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The Big Three Chemical Weapons

by Terry Allen

Each of the three chemical weapons used by the Seattle police—CN and CS tear gases and pepper spray—carries risks. The danger depends not only on how and on whom the weapons are used, but on the particular strength and composition of the weapons. Along with the active ingredient, manufacturers add solvents and propellants to create effective aerosol weapons. Some of the chemicals are known to be hazardous; some may be dangerous when used in combination. Their risks may not be known even to those deploying them.

CN tear gas (-chloroacetophenone)

While CN, or mace, is already the most toxic and volatile of the agents, the Def-Tec formula used in Seattle added 50 percent methylene chloride, a toxic solvent. OSHA considers it a "potential occupational carcinogen." The EPA classifies both CN and methylene chloride as hazardous chemicals and requires notifications of release.

CN has been implicated in allergic reactions, permanent eye damage, severe skin burning, and even death. According to Harvard epidemiologist Howard Hu, "Little is known regarding its potential for chronic pulmonary or genotoxic effects or for potential effects on reproduction."

Because of its greater toxicity and instability, the Army and NATO have removed CN from their arsenals and replaced it with CS.

CS tear gas (o-chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile)

Like CN, CS is actually a solid (not a gas) that is mixed with a pyrotechnic base and then exploded or sprayed using a pressurized aerosol. CS raises blood pressure, has caused permanent eye damage when used at close range or at high levels, and in rare instances has led to fatal heart failure and pulmonary edema. In vitro tests have shown it to be clastogenic and mutagenic. The United Nations documented dozens of deaths resulting after the Israeli army used CS in closed spaces against Palestinians.

As with all these chemicals, it puts people with asthma, diabetes, and heart conditions at increased risk. "Of particular concern," Hu wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "are allegations that exposure to tear gas has been associated with increases in miscarriages and stillbirths. . . . Use in civil unrest demonstrates that exposure to the weapon is difficult to control and indiscriminate and the weapon is often not used correctly."

In 1998, the British medical journal The Lancet called for CS spray to be withdrawn from police until more research has been carried out into health implications. Last September, a British government inquiry found that "very little" scientific information existed and that "no comprehensive investigation of the effects of CS spray in humans was available, nor has there been any systematic follow-up of individuals who have been sprayed."

OC (oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray)

Made from the cayenne pepper plant, OC's reputation as a safe but stunningly painful weapon makes it very popular with police, but may also contribute to abuses. As of February 1998, the International Association of Chiefs of Police documented 113 in-custody deaths in the United States where pepper spray was used. Those who died also had various complicating factors such as preexisting health conditions or drug intoxication, or they died of positional asphyxia after being left face down with hands cuffed behind their backs.

Harry Salem, a scientist with the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground who justified CS as "the safest and most potent riot control agent we know," is less sanguine about pepper spray. In unpublished research, he charges that "studies reported on the active ingredient, capsaicin, indicate that it is capable of producing mutagenic and carcinogenic effects, sensitization, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity, as well as possible fatalities. . . . The data on capsaicin indicates that there are risks using this product on a large and varied population."

Amnesty International characterizes use of pepper spray against nonthreatening suspects as "tantamount to torture."

Britain bans its use.

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