Two Beef Tacos, Please -- Hold the Pepper Spray

5 years ago

On Monday night, Fox News decided to tackle the story of the students who were pepper sprayed while protesting corporate control of the country during an Occupy demonstration at the University of California, Davis.

Bill O'Reilly, host of the popular conservative television talk show The O'Reilly Factor, took up the issue with Fox News anchor and host of the channel's America Live, Megyn Kelly. The conversation unfolded as follows:

Bill O'Reilly: Pepper spray -- that just burns your eyes, right?

Megyn Kelly: Right. It's a derivative of actual pepper. It's a food product, essentially. A lot of experts are looking at that and asking -- is that the real deal? Has it been diluted because --

Bill O'Reilly: They should have more of a reaction than that.

A few minutes later, Kelly stated, "I don't know that the cops did anything wrong," suggesting that it made more sense to use pepper spray to scatter protesters than touch them. Her commentary continued as footage of Lieutenant John Pike spraying sitting students -- who appeared desperate to cover their faces without breaking the chain they had created with their bodies -- played on the screen.

Throughout the conversation, Kelly referred to police response as "reasonable use of force," despite conceding that several protesters ended up going to the hospital following exposure.

The segment failed to mention what UC Davis professor Nathan Brown reported in an open letter to UC Davis chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. The protesting students who were seated in a circle around their Occupy encampment on the university quad (for which the chancellor had granted permission earlier that week) linked arms to keep police from removing them.

"Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students," Brown writes. "Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked."

November 21, 2011, Davis, California: Hundreds of Occupy UCDavis protesters return for another day of demonstrations at the UC Davis quad. Protesters vow to continue their protest in the wake of last week's pepper spray. (Credit Image: © Sacramento Bee/

This is what Brown reports happened next (emphasis mine):

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

Let's take a look at this "food product." Megyn Kelly is correct that pepper spray is essentially a food product -- if by that she means that it's derived from capsaicins, the active components in various types of pepper.

According to a report on Gizmodo, footage of the incident suggests that police were packing MK-9 canisters of pepper spray (of the 0.7 percent carpaicinoid solution variety), one of the stronger available forms of this "less-than-lethal" weapon. Per their research:

It's much stronger than the 0.2 percent that's authorized for tactical deployment, making this a sizable hammer for this particular nail. And even if it were an appropriate dose, it was sprayed at near point-blank range [at UC Davis]. The recommended minimum distance? Six feet, and it remains effective at 18-20 feet.

At that high-level dosage, the burning, boiling eye sensation and difficulty breathing would obviously be amplified. Any form of pepper spray can be serious trouble -- even lethal -- for someone with asthma or a heart condition, and we're talking the stuff the Marines train with here.

This stuff just burns the eyes, right? Wrong. Since we're talking about "food products" here, let's put it in context with some other peppers to give you an idea of what kind of heat we're looking at. Fortunately for us, in 1912 a man by the name of Wilbur Scoville created a method for analyzing the strength of peppers' burn and a scale against which to measure them (to loosely quote Newton, "if we can see further, it's that we stand on the shoulders of giants").

"Hot peppers" via Shutterstock.

According to the scale, a jalapeño pepper packs a punch of between 3,500 and 8,000 Scoville heat units (SHU). A habanero pepper comes in somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000 SHU. And the "food product" sprayed on protesting students? That's between 2 million and 5.3 million SHU.

No matter how much you love the heat, pepper spray isn't something you're going to want on your tacos. In a piece on Scientific American, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum makes an excellent point, "remember, as toxicologists love to point out, that the dose makes the poison."

Blum goes further to raise concerns about the effect of pepper spray:

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 OC spray [oleoresin capsicum spray, known colloquially as “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.

The term "less-than-lethal" is misleading; Blum cites a 1995 report put together by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), linking 70 fatalities to pepper spray between 1993 and 1995. That's one death per every 600 uses, according to Meredith Melnick at Time’s Healthland blog.

Melnick and Blum refer to a 2004 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health and Duke University Medical Center. According to Melnick's piece, a "high-dose exposure to OC spray can produce 'adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurological effects, including arrhythmias and sudden death’; acute exposure also causes nausea, fear and disorientation.'" She quotes directly from the literature:

Respiratory responses to OC spray include burning of the throat, wheezing, dry cough, shortness of breath, gagging, gasping, inability to breathe or speak (due to laryngospasm or laryngeal paralysis), and, rarely, cyanosis, apnea, and respiratory arrest. Nasal application of capsaicin causes sneezing, irritation, and reflex mucus secretion. Its inhalation can cause acute hypertension (similar to ammonia inhalation), which in turn can cause headache and increase the risk of stroke or heart attack.

The effect of pepper spray lasts long beyond exposure. As more accounts from students surface, we're learning just how much more than a little "burn" pepper spray causes. Per an interview with one of the UC Davis protesters on BoingBoing:

I was on the end of the line getting direct spray. When the second pass came, I got up crawling. I crawled away and vomited on a tree. I was yelling. It burned. Within a few minutes I was dry heaving, I couldn't breathe. Then, over the course of the next hour, I was dry heaving and vomiting.

I'd pulled my beanie hat over my eyes, to protect my eyes. I received a lot of pepper spray in my throat. […] Someone said they saw him [the officer] spray down my throat intentionally, but I was so freaked out, and I was blinded by my hat, so I can't verify. I did get a large quantity of pepper spray in my lungs.

I still have a burning sensation in my throat, lips and nose, especially when I start coughing, or when I'm lying in bed. Everyone who got sprayed has sustained effects like this.

The same student confirmed that another protester sitting near her responded violently to the spray and had to be taken to the hospital. The protester, she said, suffers from asthma.

"One other person told me he was pepper sprayed while he was on the ground, subdued," the student told Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing. "They tried to go up his shirt, because he'd pulled his shirt over his face to protect himself. So they aimed it up his shirt to spray him, to make sure he got it."

Melnick notes that pepper spray is classified as a riot-control agent, which is banned for use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is typically used only against violent attackers who are resisting physical arrest and constitute a serious threat of harm to others.

Speaking with Nick Carbone at Time’s Newsfeed blog, John MacDonald, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said: "Pepper spray should only be used when there's a clear threat to officers or severe-enough resistance -- essentially, when the only alternative is more extreme force."

Remember: the students were sitting on the ground with their arms linked together. While they did not scatter when told to do so, they were not acting violently toward law enforcement. They were sitting. Police pepper sprayed them in the face at point blank range repeatedly, and allegedly directed the spray down their throats. At least one person has been hospitalized due to the use of pepper spray.

How is any of this "reasonable use of force"? Given the available literature, it is unconscionable to describe pepper spray as a "food product" that "just burns your eyes." I understand that talk show hosts and anchors aren't held to the same standard as journalists but their responsibility to the public demands that they do better than this.

Come to think of it, you know what would make great television? Maybe Lieutenant John Pike can join them next week and do a little demonstration. Oh, come on, Bill! It just burns your eyes, right?

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex on BlogHer. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT

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