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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Cardiologist, heart surgeon tell Taser inquiry weapon can cause cardiac arrest

May 20, 2008
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — Two heart specialists told an inquiry into the use of Tasers on Tuesday that a jolt from the weapons can "almost certainly" cause heart problems and possibly even sudden cardiac arrest.

Dr. Michael Janusz, a heart surgeon and professor of surgery at the University of British Columbia, told the inquiry that based on his study of available literature on Taser use, "almost all physicians would conclude that Tasers can induce ventricular fibrillation."

The hearing was told ventricular fibrillation is an extremely rapid rhythm in the heart's lower chambers, leading to ineffective contractions of the heart.

"In summary, Tasers almost certainly can cause cardiac arrest in humans, particularly in people with underlying heart disease," Janusz said.

A spokesman for Taser International has told the inquiry that Tasers are not risk free and that the term "non-lethal" does not mean safe.

Taser International has maintained there's a big distinction between a Taser jolt being the cause of a death and it being a contributing factor.

Dr. Charles Kerr, another UBC professor and a heart surgeon, told the inquiry Tuesday that based on his reading of animal studies and the agitated state of most people who receive a Taser shock, he has concluded a Taser jolt could induce ventricular fibrillation.

"Whatever the cause of death in patients receiving Taser discharges, there does appear to be the potential of a cardiac arrest situation, as has been demonstrated on a number of occasions," Kerr said.

In a state of ventricular fibrillation, "the heart cannot pump blood and, unless it is interrupted quickly, sudden cardiac death will follow."

Both men also agreed outside the inquiry that the Taser may still be preferable to a firearm or a club.

Kerr was asked whether they should be used when many questions about their safety remain unanswered.

"My personal opinion is that they are probably better than a bullet but I think we need to have the understanding that the entire situation, whether it's the Taser or (Taser contribution) there is no question that there have been situations of sudden death," Kerr told reporters.

Janusz said each situation that a police officer uses a Taser has to be judged independently. "Certainly in many or most situations it's a safer alternative than a gun or a club. "But I believe the risks are there and you have to be cognitive of the risks and be prepared to deal with any consequence arising from it."

The current phase of the inquiry is looking at the use of the weapon in general and the next phase will look specifically at the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport last fall, after he was hit with an RCMP Taser.

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