KODIAK — Nurses in Kodiak are reporting a startling uptick in accidental exposure to bear spray among kids this summer.
Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center E.R. nurse Lydia Cullum cited four cases of children under 10 being exposed to the highly irritating and potentially dangerous substance meant to disable bears in the event of a threat.
According to hospital records, only one case of accidental exposure was reported over the previous two years.
“I’m sure there’s more cases that do not come in,” noted Cullum, a PKIMC nurse since 2013. “Those are just the cases that come into the E.R.”
In all of the cases, Cullum said, the accidental discharge of the spray – similar to Mace – came without any bear threat present. They happened either at home or in the car.
“Kids were curious and exposed themselves,” Cullum said.
The active ingredient in bear spray is capsaicin, also found in chili peppers, which produces a burning sensation on the skin, eyes and any other exposed tissue.
In the most serious cases, the substance can cause temporary blindness or even permanent eye problems if sprayed at close range. If bear spray is inhaled, it can constrict the bronchial system and restrict breathing.
“It’s most scary when it gets in the eyes and the mouth,” Cullum said. “It can cause problems with vision, and problems with the airway. That’s when it’s essential for people to come to the E.R. right away.”
In the cases seen in the E.R. this year, patients’ symptoms have been burning, redness, and swelling where the substance touched the skin, Cullum said. The patients were discharged after a few hours, though in one very serious case, poison control was contacted.
“That kid got quite a significant dose,” Cullum said.
To treat exposure, one flushes the eyes and skin with copious amounts of water, and washes using an oil-cleansing soap like dish soap.
“It takes 15-20 minutes of showering,” Cullum said. Because bear spray is an oily substance, it’s necessary to use a degreasing soap like Dawn or another dish soap.
The poison control center suggested applying Maalox to the skin to soothe burning symptoms.
Carlie Franz, a PKIMC spokesperson, said it was unclear why so many kids were getting exposed this year.
“It’s really unusual for us to see this many, especially in such a short time period,” she said.
Nearly all bear spray canisters have a protective clip to guard against accidental discharges.
On a can of Counter Assault brand bear spray – the most commonly stocked brand in Kodiak – a plastic safety clip covers an “actuator tab” or trigger. To use the spray, one first pulls down the plastic clip with the thumb, exposing the tab. One then depresses the tab with the thumb to release the spray.
Though there is a safety mechanism, bear spray is meant to be used quickly – and most models are not kid proof, according to John Crye, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“It has to be easy to unlock, because if you do get charged by a bear, you have to move your thumb over it and undo it quickly,” he said. “As far as being childproof – no, they are not childproof.”
Counter Assault advertises an extended spray distance of up to 30 feet, and a capsaicin level of two percent – the highest allowed by the EPA.
According to the company website, exposure to the substance produces “an immediate but temporary burning sensation of the skin and a burning, tearing, and swelling of the eyes” among humans and animals. The website adds that “bear pepper spray is the most effective means of repelling an attacking grizzly or black bear in a non-toxic, non-lethal manner.”
Cullum said while it was not exactly clear how the children were exposed, it appeared the canisters had been found in accessible places.
“The bear sprays have been around, either in a hiking pack, or in a vehicle, or on a coffee table,” she said.
“We need to make sure that people have good safety measures on their bear spray cans,” she added, “whether it’s a zip tie, or another safety measure.”
Crye – who will be conducting a short bear safety class Thursday evening at the Bayside Fire Department – made a similar point.
“It’s something like a loaded gun in your car,” he said. “You definitely want to keep it away from kids.”