Red pepper: Not just for Tex-Mex and Asian foods

Approaching a remote section of the emergency room, I was uncertain as to what I would encounter – something about two men pepper-sprayed and brought in by the police department.

However, the police were not the pepper perpetrators. A security guard at a large retail outlet saw the two shoplifting and confronted them. As they fled, the guard pulled his pepper spray. He didn’t spray them, he hosed them down.

Reaching the open exam-room door, I could see the officer sitting there, wearing a surgical mask, his eyes red and tearing, his nose running. My eyes and nose did likewise, yet neither of us had been sprayed.

Mutely seated on the exam table was one of the thieves; the other was showering. The one before us was caked with pepper from the neck of his T-shirt to his upper forehead. The totally intoxicated, peppered pair made it past the guard, dove into their Ford Pinto, and, through what must have a waterfall of tears, drove into a masonry wall of an adjacent, big-box store.

In the last two decades, pepper spray and its active ingredient from cayenne peppers, capsaicin and related compounds, has replaced “Mace” in law enforcement and personal-protection use. Detested for its use in the ’60s and ’70s, Mace is now a brand name, among others, for pepper spray. Probably of little surprise, capsaicin sprays are simply more effective. Many violent people, be they psychotic, on PCP, methamphetamine or otherwise intoxicated, are more resistant to traditional “Mace” than to capsaicin.

Pepper sprays are marketed for personal protection/safety, menacing dogs and repelling bears. For use against bears, federal regulations require at least 1 percent capsaicin. Bear-repellant, aerosol cans deliver more volume than “personal safety” cans and have longer range – up to 30 feet, check labels. Whether one carries bear repellant or a handgun (or both), the deterrent has to be immediately available and the owner completely familiar with its use.

Eye contact is essential – a cloud of spray rather than spot-on will do – resulting in immediate, severe eye pain, watering and loss of vision. If the respiratory tract is hit, throat and chest burning occur as well as coughing and shortness of breath. Water washing is ineffective, and symptoms usually resolve in less than an hour. Deaths from capsaicin are either very rare or nonexistent, depending on whether one’s allegiance is to the American Civil Liberties Union or law enforcement.

Does spraying bears simply make them angrier, more aggressive? No. Increased aggression has not appeared in any species studied: dogs, cats, aggressive deer, black or grizzly bears – whether free-ranging or caged. A U.S. Forest Service article, “Reactions of Free-Ranging Black Bears to Capsaicin Spray Repellant,” has details.

Another “detail” to consider is the legal status of pepper spray. In a number of foreign countries, sprays have the status of weapons – for law enforcement use only. Or spray may be available only by license or sold solely “for animal defense.” In Canada, any spray for use against humans is prohibited, other than by law enforcement.

Whatever the legal status (check, if traveling), capsaicin, properly used, is a good choice. Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.