Tasers: what are the health implications?

Police use of tasers to subdue suspected criminals is again in the spotlight as Australian authorities investigate whether Western Australian officers should have fired aTaser at glue-sniffer Ronald Mitchell, 36, when he ran at them with a can of petrol and a cigarette lighter this week.

Mitchell suffered third-degree burns to 10 per cent of his body after bursting into flames following a Taser being fired at him. Whether the stun gun caused him to catch fire is the focus of investigations. The New Zealand Police have advised their usage guidelines forTasers prohibit them being used “near accelerants or flammable liquid”. In June, a north Queensland man died after he was repeatedly shot with a taser.

Meanwhile, a group of medical experts working at the emergency department of the Townsville Hospital in Queensland have put together a paper published this week in the journal Emergency Medicine Australasia looking at studies worldwide into the health impacts of tasers, with a view to better treating taser victims who end up being rushed to hospital.

Journalists can log into the SMC Resource Library to access the research.

The paper highlights the main health issues identified in relation to taser use including:

– The possibility of inducing cardiac arrhythmias

– Potential interference with implantable cardiac devices (pacemakers)

Excited delirium: the risk of sudden death is tasering of drug users and those who have exhibited extreme physical exertion.

– Potential for tasering to induce miscarriage in pregnant women.

– Traumatic injuries suffered when people are tasered in the face, particularly the eyes

– Potential injuries when people experience a fall as a result of being tasered.

– People with low body mass (skinny people) being more susceptible to a taser shot when there is a short dart to heart distance.

Interestingly, the paper notes the numerous animal experiments that have been done in testing the health impacts of tasers – in some cases, pigs fitted with pacemakers have been tasered to test the impacts on the fitted devices.

The paper also points out that despite tasers being used extensively in the US and other countries for decades now, there’s “limited research” into the health implications of taser use.

It concludes: “This review of the literature identifies a number of high-risk groups that will be exposed to the Taser. These include drug or alcohol-intoxicated patients, mental health patients and patients with pre-existing cardiovascular disease. Those exposed to multiple Taser exposures, those with a low body mass index and obstetric patients should be regarded as high risk.”