What's really in pepper spray? - KMSP-TV

What's really in pepper spray?

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Pepper spray is supposed to be a safe option for law enforcement, but how safe is it? Surprisingly, even law enforcement can't even tell you exactly what's in it.

"Unfortunately, there aren't any standards," said Professor Charlie Mesloh, a professor of criminal justice at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Mesloh is also the director of the Weapons and Equipment Research Institute.  It's the only place in the county testing nonlethal firepower.

"Taser seems to be the most reliable of all the products," offered Mesloh. "We don't play favorites between the companies."

The criminal justice professor shares his research results with law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Justice, which provided funding for the Weapons and Equipment Research Institute.

"We've tested grenade launchers, bean bags, rubber buck shot, and chemical agents," he continued.

Mesloh estimates that, over the years, he's tested dozens of different brands of pepper spray and what concerns him most is the contents are unregulated.

"I could put dishwater in it or Agent Orange because there's nobody to say I can't."

His testing has turned up dimethyl sulfoxide (DSMO), which he says helps the chemical quickly absorb into the body and is used often times in veterinary medicine.

"We have heard there's a company that's using some type of dry cleaning solvent as their secret ingredient. The problem is we can't really divulge that because it's covered by the Trade Secrets Act."

In addition to the lack of regulation, there's also no state or federal agency which tracks pepper spray deaths or accidents, which concerns attorney Nick DiChello.

"I think more and more information is coming out that this stuff can be dangerous," he said.

The Cleveland-based attorney represents the estate of Nick Christie, an Ohio man who died after being repeatedly pepper sprayed in the Lee County jail. A photo obtained by FOX 13 Investigates shows him naked, restrained with a spit mask covering his mouth, and pepper spray dripping off his body.

Even though Christie's death was ruled a homicide, nobody was criminal charged. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into the matter at the governor's request after a FOX 13 investigation gained national and international attention.

But last month, FDLE found no reason to open a new criminal investigation. Nick Christie's widow is outraged and is suing for her day in court.

DiChello says law enforcement uses material safety data sheets to make decisions on what brand and concentration of pepper spray to buy, but they should know the exact contents.

"If a correction officer or law enforcement is given permission under the law to use this on your eyes, nose, skin and in your mouth, then the pubic should be entitled to know what's in this stuff," DiChello stated.

FOX 13 learned some cadets required medical attention after being sprayed during training at the Southwest Criminal Justice Academy. When we requested more information from the school, we got a one-line e-mail confirming an incident occurred "that involved nine cadets."

We asked for the complete records, even appealed to Florida's attorney general, but got nowhere.

Our exchange didn't surprise Professor Mesloh. He's brought his concerns about the dangers of pepper spray to the attention of OSHA and the FDA and suggested that perhaps the federal government needs to regulate the contents, but both agencies have chosen to look the other way.

"I don't like surprises, I don't think police departments do either," Mesloh added. "They have to assume everything is above board, but they have no way of knowing that for sure."
  

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