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A line of police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House June 1. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) A line of police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House June 1. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A line of police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House June 1. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg June 8, 2020

Barr says federal police didn’t use chemical irritants to clear area by DC church. They did

If Your Time is short

  • Attorney General William Barr said federal officers did not use chemical irritants to clear protesters from around a D.C. church that Trump was to visit.

  • Park Police say they used pepper balls from the PepperBall company.

  • The company’s weakest pepper ball contains a synthetic compound that government agencies describe as a chemical irritant.

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 D.C church President Donald Trump was due to visit.

Appearing on CBS News’ Face the Nation, Barr said 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 on 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 web page on the active ingredient in PAVA powder nonivamide carries these four warning pictograms:

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After the incident near the church, there was extensive coverage of 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.

RELATED: White House says officers didn’t fire tear gas, rubber bullets on protesters. Why that’s misleading

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.

Our ruling

Barr said federal officers used no chemical irritants to clear people away from a D.C. 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.

 

Our Sources

CBS News, Face the Nation — William Barr, June 7, 2020

PepperBall, LIVE, accessed June 7, 2020

U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nonivamide, accessed June 8, 2020

ScienceDirect, Nonivamide, 2015

Fox News, Park Police walk back tear gas denial in aggressive Lafayette Park clearing, June 6, 2020

U.S. Justice Department, Review of the Department of Justice’s Use of LessLethal Weapons, May 2009

Statement, U.S. Park Police, June 4, 2020

U.S. Park Police, Statement from United States Park Police acting Chief Gregory T. Monahan about the actions taken over the weekend to protect life and property, June 2, 2020

U.S. Defense Department Non-Lethal Weapons Program, U.S. Coast Guard Pepperball Launcher Systems, accessed Jun 3, 2020

WTOP, 4th day of DC protests saw marchers hit with smoke, rubber bullets, June 2, 2020

Ken Duffy- WTOP News, tweet, June 1, 2020

Alejandro Alvarez, tweet, June 1, 2020

U.S. Criminal Justice Research Service, Impact Munitions Data Base of Use and Effects, February 2004

Committee on Toxicity, Statement on combined exposure to 2-chlorobenzylidene malonitrile (CS) and PAVA (nonivamide) sprays, January 2006

KFMX, Lubbock D.J. Takes Pepperball To The Chest, Oct. 4, 2010

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More by Jon Greenberg

Barr says federal police didn’t use chemical irritants to clear area by DC church. They did

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