Dangers of Bear Spray Explained After Arrests Over Capitol Officer Assault

Questions about bear spray have emerged following the arrest of two men charged with assaulting a Capitol Police officer with a chemical substance on January 6, search trends show.

Officer Brian Sicknick was sprayed during the riots and later died in hospital on January 7, though it has not been ascertained whether the spray—thought to have been bear spray—was the cause. Two other officers were also sprayed with the unknown substance and suffered injuries.

The men charged with the attack, Julian Khater and George Tanios, made court appearances on Monday and remain in detention for future hearings.

What is bear spray?

Bear spray is a chemical spray contained within a pressurized container and is intended to repel a bear attack.

The spray contains a chemical agent called capsaicin, which is produced naturally in red peppers and gives them spice.

Capsaicin acts as an irritant and causes a burning sensation in mucous membranes of the body. When it comes into contact with organs such as the eyes and nose, it causes them to swell and results in a temporary loss of sight and breathing difficulties.

This typically causes bears to leave the area, according to BearSmart, giving people time to get away from the animal.

There are different figures available on how much capsaicin should be in bear spray. BearSmart says the spray should have a minimum capsaicin concentration of 0.857 percent.

The ADFG says people should look for bear spray with a capsaicin concentration of 1 to 2 percent.

Is bear spray dangerous for humans?

Bear spray can also harm humans. The Alaska Department for Fish and Game (ADFG) says bear spray can leave the canister at speeds of over 70 miles per hour and can cause permanent damage to people's eyes.

BearSmart says bear spray will affect humans in a similar way to how it affects bears. It states: "A person contaminated with bear spray will experience the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and lungs to swell and be irritated. The eyes will involuntarily close and tear, the nose will run profusely, coughing will result."

The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) says affected individuals can rinse their eyes and skin slowly and gently with cold water if they are exposed to bear spray, while ice packs may help reduce inflammation.

It notes the effects of bear spray on humans should dissipate within 45 minutes, but that affected individuals should be closely monitored for signs such as chest pain, cold sweat, or shallow breathing. People with asthma may suffer worse effects.

It states: "If anything other than a normal reaction occurs or the symptoms persist beyond 45 minutes, medical attention should be given or summoned immediately."

Protester being sprayed with bear spray
A counter-protester sprays a Trump supporter with bear mace during a rally on December 12, 2020 in Olympia, Washington. Bear spray can harm humans and cause irritation, swelling, and burning sensations. David Ryder/Getty