respiratory health

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Real Health Risks In That Iconic Pepper Spray Image

Yes, my bet is that when the time comes to pick the defining image of 2011, the U.C. Davis pepper spray cop photo by student photographer Brian Nguyen will be it. (I can’t post it here because the rights are reserved, but the YouTube version is above, showing a uniformed officer streaming the orange pepper spray into the faces of seated protesters on no visible provocation. The Atlantic has the photos here.)


Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism Lab does a superb job here of summing up the power of that image and its possible effects on the Occupy movement. (The post also includes some of the black humor that has sprouted around the image on the Internet, including one caption that reads, “Didn’t you hear? Pepper spray is a vegetable now.”)

In case you hear “pepper” and think of benign sprinkles on mashed potatoes, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning science journalist, sets you straight here on the Speakeasy Science blog. Deborah delved into toxicology for her latest book, “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” and shares a central lesson: “The dose makes the poison.”

We might hear “pepper spray” and think of the mild discomfort of a jalapeno, but she points out that on the widely used “Scoville Scale” of a pepper’s burn, where eating-peppers might rate in the hundreds, the police pepper spray would rate in the millions.

“It may be time to demand a more serious look at the risks involved,” she writes, citing recent papers on potential health effects. They include permanent damage to the cornea from repeated doses, and exacerbation of allergies, among others. She writes: Continue reading