On a Sunday morning news show, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said federal officers used no chemical irritants to disperse a crowd of people near a Washington, D.C., church President Donald Trump was due to visit.
Appearing on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” Barr said the U.S. Park Police and Secret Service used “standard crowd control” methods during the June 1 action. Host Margaret Brennan reminded him that the Park Police had said chemical irritants were used.
“No, there were not chemical irritants,” Barr said June 7. “Pepper spray is not a chemical irritant. It’s not chemical.”
Brennan interjected: “Pepper spray, you’re saying, is what was used.”
“Pepper balls. Pepper balls,” Barr clarified.
Barr’s statement about chemical irritants is wrong. The Park Police issued a statement saying its units fired pepper balls, a product that contains a chemical irritant. Pepper balls are a generic term for small plastic balls that burst upon impact. They fall into the category of less-lethal impact munitions. Think of the popular mock battle game called paintball using balls filled with something other than paint.
The Park Police told PolitiFact that its officers deployed products from the PepperBall company.
The weakest variety of pepper ball on the PepperBall company’s website contains a 0.5% concentration of the chemical irritant pelargonic acid vanillylamide, or PAVA, a synthetic compound. (The company offers a version that is 10 times more potent, but it is unclear if Park Police used that one.)
“PAVA primarily affects the eyes causing closure and severe pain,” according to a report by Britain’s Committee on Toxicity, an independent scientific body that advises the government.
The National Institutes of Health webpage on the active ingredient in PAVA, powder nonivamide, carries these four warning pictograms:
After the incident near the church, there was extensive coverage regarding which devices federal officers used to send the crowd running. While there was debate over the description of the chemicals used, the Park Police confirmed that chemical agents had been deployed.
PAVA is the synthetic version of the natural chemical found in chili peppers. For those interested in chemistry, it is formed by “the formal condensation of the amino group of 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzylamine with the carboxy group of nonanoic acid,” according to the NIH website.
A Justice Department report on less-lethal weapons said pepper balls contain “highly irritating pepper powder.”
The PepperBall company’s website says its product is good for “area saturation,” meaning anyone close to the point of impact is affected by the chemical.
As the area outside the church was cleared, multiple eyewitnesses and news accounts reported noxious fumes that caused a burning sensation in protesters’ eyes and throats. As federal officers fired on the crowd near the church, protesters cried out that tear gas was being used.
We reached out to the Justice Department and did not hear back.
Barr said federal officers used no chemical irritants to clear people away from a District of Columbia church Trump planned to visit. He said pepper balls are not chemical irritants.
The Park Police used impact munitions made by the PepperBall company. Those munitions contain PAVA, a synthetic chemical that causes extreme eye pain.
The Justice Department says pepper balls contain “highly irritating pepper powder.”
We rate Barr’s claim Pants on Fire.
Jon Greenberg, PolitiFact
Kaiser Health News
Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.