FORT MYERS, Fla. - Law enforcement officers rave about pepper spray as a way to get compliance without drawing their guns. In recent weeks we've seen it gain scrutiny as law enforcement uses it as a way to control crowds at occupy events. But if you think it's natural and made of peppers, you're only about two-percent right. In fact, some ingredients in pepper spray are a highly guarded trade secret.
There are many more chemicals in a pepper spray canister than just the active ingredient pepper. Though companies may list some chemicals, others are not listed because they are considered a trade secret and legally protected under federal law.
At the Southwest Florida Public Service Academy in Fort Myers aspiring officers learn physical techniques to defend themselves. During their training cadets will also learn about chemical agents like pepper spray. They get first hand experience by, you guessed it, getting sprayed themselves.
"So they know what it feels like themselves. They know what it is like. They know that it works, how they feel and how they need decontamination," explained Correction Coordinator Robert Martin.
Martin said cadets also learn what's in the spray.
"It is a natural derivative of cayenne pepper. It's called capsicum which is the active ingredient. If anyone has ever eaten a hot or spicy food and then rubbed their eyes and you know that burning that you feel in your eyes? That is that same ingredient.
But Dr. Charles Mesloh says that's less than two-percent of what's in this cannister.
"Most pepper sprays are based on peppers but that's about it," he explained.
Mesloh directs the Weapons and Equipment Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University. He has tested dozens of pepper sprays for research and believes police and the public are ill informed about pepper spray.
Manufacturers do publish material data sheets listing their ingredients; however, under the trades secret act any chemical the company thinks is a trade secret they can leave off that sheet.
"So if napalm is my secret ingredient then I don't have to put it on there," Mesloh said.
For instance, some sprays contain dry cleaning chemicals. Another spray Mesloh tested contained a chemical called Dimethyl Sulfoxide or DMSO, a chemical used in veterinary medicine that absorbes instantly into the skin. http://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/summary/summary.cgi?cid=679
"So if you have a drop of it on the counter and you touch it you taste it the instant you touch it," Dr. Mesloh explained. "It absorbs that quickly into your skin. So I can absolutely see the benefit of putting a chemical agent in these. What I have a problem with is that the officers have no idea this is what is happening."
Mesloh says the danger is DMSO also carries other chemicals with it.
"So if you have a poison and the person has DMSO on their skin and they touch it they can absorb that into their skin just like they took that into their skin," he told WINK.
Mesloh says no one regulates this industry to keep it from happening, not the FDA, not the Consumer Product Safety Commission, no one.
"I can make my own pepper spray right here right now. I just get a bucket, put something in it, get a propellant, shove it in a can and I can put Dr. Mesloh's pepper spray and nobody can stop me," he said. "I can put gasoline in it and nobody is going to stop me. It is completely regulated by supply and demand."
And Mesloh believes that sets up these cadets who are learning this is a humane way of using force to take the blame when things go wrong.
"When the companies get sued enough, they'll change their product but they don't because it is really hard to prove that their product is the cause. It usually gets dumped back on the police department. The PD did the wrong thing. And I think it is the pepper spray company that did the wrong thing.
We looked through lawsuits filed in federal court and though you'll find several lawsuits against police departments, we only found one against a manufacturer of pepper spray.