2011 Nov 25

written by Sherri Joubert

I want to explain what pepper spray is before I launch into posts about it’s use as a chemical weapon against peaceful protesters, protesting for Occupy Wall Street, protesting for the 99%, and America’s not-too-distant history of protests.

Pepper spray is an internationally illegal chemical weapon. We couldn’t use it against foreign soldiers in war. Our State Department railed against other governments using tear gas and pepper spray on their own citizens during the Arab Spring. So what do we do? We use it against our own people during Occupy. But I digress…

The following video explains what the hot stuff in pepper is (capsaicin), how hotness is measured (Scoville units), a chart to compare the various hotness of peppers we’re familiar with, and how capsaicin can harm us over time when it gets in our eyes and respiratory systems. (8.5 min):

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To review, the capsaicin bonds with pain receptors and causes extreme pain, and capsaicin is mildly corrosive and causes chemical burns. All burns, heat or chemical, cause scarring of the tissue that is burned. Being sprayed in the eyes many times will eventually cause permanent blurring of vision from corrosive damage to cornea cells. Inhaling pepper spray causes chemical burns to the nose, mouth, throat, and lungs. Burns cause scarring, and those scars will cause any respiratory, sinus, or eye problems to become worse.

Keep the Scoville unit chart in mind whenever you see pepper spraying occurring, and whenever you are working with hot peppers in the kitchen.

Photo Credit: The Maddow Blog

I’ve gotten jalapeno pepper juice in my eyes chopping them in the kitchen, and cayenne pepper in my eyes after failing to thoroughly wash my hands and clean under my nails after eating boiled crawfish. We put lots of cayenne in the boil. It burns like crazy, and I was crying and splashing water into my face holding my eyes open for at least 30 minutes.

For those who haven’t gotten pepper in their eyes, a jalapeno is about as bad as a very strong onion, but the pain from onions goes away much faster and doesn’t cause permanent harm. The chemicals in onions form sulfuric acid with your tears and that’s what burns. But because it’s a vapor mixed with air it’s a very small dose compared to peppers and pepper spray. You actually have to get pepper physically into your eyes for it to burn.

Protesters out there, be careful about putting yourself in the line of pepper spray fire multiple times. It can have long-term negative health effects to your eyes and respiratory system. If you’ve been pepper-sprayed recently, you might want to take some time away from the line where the spraying is being done and give your body time to heal. I know there is plenty to do besides getting sprayed and arrested.

Please ask any questions you may have about the science of peppers and pepper spray in the comments and I’ll answer them. I may have to do some research for some questions, but I’m willing to do so. Thanks for reading.

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11 Responses to “Pepper spray isn’t harmless”

  1. Corinne Edwards Says:

    Dear Sherri -

    I was mad before.

    Now I am furious.

    What is this Kent tate all over but it will blind you instead of kill you?

    These are our kids.
    Corinne Edwards´s last blog post ..SALES, LIES AND NAKED TRUTHS – Now on Kindle

  2. Beat Schindler Says:

    Wow, the only thing I new about pepper spray so far was that those who apply it to others love it, and those who have it applied to themselves, don’t. Also, that I must have eaten of the Bhut Jolokia variety at least once. In Ethiopia. My mouth was on fire and I cried tears through my eyes, ears, nose and skin for quite a while. They all looked at me and had a good laugh. I suspect the mood is less merry when the police are behind the pepper.

  3. Sherri Joubert Says:

    Beat, I didn’t know much about pepper spray either. I thought it used like Tabasco sauce or a cayenne sauce. I’ve never had a ghost pepper and don’t ever want to. It looks horribly painful. I had no idea that police use about a 2:10 part dilution of pure capsaicin and probably water or stronger. That is a horribly strong solution and completely unnecessary. Tabasco sauce would be far more than enough.

    Corinne, I’m furious, too. I started with some fact-based, academic topics so I wouldn’t start screaming in my posts. It’s very hard to write about this. I can hardly keep from exploding. From the long-term income disparity to the ungodly number of foreclosures to all the police brutality, it’s horrible. Being one of the statistics in this mess makes me more angry.

    And it’s damn near been Kent State. I was only 10, but I will never forget those news reports of protests and rioting in 1970 over the Vietnam war. I’ll never forget the picture of the girl kneeling and screaming beside a fellow student who had just been shot and killed by the national guard.

    Occupy Oakland police fractured an Iraq veteran’s skull with a tear gas canister and beat the living day lights out of another Iraq and Afghanistan veteran. And now U.C. Davis police pepper-sprayed several student protesters point-blank in the face while they were sitting peacefully with their arms linked together. They claimed it is standard procedure to pepper spray anyone who won’t move along. I don’t think that’s exactly what the procedure meant, but that’s the way it was used. Apparently, they have no conscience or self-control or ability to think about their actions before they perform them.

    I now have 3 iconic images permanently etched in my brain about the Occupy Movement so far: the Iraq vet with his skull fractured, the line of sitting students at U.C. Davis being brutally pepper-sprayed in the face, and the retired Pennsylvania police captain being arrested in NYC in uniform.

    The police officer who was arrested was a guest on Up With Chris Hayes last Saturday on MSNBC. You can watch each hour online uninterrupted by switching segments all week, and probably all next week. I think they all took the long weekend off. There are other interviews with those who have been arrested and pepper sprayed on YouTube.

