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

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

From July 1, 1994, through April of this year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission logged more than 150 emergency room incidents in which exposure to pepper spray was cited as the cause for treatment, many after the product leaked in handbags or was accidentally set off.

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Police and corrections officers in California, North Carolina and Florida have filed lawsuits to block mandatory exposure to pepper spray in training, charging that officers have suffered serious health effects after being sprayed.

Nearly all parties in the pepper spray debate--manufacturers, law enforcement officials and civil libertarians--agree that the product would benefit from some manner of federal regulation.

"There are no requirements out there for manufacturers to do product testing, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Federal Food and Drug Administration," said David K. DuBay, director of research for Defense Technology Corp.

"Because of the prohibitive cost of such studies, no manufacturers have carried out acceptable safety studies," DuBay said. "As a result, little or nothing is known about the health risk or toxicity of pepper spray. There are legitimate manufacturers . . . and then there are people making this in their garages without regulation as to what goes into the product."

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Last week, the Los Angeles Police Commission approved participation in a nationwide, federally funded study on the use of pepper spray. The yearlong, $217,570 study, conducted by the National Institute of Justice, will compare the outcomes of use-of-force situations before and after the introduction of pepper spray by police.

Meanwhile, the ACLU is accusing the California Department of Justice of dragging its feet in monitoring and analyzing fatal incidents involving pepper spray, which is used by most law enforcement agencies in the state.

The ACLU report urges that the Department of Justice "develop emergency restrictions on pepper spray to minimize exposure of people who may be at increased risk--including drug users, asthmatics, the mentally ill and people with pre-existing heart or respiratory disease."

The ACLU strongly opposes the Speier bill, which would allow civilians to purchase pepper spray over the counter, without being instructed on its use.

"We think it is a mistake to rush into legalized civilian use," said Alan Parachini, an ACLU spokesman. "It's impossible to escape the fact that even experienced toxicologists are uncomfortable with the ease with which civilians can get access to pepper spray. . . . It is surely folly to throw caution to the winds and abandon any form of training and to open the market up to manufacturers who employ shameless hype to market their untested products in a climate of fear."

Speier, however, defends her bill. "We have learned a great deal in one year" of civilian use of pepper spray, she said. "Bottom line, the attorney general and I would prefer that people push a button, not pull a trigger."

Times librarian Sheila Kern contributed to this report.

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