Pepper Spray, or OC (oleoresin capsicum) spray is a lachrymatory agent – a compound that makes the eyes tearful. The active ingredient in pepper spray is also an inflammatory agent that swells up the eyes and mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract, it causes pain, and often temporary blindness. It is used in self-defense against human and animal attack, as well as for riot and crowd control.
Oleoresin capscicum is made from the same chemical that makes chili peppers hot – but at much higher concentrations. To conform to legal requirements so that law enforcement officers can use them, manufacturers combine the concentrated oil with water, glycol and a propellent, such as nitrogen.
Pelargonic acid vanillylamide (desmethyldihydrocapsaicin), a synthetic analogue of capsaicin, can also be used to make PAVA spray – this is used in the United Kingdom. In Russia, another synthetic analogue – pelargonic acid morpholide – was developed and is widely used.
The police use pepper spray so that they can restrain violent protesters, who become temporarily blinded, and are more easily removed them from the scene. In a minority of cases, pepper spray has been used against peaceful protestors. On extremely rare occasions pepper spray has had deadly consequences. Intense media attention on what the potential dangers might be have triggered growing public concern.
A document by the National Institute of Justice, USA, stated:
“Despite the success of OC spray, there is growing concern about its safety, particularly when exposure is combined with positional restraint. A number of arrestees exposed to OC, which induces coughing, gagging, and shortness of breath, have died in custody – thus prompting the allegation that OC inhalation places individuals at risk for potentially fatal respiratory compromise.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), in conjunction with the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), supported a study by medical researchers at the University of California-San Diego to examine the combined effects of OC exposure and positional restraint on respiratory and pulmonary function among 34 volunteer subjects recruited from a law enforcement training academy.
Research findings suggested that inhalation of OC spray does not pose a significant risk to subjects in terms of respiratory and pulmonary function, even when it occurs with positional restraint. However, OC exposure did result in a small but statistically significant increase in blood pressure, the origin of which remains unclear.” (Link to PDF document)
Police demonstration of pepper spray being used – it is directed at the eyes
Historically, chili extract has been used for centuries. Japanese samurais used to throw rice-paper bags filled with pepper extracts at their enemies to cause temporary blindness and gain an upper hand in combat. Chinese soldiers would heat up red peppers in oil, producing a smoke that was blown towards the enemy.
Oleoresin capsicum became available in spray form in the USA in 1973 – it was used initially by the FBI and US postal workers to temporarily incapacitate humans and animals. Towards the second half of the 1980s it became more widely used by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. In that same decade it also became available to the general public as a personal defense device. In 1991 the US Army expressed serious concern about allowing widespread use of pepper spray – despite their reservations, its availability and usage grew.
In most democracies globally, the use of pepper spray is banned in warfare.
The US Department of Justice says pepper spray is as effective as other classic forms of mace or tear gas, such as chloroacetophenone or o-chlorobenzyildene malononitrile, but much less toxic.
What’s the difference between Mace and Pepper Spray?
Mace is a tear gas, an irritant, while pepper spray is an inflammatory agent. Mace causes the eyes to tear up and stings the skin. Pepper spray causes temporary blindness and temporary breathing difficulties (virtually always non-life-threatening).
Pepper spray will work against somebody who is drunk or under the influence of drugs, Mace might not.
N.B. “Mace” is a brand name. Some “Mace” products may be pepper sprays.
What are the effects of pepper spray?
Pepper spray, unlike teargas, is not an irritant, it is an inflammatory agent. When a person is sprayed with pepper spray their eyes clamp shut, if they manage to open them they most likely will not see anything because the capillaries in their eyes will be dilated, causing temporary blindness. There may also be an incontrollable fit of coughing which doubles the person over, bringing them down to their knees.
When exposed to pepper spray the breathing tissues become inflamed rapidly, resulting in breathing difficulties. Although the recipient can breathe enough to stay alive, the experience can be extremely debilitating. Individuals may feel that they are choking and start to panic. Properly trained police officers will tell them to breathe normally.
Some people can subsequently experience intense headaches for several hours.
Studies have shown that pepper spray is very effective against people who are drunk, on drugs, or suffering a psychotic episode.
The majority of studies state that OC pepper spray is completely non toxic, safe and extremely effective. Pepper spray has an inflammatory agent that causes:
- The eyes to close immediately. Some describe as sensation of the eyes “bubbling and boiling”
- Temporary blindness
- Breathing difficulties, but still enough to stay alive
- Coughing, sometimes violent coughing
- Runny nose
- Pain in the eyes
- The production of tears
The effects last from thirty to forty-five minutes, depending on how potent the spray-solution is.
According to the Journal of Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, eye exposure to oleoresin capsicum is not harmful, but repeated exposure can trigger long-term changes in corneal sensitivity. The journal said there was no evidence that pepper spray causes long-term vision problems.
Asthma – for people with asthma and some respiratory condition, the use of pepper spray can be extremely hazardous for their health, and according to some sources, potentially life-threatening. However, according to the document issued by the US Department of Justice in 2001:
“Researchers found no evidence that OC spray inhalation and exposure resulted in respiratory compromise in subjects with a history of lung disease, asthma, smoking, or respiratory inhaler medication use.” (link to quote, PDF file page 4)
The status of pepper spray around the world
- Australia – the law varies around the country.
- Belgium – only police are allowed to carry them. Otherwise, it is a prohibited weapon.
- Canada – police use them. Nobody else. Certain regulations for protection from animals.
- Czech Republic – not classed as a weapon. People can legally buy it.
- Denmark – used by police. Banned for private citizens.
- Finland – requires a license.
- Germany – allowed by private citizens for defense against animals.
- Hungary – used by police. Private citizens may carry 20 gram canisters.
- Hong Kong – classed as a firearm. License required.
- Iceland – used by police. Banned otherwise.
- India – no licence required. Sold through state-approved companies. Background checks made.
- Iran – used by police. Banned for use by the general public.
- Iraq – carried by US military guards working in detainee operations.
- Italy – illegal without a proper permit. Some limited products were approved this year.
- Latvia – spray can be freely bought by over 16-year-olds.
- New Zealand – police use them. Private citizens need a permit which is obtained from the police.
- Norway – used by police, nobody else.
- Poland – freely available for citizens aged 18+ years.
- Philippines – freely available in stores.
- Republic of Ireland – used by police. Serious offense for anybody else.
- Romania – freely available.
- Russia – freely available for over 18s.
- Slovakia – freely available for over 18s.
- South Korea – spray is legal, gun-type devices require a license.
- Spain – available to over 18s (only 5% concentration)
- Sweden – police use them, private citizens need a license.
- Switzerland – freely available.
- the Netherlands – only specially trained police allowed to use them.
- United Kingdom – classed as a weapon. Nobody allowed to use them without permission from the Home Secretary
- USA – laws vary from state to state
- Brazil – only police and certified private security agents can use them.