CINCINNATI -- Tasers are touted by law enforcement as a non-lethal way to control unruly subjects, but a new study finds the use of Tasers can be tied to cardiac arrest and death.
A study published this week in the journal Circulation represents the first peer-reviewed evidence that Tasers can bear a lethal risk.
Dr. Douglas Zipes, an electrophysiologist at Indiana University, wrote that a review of "animal and clinical data" showed that Taser strikes to the chest can "cause cardiac electrical capture," which can trigger a heart attack.
The Taser, used by about 16,000 law enforcement agencies around the world, is marketed as a way to subdue an individual without causing substantial injury or death.
But since 2001, more than 500 people have died following Taser stuns, according to Amnesty International, which said in February that stricter guidelines for its use were "imperative."
In only a few dozen of those cases have medical examiners ruled the Taser contributed to the death.
TASER International, which manufactures the device, did not immediately comment on the particulars of the Circulation article.
Instead, the Scottsdale, Ariz., company cited a U.S. Department of Justice study in May that concluded "there is currently no medical evidence that CEDs (controlled energy devices, which include Tasers) pose a significant risk ... for humans when deployed reasonably."
The Justice study also reported that "the risks of cardiac arrhythmias or death remain low and make CEDs more favorable than other weapons."
Taser International turned its fire on Zipes, whom the company has criticized before for taking money for testifying against the device in lawsuits.
" ... (It) is noteworthy that ... Zipes has earned more than $500,000 in fees at $1,200 per hour as a plaintiff's expert witness against TASER and police," the company said in a statement. "Clearly, Dr. Zipes has a strong financial bias based on his career as an expert witness."
Zipes pointed to the fact that his study was subject to two layers of close review by cardiologists. Circulation is the premier journal of the American Heart Association.
"It is absolutely unequivocal based on my understanding of how electricity works on the heart, based on good animal data and based on numerous clinical situations that the Taser unquestionably can produce sudden cardiac arrest and death," Zipes said.
He said he wrote the article, not to condemn the weapon, but to warn police officers of its potential to kill so that they can make good policies and decisions as to the proper use of the weapon, and so that they will be attentive to the possible need for medical care following a Taser stun.
Dr. Robert Myerburg, a professor of cardiology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, co-authored a Circulation editorial in the same issue that noted Tasers, even if not risk free, may still be preferable to other methods police might use to subdue suspects.
Myerburg noted that Zipes' role in litigation involving Taser deaths have allowed him extensive access to medical records, police reports and autopsy files to gain an in-depth look at fatalities.
(Julie O'Neill is a news anchor and Investigative Team reporter for WCPO-TV, a Scripps-owned station in Cincinnati.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)