Police officers from coast to coast have made headlines in the past few months when they have used tactics including pepper spray to subdue protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Most recently, the public turned its attention to campus police officers at the University of California-Davis who saturated the faces of seated, nonviolent protesters who were criticizing tuition increases. (See a roundup of pepper spray use at The Atlantic.)
While some public figures have understated the power of police-issue pepper sprays (It's from a vegetable, right? Nom, nom.), others are criticizing the practice and questioning its potential harmful effects.
This Scientific American guest piece has made the rounds. It explores the history of pepper spray, and answers that persevering question—just how hot is it?
According to this handy graphic that goes with Deborah Blum's story, the kind of U.S. grade pepper spray used by police is as much as 25 times hotter than a cayenne pepper, and 1,500 times hotter than a mild jalapeño.
It damages all the soft membranes it touches—your eyes, your airway, even your stomach lining, Blum writes. And yes, that shit could stop a bear. (Pepper spray for both humans and bears contain capsaicin and related capsaicinoids)
But can it kill you?
The studies are numerous. But inferring from a study cited by the National Institute of Justice (part of the U.S. Department of Justice) if you have asthma, or some other condition that causes your airway to be already narrow, pepper spray could cause life-threatening side effects.
The 2001 study, paid for by an NIJ grant, examined 63 deaths that happened in law enforcement custody, where police used pepper spray on suspects. Of those cases, two suspects who had asthma died from breathing complications after being exposed to pepper spray.
And it's not just the "spicy" components of the spray that can cause trauma. According to a 2004 study from a Duke University researcher, inhalation of high doses of some of the solvents and propellants used in pepper spray "can produce adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurologic effects, including arrhythmias and sudden death."
Our best advice: Stay away from UC Davis police Lt. John Pike, who earned his spot in Internet infamy when he unleashed an orange spray on seated protesters, showing no mercy. The screen grab above will lead you to a Huffington Post slide show of Pike pepper spray parodies circulating the Web.
Not even the baby seals are safe.