Acid attacks: Calls for ban of lethal ‘face melter’ acid used in shocking crime wave
- Credit: Archant photographer
It can cook meat, melt clothing and has been used in a spiralling number of crimes across London. The Times investigates how easy it is to buy lethal acids online
This is the lethal “face melter” acid that can burn and maim people in seconds - and has been used in a wave of shocking attacks across the capital.
The Brent & Kilburn Times bought three bottles of the super-strength drain unblocker via Amazon this week for less than £15 - and was even offered free delivery. Similar products are widely available online.
Placing the order took less than two minutes and we were not subject to any age checks or safety warnings.
Yet if the chemical was weaponised, by putting it into a drinks bottle and throwing it at someone, it would inflict devastating injuries.
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Our own tests showed the acid badly scorched and burned a T-shirt and left a meat steak grey and charred.
A top police officer has said the ease with which the BK Times bought the product “drives home the absolute need for change” around the sale of strong acids.
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“If you’re talking about sulphuric acids of 96 per cent proof - which is going to cause instant, horrendous injuries - then we need to look at regulation when it comes to licensing and buying it,” said Det Supt Mike West, the Metropolitan Police’s lead on corrosive based crime.
The number of acid attacks in Brent doubled last year, although the overall figures were still low compared to hotspot areas in east London boroughs.
But experts have highlighted that lax laws around the sale of acids may be contributing to the rise in attacks London-wide.
Currently the sale of acids and bleaches, from everyday household cleaning products to industrial strength drain cleaners, are completely unregulated.
Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, said he was “sadly not surprised” the Times was able to buy 96 per cent proof acid online.
“I think online retailers really need to look into their responsibilities,” he said. “If a perpetrator uses concentrated acid as a weapon and the intended victim is targeted on the face, then what you will see are life-long injuries for the survivor.”
Criminologist Dr Simon Harding, of Middlesex University, said it was shocking and an “absolute scandal” these products were so widely available.
The cheap and easy supply of corrosive substances has led to demands for a change in the law.
A petition calling for a ban on the sale of acids to anyone without a licence has gathered half a million signatures.
The consensus among experts is that strong acids, such as drain unblocker, should only be sold to those with a licence, and other household cleaning products should be available only to over 18s.
London-wide the number of acid attacks almost doubled from 2015 to 2016 and police say it has become a “weapon of choice” partly due to ease of access.
Det Supt West told the BK Times the Met is treating corrosive crime as seriously as gun and knife crime.
“The injuries are just horrific,” he said. “They will not be easily hidden by victims and it’s practically a life sentence for them. So that keeps all our minds focused in regard to the work that we’re doing.”
The Met chief is involved with the Home Office and the British Retail Consortium on work to try and introduce voluntary agreements on the sale of corrosive substances.
An update is due in December and could be a precursor to a change in the law.
Hexeal Chemicals, the company that supplied the drain unblocker, said it would withdraw the product from market once current stocks are sold out.
Amazon declined to comment.
Acid attacks: The figures in Brent
? Police figures show 34 acid attacks took place in Brent from 2010 to 2017.
? There were seven attacks in 2016, compared to three the previous year.
? Newham had the highest number of crimes involving corrosive fluids in London - with 415 attacks from 2010 to 2017.
? Across London the number of acid attacks almost doubled last year.
? During a recent Brent and Harrow Trading Standards operation in Harrow all of the shops tested sold acid to a 16-year-old with no questions asked.
? Cllr Ketan Sheth, chair of Brent’s community and wellbeing scrutiny committee, told members in a briefing: “The significant spike in acid attacks in London is troubling and requires a fast response from us, in the interests of offsetting risks and preventing this terrible crime as far as we can. However, I would like to reassure members that at this point Brent has not been particularly affected.”
NEXT WEEK: Met chief reveals why acid is now a weapon of choice and how the force is tackling corrosive crime