The investigation by a team from the Maudsley Hospital, south London, into the use of the painful spray, revealed that a third of NHS hospitals said they had treated psychiatric patients brought in by the police after the spray was used. The report, the first national survey of the use of CS on the mentally ill, describes the practice as "inappropriate".
"Our fear is that more and more police officers accept the use of CS spray as a first line of defence. We have got to stop this tide," said Ben Thomas, chief nursing adviser at the Maudsley. Last night, Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity, Sane, described it as "a scandal" and symptomatic of the neglect that community care had brought about.
The immediate effect of CS sprayis intense and overwhelming pain, particularly around the eyes. Later effects include blistering, dermatitis, and allergic sensitisation. High levels have also been linked to heart attacks. There are additional risks if the person affected suffers asthma or other breathing problems, is taking medication, and is also restrained. The hazards for those already on anti-psychotic medication are unknown.
CS spray is being used increasingly by police to quell disturbances. In the past year it has been used against football fans, New Age travellers and protesting beef farmers. Since last October it has been available to all members of the Metropolitan Police.
The Maudsley report says the mentally ill are patients, not criminals, and urges action from the Department of Health. A spokesman for the Maudsley said yesterday: "The inappropriate use of CS poses a serious health risk to the mentally ill and nursing staff. There should be an urgent review of its use. The police are using it to subdue people before bringing them to hospital."
The report calls for a ban on such use of CS spray. In 12 incidents the spray was used on hospital premises to quieten patients, the authors say. Nineteen of the NHS trusts reported adverse effects of the spray on the health and safety of staff or patients; one nurse with asthma needed emergency treatment, and one trust reported seeing patients where CS spray had been used regularly once a fortnight.
Fraser Bell, a senior research nurse and one of the report's authors, said: "The most common pattern is that police use the spray, then bring the patients into acute wards. It is alarming that it's also used on NHS premises.
One mental health practitioner told the researchers: "I thought CS was to help police prevent crime, not hit people with mental health problems. In the past, police would have spent more time talking to patients. The spray seems like a short-cut, a quick and easy answer. These are patients that nurses deal with daily - we don't have to resort to this."
Five NHS trusts in the South and West, and four in the North-west, had reported use of CS spray by police.