WHAT’S IN PEPPER SPRAY?
By Michael Collins
When seated Occupy UC Davis protesters turned their backs on Lt. John Pike and his UC Davis police squad clad in riot gear on Nov. 18, he had had enough.
Pike aimed a large can of First Defense aerosolized Oleoresin Capsicum at two-dozen occupiers, including student David Buscho and his girlfriend.
“The police officer came up to us and said, ‘If you guys don’t move, we’re going to shoot you,’ so we turned around,” Buscho said to a crowd of several hundred occupiers three days later in the same quad where he was sprayed.
“Then it happened,” Buscho continued as the angry crowd listened transfixed. “At that point I entered a world of pain. It felt like hot glass was entering my eyes. I couldn’t see anything. I wanted to open my eyes, but every time I did the pain got worse.”
But in one way, Buscho got off easy. Police in California generally do not use pepper spray that contains as its main ingredients the mainstays of several popular pepper sprays sold in Los Angeles and California retail outlets — the dry cleaning solvent and toxin tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, and its distillate, the once-common degreaser and toxin trichloroethylene, or TCE.
California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known as Proposition 65, requires that the governor publish an annual list of chemicals known to the state to cause reproductive toxicity or cancer. Both PCE and TCE made the list in April 1988 as chemicals that cause cancer.
Yet no law is on the books in California to prevent PCE’s or TCE’s use in products meant to be sprayed directly into somebody’s face.
“California has banned other uses of TCE in consumer products, including spray paints and other aerosols,” says Sarah Janssen of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that significant exposures are occurring in the vicinity of pepper spray fumes.”
TCE-based pepper spray is being sold in California through the Internet by Fox Labs International and Personal Safety Corporation, according to the companies’ websites. And two of Personal Safety Corporation’s Pepper Defense products with PCE but without Proposition 65 warnings were being sold at True Value and Do It Best stores that L.A. Weekly visited earlier this month in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Eagle Rock, Florence-Graham, Hollywood, Venice and North Hollywood.
Seven Fox Labs International pepper spray products are sold locally through Galls, a large police and public safety equipment and apparel company, with local stores in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Orange and Riverside. On the stores’ websites, no Proposition 65 warnings are indicated on these items.
“PCE and TCE are known carcinogens on California’s Proposition 65 list, which means products containing them should by law carry the Proposition 65 warning label,” says Ana Mascareñas, policy coordinator for Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles, a public health and environmental group.
“It is almost inconceivable that these pepper sprays are being sold in California without labels warning consumers of the cancer risks,” she adds.
Ed Ferguson, president of Michigan-based Fox Labs International, boasts: “First Defense has been described as ketchup to my Tabasco. You won’t find anyone hit with … Fox that wouldn’t rather be hit with a Taser.”
Fox Lab’s pepper spray is, by weight, 98 percent “volatiles” — meaning a liquid that is easily vaporized. And that volatile is TCE.
“California’s the only people that say it,” Ferguson says. “Why is that? California don’t have their shit together and yet they’re saying a lot of stuff for a lot of people that puts them into bankruptcy.”
At Personal Safety Corporation, the producer of pepper spray containing PCE, president and founder Dick Olson tells the Weekly, “California probably has some of the most stringent interpretations of what’s carcinogenic and at what levels.”
Olson says Pepper Enforcement is made with TCE but that the “amount of that chemical is so minute as to not cause harm to humans. It’s a very minute amount.”
But publicly available Material Safety Data Sheets reveal a different story.
Material Safety Data Sheets contain data regarding the official known properties of a specific substance. The figures on the sheets regarding Personal Safety Corporation pepper sprays sold at True Value stores in California show that two of them come in formulas with PCE (volatiles) levels at 95 percent by weight.
Do It Best was quick to defend its California handling of Personal Safety Corporation products.
Do It Best communications director Randy Rusk says in an email, “Do it Best Corp. takes safety and compliance issues seriously, and we are looking into the labeling situation to affirm the products we carry and that our vendors are in compliance with state law.”
“True Value is a cooperative,” says True Value spokeswoman Marsha Burton. “That means our members created us. We can’t tell a member what they can and can’t sell. A lot of members could have bought [the Personal Safety Corporation pepper spray] from Do It Best.”
Burton subsequently supplied the Weekly with Material Safety Data Sheets showing that True Value does sell Personal Safety Corporation pepper sprays with 95 percent PCE.