking, and even temporary blindness, sometimes up to 45 minutes.
Another website that sells pepper spray, DefenseMaster.com, describes it this way: “The attacker feels significant pain, blurring of vision, and tearing of the eyes. In addition, there will be some difficulty breathing, perhaps choking, and uncontrollable coughing. This is the result of the OC, a derivative of hot cayenne peppers. Once it comes in contact with mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, there’s nothing for the attacker to do. Once sprayed, he has bigger problems on his hand than trying to pursue you.”
A memo by the UC Berkeley police also lists several effects from being attacked with pepper spray, including Temporary paralysis of the larynx, less oxygen coming into the body because of a reduced airway flow, and “uncontrollable coughing, retching, and gasping for air with a gagging sensation in the throat.”
Although the immediate effects of pepper spray are extremely painful, there is confusion over what the side effects are. There have been studies that argue pepper spray can cause serious long-term effects and even death in people with asthma and irregular heart beats. However, the results are mixed and there have been few studies. In 1995, however, the ACLU released a study that suggested pepper spray might have been an indirect cause of death in 26 people.
Here is a video of the UC Davis police using pepper spray on protesters: