Brain and Body

Tasers: More Deadly Than We Thought, Study Finds

November 24, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

X-26 Taser
Photo credit: jasonesbain/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)

The BMJ brings to light that the weapons manufacturer commissioned many of the safety studies.

Tasers are widely used by over 16,000 police forces in 107 countries, according to a new study. But the study, published on November 17th in the British Medical Journal, also finds that Tasers may have some potentially lethal effects on the heart, adding to the list of previously known risk factors associated with the weapon.

How do they work? Tasers use compressed nitrogen to fire barbed electrical probes that deliver a pulsed 50,000 volt shock, according to the report. The intense shock causes intense skeletal muscle contractions as well as pain.

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The X26 Taser model is the most commonly used Taser among law enforcement agents, so most of the tests have involved this model. The X26 can reach a suspect from 35 feet away. Unsurprisingly, the most common Taser injuries result from uncontrolled falls, which can lead to head injuries and even death. Some of the other well-documented risks are seizures, collapsed lungs, injuries to muscles, joints, or tendons, and skin burns or eye damage.

What’s unsettling is that police have increasingly been using Tasers in the line of duty. Recent controversy in Canada has brought the dangerous weapon into question, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reports that, since 2003, at least 20 people have died after Canadian police officers shocked them with Tasers. In the US, the number is even higher, as Amnesty International reports 490 Taser-caused deaths between 1990 and 2012, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The new research points to Tasers’ potentially lethal effects on the heart — extended shocks have led to issues with the heart's rhythm, as reported by Popular Science. In particular, the weapon can cause arrhythmias, ventricular fibrillation, and rapidly accelerating heartbeat.

Disturbingly, the report in the BMJ notes that safety studies on Tasers may not be as objective as they should be. Why? Because many of them are commissioned by the weapon’s manufacturer..

It’s clear that there must be some reform in Taser education — the genuine health risks as well as how police are trained to use them. While Tasers are certainly a safer alternative to guns, it’s critical that they’re used responsibly. A “non-lethal” weapon should under no circumstances be leading to civilian deaths.

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