The dangers of working with pepper spray

When we began our pepper spray trials, we specifically excluded asthmatics from participating. Even though we were spraying o.c. onto people's arms in controlled doses, we thought that errant spray might cause damage. The stuff bounces off skin and flies everywhere.

At our first large-scale remedy trial (and at every trial since), we sprayed outdoors to avoid contaminating the house. Then, because it was cold, we had our test subjects go inside while we tracked the effectiveness of their remedies. Several test subjects wandered into a room where an asthmatic, activist friend of ours was having a meeting. Our asthmatic friend has attended many demonstrations over the years (including the WTO and IMF), been arrested, and put herself in situations where she might be pepper sprayed, despite her condition. We noticed that even though the o.c. on people's arms had been covered or wiped away with remedies, fugitive o.c. particles were nonetheless lifting off of people's skin and circulating around the room. A couple of us, including our asthmatic friend, coughed but that was about the extent of it. The evening ended and everyone went home, happy that weÍd made a small step in o.c. remedy research.

But the o.c. particles our asthmatic friend breathed while mingling near our test subjects had, along with a nasty flu, caused her to have difficulty breathing and the compounding of symptoms resulted in her needing treatment in an emergency room two days later. She ended up fine. If she hadn't been sick, she would have coughed and she thinks that would have been the end of it. We were all very lucky.

Black Cross was very thorough in its screening. We were also careful to treat people with the remedies we thought most likely to be effective. We set up an environment which we thought was safe and comforting for our test subjects.

But we made several mistakes. Despite our exposure to brutal o.c. application in the streets, we lulled ourselves into underestimating its aggressiveness and contaminating qualities because of the controlled application and tiny amounts we were using. Second, we didn't sufficiently isolate the tests from anyone who might conceivably have adverse reactions.

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