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If Pepper Spray Isn't Lethal, Why All the Deaths?

June 18, 1995|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pepper spray is an oily plant resin made from such dried spices as chili or cayenne. In some products, the resin is mixed with mineral, vegetable, water or soy oil, and some form of alcohol carrier. It's injected into a canister, from which it can be dispensed in short bursts.

According to one training manual, a spray in the face "can precipitate immediate and disabling effects, including rapid inflammation of the mucous membranes, instant closing of the eyes, and coughing, gagging and gasping for breath."

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The exact effect of pepper spray on the body is unknown and varies from person to person. Some researchers have speculated that the gagging reflex may cause some people to believe they are suffocating and cause them go into shock or suffer heart failure. People who chronically abuse drugs may be more susceptible to the effects of the spray because of enlarged hearts.

Pepper spray is now in the hands of thousands of police officers and an estimated 6.5 million civilians who use it with minimum training and scant knowledge of its potential health effects.

Since March, 1994, when it was approved for sale to civilians in California by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, 126,266 people in the state have been certified to own and use pepper spray. Medical experts suggest, however, that through intentional or accidental use, these civilians may run the risk of jeopardizing their own lives or others who suffer from asthma, bronchitis, heart conditions or other maladies.

State and federal researchers have been tracking each fatality, in an effort to determine what role, if any, pepper spray has played in the deaths.

"We are concerned that in each incident, untoward reaction to [pepper spray] may be the contributing cause of death, or exacerbated underlying conditions such as pre-existing disease or drug use to cause cardiac or respiratory failure," Carol J. Henry, director of the California Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an Aug. 26, 1993, memo to Lungren.

The following year, when Lungren approved civilian use of pepper spray, he did so over the objections of Cal-EPA, which had been monitoring the in-custody deaths, according to agency documents.

Despite the growing debate, pepper spray has staunch advocates who support its use by both for police and civilians.

Lungren said he considered pepper spray "a tremendous success" in providing police officers with "an alternative to using firearms and lethal force."

The attorney general said that in 13,000 incidents involving law enforcement officers, pepper spray was effective 86% of the time in subduing suspects, according to reports filed by local law enforcement agencies and complied by the state Department of Justice.

While his office constantly monitors cases in which suspects die in custody after being sprayed, Lungren said, "I have to look at what the alternatives are."

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Since approving civilian use, Lungren has endorsed AB 830, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame), which would eliminate all required training and certification requirements for the purchase of pepper spray. Under current law civilians must pass a test, take a course or view an instructional video before purchasing the spray. Speier's bill has passed in the Assembly and is pending in the Senate.

"Everyone knows how to use an aerosol can," Lungren said. "We use them everyday, from hair spray to bug spray. People know how to spray a can. And that's exactly what pepper spray is: You just aim it, spray it and run the other way."

But medical experts and manufacturers say the effect of pepper spray on a subject cannot be predicted and that care must used in its application.

So far in California, 27 people have died after being doused with pepper spray by police, according to the ACLU report.

From 1990 to 1993, 23 people elsewhere in the nation died after being squirted by police with pepper spray, according to a study by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, funded by the U.S. Justice Department.

Since 1993, the National Institute of Justice's National Law Enforcement Technology Center has identified seven more such deaths outside California and is investigating three others. A subsequent review by The Times found four more cases in the United States in 1994 and 1995 that federal researchers said they were not aware of.

The Los Angeles Police Department reported that three men died in custody after being sprayed with pepper gas since 1993. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported one such fatality since 1993.

"I feel sure that in the early days of pepper spray there probably were cases of death that weren't attributed to pepper spray because it was commonly believed to be completely safe," said Howard Perry, founder and former president of Advanced Defense Technologies, an early pepper spray manufacturer.

The injury toll also is mounting.

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