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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