  4. Corinne Edwards Says:


    On the news about “Black Friday” there was an account of a woman at a Wal-Mart using pepper spray to get to the head of the line to buy a TV.

    Ten people were brought to the hospital.

    She checked out and bought the TV and they have not found her.

    I don’t understand where these people are getting it. There should be some kind of regulation so nuts like this can’t injure others.

    I wouldn’t know where to get it.

    Something must be done. This is a chemical weapon.

    There are police supply stores in most larger towns that will sell a weaker version of police-grade pepper spray. It’s still just as effective. I hope they catch that woman soon. She should be all over Walmart’s video surveillance tapes. The only place they don’t record is the bathrooms. This woman embodies the everyone-for-themselves attitude that is killing this country and the world.

    This is even more unconscionable than police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters.
    Corinne Edwards´s last blog post ..SALES, LIES AND NAKED TRUTHS – Now on Kindle

  5. Brian Says:

    I have a problem with your statement “protesting for the 99%.” They are not representative of what I value as a tax-paying citizen who is not in this country’s class of the 1% highest earners. Maybe if they actually had an agenda I wouldn’t look at them as freeloaders.

    A fare number of these protesters have jobs and pay their taxes. They are not freeloaders. The unemployed really want to work, but McDonald’s doesn’t pay enough to even cover rent for a month if you work full-time. How do you go from a professional job to minimum wage and still support your family? If you lost a manufacturing job from outsourcing, you likely won’t get another one. We have fewer manufacturing jobs today than we did in mid-1941.

    OWS have an actual agenda. Here is a link to an article with their exact manifesto: Occupy Wall Street Manifesto.

    Whether you consider yourself one of the 99% or not, you are. The percentages come from your position on the non-partisan OMB income report recently released. It’s based strictly on income calculated from IRS data. Anything that helps the 99% will help you, even if you don’t do a thing.

    I am truly sorry you don’t see what is going on around you. It will hit you when a friend, family member or even you run smack into a major job loss you can’t replace quickly, or a foreclosure, or the cost of your children’s advanced education, among many other things. You are fortunate to be so insulated from the suffering of your fellow Americans. You have lost in this mess; just look at your 401k or 403b statements over the past 5 years. Do you have a pension? Probably not anymore if you ever had one. Can you retire when you planned?

    Are you earning more in real dollars than you did in 1979, or whenever you began working full-time? Take your first salary and multiply by 1.03 for every year you’ve worked. It’s a compound affect, so take the first number, multiply by 1.03, then take the result and multiply by 1.03, etc. If you have a financial calculator and know how to use it, do it with that. If you aren’t making at least that number, you are making less in real dollars than you did when you first started out.

    You may not believe that is wrong and that’s fine. I believe that is very wrong and I’m doing what I can about it.


  6. Joel Says:

    Thanks for the overview Sherri! I was reading how it’s not allowed to pepper spray rioting prisoners if they are sat down and non-aggressive – how can it be right to treat protesters like that? It’s a shame to see so many bad events occurring, but maybe the country needs it?
    Joel´s last blog post ..Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. Sherri Joubert Says:


    I think the country and the world need it. It’s time for a wake-up call. The income disparity is way too large. If things don’t change, the country and the world is facing another Great Depression. Since Europe is now in so much trouble, we may go into another recession that hits harder than the one we’re still recovering from.

    Unfortunately protesters aren’t covered by the Geneva Convention like domestic prisoners, prisoners of war, or foreign armies. The police have interrogation laws, and they do have some rules about protesters, but protesters are often breaking city ordinances or campus procedures, like loitering or failing to move along or blocking a thoroughfare. Police act on the ordinances and local rules instead of Constitutional Rights.

    Even without using live ammo, they’ve managed to harm people, two of them very seriously, one of which they nearly killed.

    Thanks for commenting, Joel,

  8. Raymond Chua @ Cure Stress Naturally Says:

    Gosh! That hurts. A lot.
    Raymond Chua @ Cure Stress Naturally´s last blog post ..Quote

  9. Debbie @ Happy Maker Says:

    Hi Sherri,

    What is going on with pepper spray is like many things. People get something that is a good thing and works, but than they over use it.

    When it comes to the protester I just wished they would get more organzied. Many look like they are homeless people rather than someone that really has a purpose.

    There are always peaceful ways to make a point or make changes and to me neither the protesters or police are finding a solution.
    “As for pepper spray there is not anything that is good for you when over use.
    Debbie @ Happy Maker´s last blog post ..How to Bounce Back When Adversity Hits Below the Belt

  10. David Rogers Says:

    Fortunately pepper spray is illegal in the UK. Its also worth pointing out that the incident you have highlighted was widely reported over here (and went viral on YouTube) as was the Wal-Mart incident Corrine noted. The collective effect is “WTF – USA!” and although we all have stupid people doing stupid things, it doesn’t help your image worldwide.
    David Rogers´s last blog post ..Improve your self confidence in 15 minutes

  11. Amy LeForge Says:

    I’ve gotten the juice from a jalapeno pepper in my eyes more than once by mistake and ouch! I don’t like it.
    Amy LeForge´s last blog post ..Healthy Tips from Santa and Mrs. Claus

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