One hundred years ago, an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville developed a scale to measure the intensity of a pepper’s burn. The scale – as you can see on this widely used chart – puts sweet bell peppers at the zero mark and the blistering habenero at up to 350,000 Scoville Units.
As the chart makes clear, commercial grade pepper spray leaves even the most painful of natural peppers (the Himalayan ghost pepper) far behind. It’s listed at between 2 million and 5.3 million Scoville units. The lower number refers to the kind of pepper spray that you and I might be able to purchase for self-protective uses. And the higher number? It’s the kind of spray that police use, the super-high dose given in the orange-colored spray used at UC-Davis.
The reason pepper-spray ends up on the Scoville chart is that – you probably guessed this – it’s literally derived from pepper chemistry, the compounds that make habaneros so much more formidable than the comparatively wimpy bells. Those compounds are called capsaicins and – in fact – pepper spray is more formally called Oleoresin Capsicum or OC Spray.
The dangers of a high level of capsaicin exposure
As pointed out in the 2004 paper, Health Hazards of Pepper Spray, written by health researchers at the University of North Carolina and Duke University, the sprays contain other risky materials:
Depending on brand, an OC spray may contain water, alcohols, or organic solvents as liquid carriers; and nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or halogenated hydrocarbons (such as Freon, tetrachloroethylene, and methylene chloride) as propellants to discharge the canister contents.(3) Inhalation of high doses of some of these chemicals can produce adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurologic effects, including arrhythmias and sudden death.
The Journal of Correctional Health Care has the abstract on line for “The Human Health Effects of Pepperspray – A Review of the Literature and Commentary.” Within this abstract, it states:
Studies of the effects of capsaicin on human physiology, anecdotal experience with field use of pepperspray, and controlled exposure of correctional officers in training have shown adverse effects on the lungs, larynx, middle airway, protective reflexes, and skin. Behavioral and mental health effects also may occur if pepperspray is used abusively.
Hmmmm… since I live in the desert Southwest (New Mexico), this chart may be of some benefit to me when shopping for peppers…. I am not a native here, but rather from Indiana. Even after eleven years here, I still cannot tell a chile pepper from a habaneros… and I wouldn’t want to have that mix-up if I’m wanting to add chile to my stew. A taste of unexpected habaneros may send me running for the garden hose to spray out my mouth.
Now… you don’t think these are examples of abusing the use of pepper spray do you?