What is the safety of 'pepper spray' use by law enforcement or mental health service staff?

Broadstock M
Record ID 32002000889
Authors' objectives:

The safety of pepper spray is the subject of this Tech Brief. It aims to consider evidence for adverse events of pepper spray used in ways comparable to their application by police officers or mental health service personnel to acutely subdue a disturbed person. It also aims to identify situations or populations related with increased risk.

Authors' recommendations: It is difficult to make conclusions on the safety of pepper spray use by police officers and mental health service staff given the methodological limitations of the evidence base, and the many gaps in current knowledge. However, the connection of pepper spray with deaths in custody in the United States, even when the medical condition of the victim and lack of proper after-care are accepted as contributing factors, is of concern. Health effects described in the two large, well conducted studies of sprayed suspects attending emergency rooms appear reasonably likely to have resulted from pepper spray use (although not necessarily as a single contributing factor, and not necessarily when used in accordance with established guidelines). Whilst these health effects cannot be directly attributed to pepper spray use given the epidemiological limitations of the study designs used to date, there does appear to be sufficient data to warrant caution. A careful approach, advocated by a consultative report to the European Parliament, would be to oppose the deployment or usage of pepper spray until independent research has more fully evaluated the risks it poses to health. This report discusses the safety of the use of pepper spray. However, this risk needs to be balanced against the alternatives and their associated risks as well as the problems that may arise if control is not established. For example, pepper spray has been reportedly associated with a reduction in violent encounters and injury to police officers and suspects. Although beyond the scope of the current report, decision-makers concerned with the continued use of pepper spray in New Zealand need to balance such aspects of the agents effectiveness against relatively rare, though potentially serious adverse events that may arise from the use of pepper spray. In the absence of clear evidence, taking into account the inherent risks of managing people who are behaviourally disturbed and the risks of applying alternative techniques of control or restraint, may lead to a decision that, when used appropriately, pepper sprays safety profile appears to be currently acceptable. If this approach is followed, guidelines for use should be adhered to and compliance with them closely and regularly monitored. The use of pepper spray may be less supportable in the training of police officers, which has been advocated to help them understand the sprays effectiveness, have compassion for victims, and be wary of accidental self-exposure. Due to the potential health risks to officers, it has been argued that such practices be discontinued or at least modified. More robust research in this area is keenly needed and the conclusions of this Tech Brief should be revisited in the face of additional, reliable evidence.
Authors' methods: Systematic review
Project Status: Completed
Year Published: 2002
English language abstract: An English language summary is available
Publication Type: Not Assigned
Country: New Zealand
MeSH Terms
  • Restraint, Physical
  • Capsicum
  • Plant Extracts
Organisation Name: New Zealand Health Technology Assessment
Contact Address: Department of Public Health and General Practice, Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago, P.O. Box 4345, Christchurch, New Zealand. Tel: +64 3 364 1145; Fax: +64 3 364 1152;
Contact Name: nzhta@chmeds.ac.nz
Contact Email: nzhta@chmeds.ac.nz
Copyright: New Zealand Health Technology Assessment (NZHTA)
This is a bibliographic record of a published health technology assessment from a member of INAHTA or other HTA producer. No evaluation of the quality of this assessment has been made for the HTA database.