The widespread police use of pepper spray, dramatically portrayed at UC Davis on November 18, has continued for over a decade without the health risk assessment required by state law, according to the acting director of the California agency charged with evaluating such health hazards.
“We never completed a risk assessment,” said George Alexeeff, acting director of the California EPA’s Office of Health Hazard Assessment, in an e-mail.
The pepper spraying of eleven UC Davis students is a startling visual revelation of a pattern repeated over two decades: the widespread use of a potent chemical compound to subdue political protesters, prison inmates and inner city youths, in spite of numerous warnings by health officials of potentially life-threatening effects. The Davis episode shows that pepper spray has become a weapon of choice even for University of California police.
Perhaps the globally televised spectacle of UC Davis students being sprayed while sitting in a peaceful protest will open a window to the similar treatment of thousands of others rarely mentioned by mainstream media.
In 1992, the California Attorney General’s office supported law enforcement and manufacturer lobbyists in obtaining a three-year trial of Oleoresin Capsicum, or pepper-spray, provided that studies confirmed a lack of significant health impacts. Shortly after, the Attorney General authorized the sale of pepper spray for personal protection, also before health studies were completed.
When I left the California state legislature in 2001, the studies still had not been completed. The AG at the time was Dan Lungren, now a Republican member of the California Congressional delegation. The chief advocate for the personal purchase of pepper spray was then-Assemblyperson Jackie Speier, who also went to Congress, and who fought for the right of women to be armed with pepper spray.
Fifteen years after they were required, the health hazard assessments never were completed.
In a 1995 report, the ACLU called the pepper spray “a chemical cattle prod,” which could be employed in “street justice.” According to the Southern California ACLU study, twenty-six deaths occurred among people pepper sprayed by police between 1993 and 1995. In the mid-’90s, state officials were reporting 5,000 sprayings annually, a leap from nearly zero to 15,688 total incidents since 1992.
As early as 1993, a US army study concluded that pepper spray’s active ingredient was capable of causing mutagenic and carcinogenic effects, cardiovascular and vision damage and human fatalities.
According to the ACLU report, internal state documents showed that “Cal-EPA’s scientists expressed acute concerns about the safety and efficacy of OC as early as 1991 and that these concerns continued to be communicated at least as recently as March, 1995.”
The ACLU report added, “there is also evidence that the nearly complete lack of scientific data addressing questions about safety and effectiveness of OC products is an issue about which Cal-EPA toxicologists warned the California Department of Justice at least as early as August, 1993, in an apparently confidential communication to Attorney General Dan Lundgren.”