The lethal ‘face melter’ acid on sale for £4.66 a bottle – with no checks on buyers
PUBLISHED: 11:18 30 August 2017 | UPDATED: 11:57 30 August 2017
It can cook flesh and burn through clothing in moments – yet super-strength acid can still be bought cheaply, quickly and without any age checks. Investigations journalist Emma Youle hears the arguments in favour of stronger regulation.
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 Gazette bought three bottles of the super-strength drain unblocker on Amazon this week for less than £15. Similar products are widely available online.
Placing the order took less than two minutes and we were not subject to any age checks. Yet if the chemical were weaponised by simply putting it into a drinks bottle and throwing it at someone, it would inflict devastating injuries.
Our own test showed the acid badly burned a T-shirt and charred a steak.
A top police officer has said the ease with which the Gazette bought the product “drives home the absolute need for change” around the sale of strong acids.
“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 Met’s lead on corrosive based crime.
Islington had 50 acid attacks from 2010 to 2017 – the tenth highest number in the capital – and experts have highlighted that lax laws around the purchase of acids may have contributed to a rise in attacks London-wide.
Currently the sale of acids and bleaches, from everyday household cleaning products to industrial strength drain cleaners, is unregulated.
Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, said he was “sadly not surprised” the Gazette 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, easy supply of corrosive substances has led to demands for a change in the law.
A petition calling on the government to ban the sale of high-strength acids to anyone without a licence has gathered half a million signatures.
Former gang member Gwenton Sloley, now a government advisor and youth outreach worker in Islington, said the penalties for using acid as a weapon must also be clearly spelled out.
“All shops should not only display the age you have to be to buy acid, but also the consequences and tough sentences if it is used as a weapon,” he said.
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.
In 2002 Bangladesh banned the open sale of acid and imposed stringent punishment for offenders, which has seen the number of attacks fall by 15 to 20 per cent a year in the country. By contrast, the number of acid attacks in London almost doubled from 2015 to 2016.
Det Supt West told the Gazette the Met is treating corrosive based 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 we’re doing.”
The Met chief is working with the Home Office and British Retail Consortium to broker voluntary agreements limiting 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 when contacted by the Gazette.
Council calls on ministers to act urgently on acid sales
Islington Council has supported tougher legislation on the sale of acids to tackle the scourge of “vile” attacks across the capital.
Advice has also been issued to shopkeepers warning of the risks of selling corrosive substances.
Cllr Andy Hull, executive member for community safety, said: “Islington Council supports tighter restrictions on the sale of acids and corrosive substances, and tougher penalties for anyone who uses them as weapons, or carries them for use as weapons.
“We are producing a fact sheet for retailers giving advice and reminders on the controls and risks relating to acids and corrosive liquids.
“We will also continue to work closely with police through the Safer Islington Partnership to look at how we can best prevent acid attacks in Islington.”
He added: “Acid attacks are vile. They destroy lives and spread fear. We condemn them in the strongest terms.”
Acid attacks in Islington: The figures
- There were 50 attacks with corrosive liquids in Islington from 2010 to 2017, the tenth highest number in the capital.
- The east London boroughs of Newham, Barking and Dagenham, and Tower Hamlets have had the highest number of acid attacks since 2010.
- London-wide, the number of attacks has almost doubled in the last two years, from 261 in 2015 to 454 last year.
- But numbers in Islington were relatively low in 2016, with only nine acid attacks in the borough.
- A moped rider in St Paul’s Road was attacked with acid overnight on July 13, in a 90-minute spree that also included four attacks in Hackney and another in Stratford. A teenager is currently awaiting trial
- On April 8 a family out for a stroll with their two-year-old son in a pushchair in Copenhagen Street had acid thrown at them. The 40-year-old father suffered life-changing injuries