Contrary to the common belief, Vijayawada MP L. Rajagopal’s spray can did not contain either pepper or chilli powder.
What he used in the Lok Sabha in an act that left fellow MPs in tears and the entire House red-faced is a chemical substance banned in war.
The chemical is called capsaicin, derived from the fruits of plants like capsicum or chilli. What goes into the can, as sold in India, is capsaicin converted into a resin, mixed with an emulsifier and water, and then pressurised.
After the Delhi gang-rape, the sales of the spray spiked in India. A can contains 50-100 ml. Its use is banned in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits riot-control agents.
When sprayed on a person’s face, capsaicin immediately causes his/her eyes to close, obstructs breathing, causes a runny nose and coughing. As capsaicin is not soluble, washing the eyes after an attack does not help. Time is the main healer, typically one or two hours, depending on the person’s health.
“The spray contains an irritant that doesn’t burn but causes a reaction like a burn,” said Mohan Kameswaran, a senior ENT surgeon in Chennai. “In people with conditions like asthma or allergic conjunctivitis, it could worsen the condition and make it critical.”
According to the European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment report, published in 1998, temporary blindness is also possible for 15-30 minutes and upper-body spasms, for three to 15 minutes.
Though banned in many countries, pepper spray is legal in India and does not require any licence or documentation to buy. However, manufacturers require a government licence. A canister costs between Rs.150 and Rs. 1,000.