The pepper spraying of student protestors in UC Davis is a story that has gone from local outrage to international condemnation. Since the story broke, news outlets from The Guardian to the BBC have offered their commentaries and opinions.
Two of these opinions have been from Fox News co-host Megyn Kelly and conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly. When describing the effects of pepper spray, Kelly made the comment, “It’s derived from the actual pepper. It’s a food product, essentially.”
While Kelly is correct that pepper spray is indeed derived from peppers, to call it a “food product” is grossly misleading. Pepper spray is actually considered a chemical agent — specifically a riot control agent. Pepper spray causes pain, loss of visual acuity (things get blurry) and sensitivity.
The reason for this distinction is dosage. When you eat a pepper, for example a Jalapeño pepper, the heat that you feel is from a chemical called capsaicin. When you eat that Jalapeño pepper, the capsaicin binds to a protein called TRPV1 that sits on top of pain- and heat-sensing membranes. The binding opens the heat-sensitive channel, creating a sensation of heat.
In relatively low doses, such as those found in spicy foods, people actually enjoy this sensation; chili peppers can add a pleasurable flavor to a dish.
In order to contrast chili peppers with pepper spray, we first need to know the Scoville Scale of Heat. The scale measures how “hot” chili peppers and other capsaicin-containing items feel. On the low end of the scale is the Red Chili pepper, containing 500-750 Scoville heat units; pure capsaicin contains about 15 million Scoville heat units. United States grade pepper spray, such as that used by the UC Davis police last weekend, contains about two million Scoville heat units.
Compare this level to the Jalapeño pepper, which contains 3,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units; or, if you’re more adventurous with your food, the Habanero pepper contains 200,000 to 350,000 Scoville Heat units. This means pepper spray is about 10 times hotter than a Habanero pepper, and it is being aimed directly into the eyes and nose.
Pepper spray is made by finely grounding up peppers containing naturally high levels of capsaicin. What makes it different from a “food product,” such as ground cayenne pepper, is that the pure capsaicin is then chemically extracted from the plant to make a waxy resin, called oleoresin capsaicin. This resin is then mixed with a substance like propylene glycol to keep it suspended in liquid, then pressurized into an aerosol can. Since all that is being extracted from the pepper is the single chemical, calling it a food product is misleading.
Since the level of capsaicin is so high compared to something like a Jalapeño pepper, the familiar cures don’t really work. Cooling the burn of a pepper in a meal is easy, as long as you have milk (food tip: water doesn’t work; ask the waiter for a glass of milk if you think a meal is too spicy).
However, a study from 2008 had police officers exposed to pepper spray (a routine part of officer training, so that they know how it feels) and split into randomized groups to try different remedies. The remedies were Maalox, lidocaine gel, baby shampoo, milk and water. The officers rated each remedy with respect to difference in pain over time.
The only cure? Time. None of the remedies were significantly helpful, so bringing along gallons of milk to the next protest isn’t going to do anything to help.
The encouraging thing is that, though it hurts like hell, pepper spray does not cause permanent damage. The full effect (pain, sensitivity and loss of visual acuity) lasts about 45 minutes, with a smaller effect for a few hours (or reportedly, days) after that. The only permanent effect that I could see reported is that if someone is sprayed many times over a period of several days, their eyes will become more sensitive.
Breathing in the pepper spray doesn’t cause any respiratory damage, though the panic associated with being pepper sprayed can certainly make it feel that way.
I’d like to make a note here that this column is not meant to give specific medical advice; if you were pepper sprayed and are concerned about the health effects, please see your doctor.
AMY STEWART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.