Why the Pepper Spray Spree Should End

Why the Pepper Spray Spree Should End

A health risk assessment required by California state law was never completed, but that hasn’t stopped police from using the weapon against thousands of citizens, including the students at UC Davis.


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.”

The Defense Technology Corporation, manufacturer of the OC spray, had internal worries of its own:

“Def-Tech’s unpublished proposal included a warning to law enforcement officers that any use of OC on a subject be limited to a single burst of not more than one second. It also detailed potential problems that closely tracked earlier reservations in other quarters about the safety of OC spray products.”

The Defense Technology paper observed:

“…little or nothing is known about the health risk or toxicity of pepper spray, OC and other ingredients… Concerns on the safety and health risks associated with its use have arisen. OC sprays cause upper respiratory inflammation and may have detrimental effects on people with preexisting respiratory problems. Furthermore, it is known that capsaicin directly affects nerves that transmit pain. Excessive stimulation to those neurons causes them to stop functioning properly. With continued stimulation, nerve death can result. Lastly, repeated administration of capsaicin [the active ingredient in oleoresin capsicum] has also resulted in liver necrosis…”

During the run-up to the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, I uncovered a secret state-funding request for stockpiling pepper spray, semi-automatic gas launchers and other weapons for use on demonstrators, as well as funds for an LAPD paper-shredder. Once exposed, the proposal was derailed, then openly debated and approved. There was no serious discussion of the health impacts. At those 2000 demonstrations, my son Troy was shot at close range with a projectile after a Rage Against the Machine concert. Numerous other protesters were gassed or similarly attacked that week.

Below is the legislation I offered in 2000, which was defeated by the law enforcement lobby in Sacramento. The draft illustrates how the most moderate proposals for gauging health effects were unacceptable; they remain so today.



INTRODUCED BY Senator Hayden, FEBRUARY 11, 2000

An act to add Sections 12460 and 12461 to the Penal Code, relating to pepper spray.


SB 1489, Hayden. Pepper spray.

Existing law governs the use of tear gas and tear gas weapons, as specified. However, existing law contains no provisions specifically addressing pepper spray and its health effects.

This bill would set forth findings and declarations of the Legislature as to health effects of pepper spray, as specified.

This bill would also direct the Department of Justice, in consultation with the Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessments, to review and report to the Legislature as to the effects of pepper spray, as specified. It would also direct them to work with law enforcement to develop best practices guidelines for its use.


SECTION 1. Section 12460 is added to the Penal Code, to read:

12460. The Legislature finds and declares as follows:

According to state health experts, there is a lack of studies of health effects, including prolonged health effects, of the impact of spraying oleoresin capsicum pepper spray on individuals, especially individuals with preexisting health conditions.

A 1993 United States Army study of oleoresin capsicum pepper spray stated, “there is very little safety data” for an oleoresin capsicum product, and that the active ingredient capsicum “is capable of producing mutagenic and carcinogenic effects … cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity, as well as human fatalities.”

A 1995 manufacturer’s research proposal stated that “little or nothing is known about the health risk or toxicity of pepper spray,” and that nerve death can result from repeated use.

There is no state regulation of the ingredients, which can be used in tear gas in California, nor any official health-based guidelines for its use.

SEC. 2. Section 12461 is added to the Penal Code, to read:

12461. The Department of Justice, in consultation with the Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessments (OEHHA), shall review and report to the Legislature on the short- and long-term health effects of pepper spray and, in consultation with law enforcement agencies, shall adopt best practices guidelines for the safe use of pepper spray by law enforcement and correctional officers.

OEHHA shall report the state of its existing data and its present risk assessment, if any, of the short- and long-term health effects of pepper spray to the Department of Justice and the Legislature. OEHHA shall advise the Department of Justice and the Legislature of any current data gaps concerning short- and long-term health effects of pepper spray.

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