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Acid attacks: Calls for ban of ‘face melter’ acid used in spiralling number of crimes

PUBLISHED: 12:34 31 August 2017 | UPDATED: 12:45 31 August 2017

This drain unblocker bought on Amazon contains 96 per cent proof sulphuric acid - which can cause horrendous injuries if used as a weapon

This drain unblocker bought on Amazon contains 96 per cent proof sulphuric acid - which can cause horrendous injuries if used as a weapon

Reporter Emma Youle

It can cook meat, melt clothing and has been used in a spiralling number of crimes across London. The Ham&High 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 Ham&High 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.

During a test, this t-shirt began to discolour and turn brown as soon as the strong acid drain unblocker was poured on to it. ALL PICTURES: ArchantDuring a test, this t-shirt began to discolour and turn brown as soon as the strong acid drain unblocker was poured on to it. ALL PICTURES: Archant

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 Ham&High 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 Metropolitan Police’s lead on corrosive based crime.

The number of acid attacks in Camden is very low compared to hotspot areas in east London boroughs such as Newham.

Within minutes the t-shirt was badly scorched and burned, and it completely dissolved in placesWithin minutes the t-shirt was badly scorched and burned, and it completely dissolved in places

But there have still been 30 attacks using corrosive fluids in the borough since 2010, and experts have highlighted that lax laws around the sale of acids may have contributed to a rise in attacks London-wide.

Currently purchases 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.”

The acid was also poured onto a lamb steakThe acid was also poured onto a lamb steak

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.

Ten minutes later the meat had cooked and was charred at the edgesTen minutes later the meat had cooked and was charred at the edges

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 Ham&High 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.

There are mounting demands for a change in the law to ban the sale of super-strength acids to anyone without a licenceThere are mounting demands for a change in the law to ban the sale of super-strength acids to anyone without a licence

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.

NEXT WEEK: Met chief reveals why acid is now a weapon of choice and how the force is tackling corrosive crime

"I think online retailers really need to look into their responsibilities. 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"

Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International

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How many acid attacks have there been in Camden?

- The number of acid attacks in Camden is very low compared to boroughs in east London, where the majority of crimes involving corrosive substances occur.

- Police figures show 30 acid attacks took place in Camden from 2010 to 2017.

- There was only one attack last year, compared to five in 2015. The falling numbers were in contrast to the London-wide trend.

- Across London, the number of acid attacks almost doubled from 2015 to 2016. There were 454 last year and 261 in 2015.

- Some councils, such as Barking and Dagenham, have issued advice to retailers warning them to be vigilant around the sale of acid products.

- Camden Council did not comment when asked by the Ham&High if any trading standards work was underway to combat acid attacks, saying it had not been a particular issue in the borough.

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