The science behind “riot agents” 

By now we’re sure you’re aware that dozens of Missoula residents noticed a marked decrease in air quality early Sunday morning when police dispensed a liberal volume of pepper spray in downtown Missoula. If you were one of the unfortunate citizens who was assaulted with this “less-than-lethal” weapon, to use police jargon, you may have been wondering to yourself, “Jesus, what the hell is with this, anyway?”

Funny you should ask. It just so happens that our defense analysts here at the Indy have done their homework on the topic of “harrassing agents.” These chemicals, which are also known as “riot agents,” include the ubiquitous tear gas and increasingly popular pepper spray which is favored by the Missoula Police Department.

There are three main varieties of riot agent. The first and most common is called CS (orthochlorobenzalmalononitrile), commonly referred to as tear gas. Its effects include severe irritation of the eyes, mucous membranes and respiratory tract, tightening of the throat and chest, dizziness and copious tearing. The effects will usually wear off in about an hour. A second type of tear gas called CN (chloroacetophenone) is frequently and incorrectly referred to as Mace, which is a brand name. CN loses the popularity contest to CS due to its milder effects, but it does act more quickly, within 2-3 seconds. The agent that’s gaining a lot of recognition these days, however is OC (oleoresin capsicum), pepper spray in layman’s terms. Actually manufactured from hot peppers, OC is regarded as “more humane” than its synthetic counterparts, though most who’ve had a taste of both will tell you that OC provides a more distressing experience. OC is an inflammatory agent which inflames the eyes, nose, mouth and even dry skin, with the appropriate respiratory distress. God forbid you get it in your ears. These effects will last for well over two hours, but you’ll be feeling it for days. It is extremely painful.

As if that weren’t irritating enough, there’s also a significant ethical controversy surrounding the use of the above-mentioned weapons. Despite the fact that the UN voted in 1969 to include riot agents in the list of chemicals that are banned from use against soldiers, they remain legal for use against civilians in the United States and many other countries around the world. Go figure. The status of riot agents as “less-than-lethal” is also a bone of contention. Many reports from police and military tests, as well as a variety of medical journals, indicate that the effects of riot agents may not be that benign after all. As with anything that causes respiratory distress, there is a danger of pulmonary edema and respiratory arrest. Missoula’s penchant for all things organic isn’t without its evils either. The “more humane” OC is actually capable, in some cases, of provoking anaphylaxis, an often fatal allergic reaction. In fact, Seattle Weekly reported in March that as of February 1998, the International Association of Chiefs of Police had documented 113 cases of people dying in police custody who had been sprayed with OC.

There is also speculation that the solvent used in aerosol versions of CS is carcinogenic.

You know, the Army Navy store used to have a pretty good deal on surplus gas masks.

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