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Public Health - Seattle & King County

Riot control agents - pepper spray and tear gas

Riot control agents are also known as tear gas, irritants, and lacrimators (tear producers). Injuries from riot control agents are rarely serious and exposed persons do not usually seek medical assistance after exposure to these agents. Pepper spray and CS are dispersed into the air as aerosols or powders. Your eyes are very sensitive to exposure and the discomfort can temporarily disable you. Symptoms appear very rapidly and then usually improve quickly. This message is intended to provide additional information about potential health effects that can occur after exposure to these chemicals.

What is pepper spray?

Pepper spray contains capsaicin, a chemical derived from cayenne, paprika, or chilies. Capsaicin causes extreme irritation and pain when you are first exposed. However, repeated exposure to skin makes people less sensitive to pain. For this reason, capsaicin is available in a cream and is used to treat arthritis or other painful conditions.

What is CS?

CS is one of several chemicals commonly called "Tear Gas." CS is a powder and is dispersed into the air as either an aerosol or powder. The chemical name for CS is o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile.

What are the potential health effects of pepper spray and tear gas?

These riot control agents affect the eyes, airways and skin. Exposure to pepper spray and CS causes burning, irritation, tearing and pain in the eyes.

Airway symptoms include burning, sneezing, cough, shortness of breath and increased secretions such as runny nose and increased salivation. Gagging and vomiting may also occur. People with pre-existing respiratory problems, such as upper respiratory infections, asthma, or emphysema, may be more sensitive to CS or pepper spray. The very old or very young may be more sensitive to chemical exposures than other individuals. In these groups of people, symptoms may take longer to clear up.

Skin symptoms include burning, redness and irritation. High concentrations of CS can cause blistering of the skin. Effects usually occur within seconds after exposure begins and symptoms usually end within 30-60 min after exposure stops. For some people symptoms can take a few days to clear up completely. Effects on skin may take longer to improve.

More severe health effects have been seen when people remain in an enclosed space where CS is present. In these cases exposure was for up to an hour or more and the concentrations of CS were much higher than seen in outdoor air. Severe effects would not be expected when people are exposed for a short time while outdoors.

Will I experience health problems in the future if I have been exposed to CS or pepper spray?

For most people, health effects improve quickly and no future health problems would be expected. After being exposed to CS once though, some people can have more severe skin reactions the next time they are exposed. For these people, a second exposure to the chemical can cause a skin reaction called allergic contact dermatitis. Dermatitis can include severe redness, swelling, and blistering. There is no evidence that exposure to CS or pepper spray causes birth defects.

How can I decontaminate myself?

You can decontaminate yourself by washing your skin with soap and water. Wash your clothes separately from the rest of your laundry.

What medical treatments do you need after exposure?

Symptoms generally improve without medical treatment. However, if you have special concerns about pre-existing medical conditions, experience severe symptoms that do not improve within the expected time frame, or continue to experience health problems, you should contact your health care provider.