Security Institute of New Zealand (SINZ) Chairman Chris Lawton travels frequently to London, where he reports on the growing concerns over acid attacks and how authorities are responding.
Commonly called ‘face-melters’, attacks on people using acid are dramatically on the rise in London. The simple statistics show that the attacks have risen since 2014, with 166 attacks in that year compared to 454 attacks in 2016. It’s fair to say that the attacks are of huge concern to the public, workers, emergency services and government in the London area.
The acid products used in the attacks can be bought off the shelf – caustic ingredients including drain cleaner, oven cleaner, etc – most of them containing sulfuric acid or ammonia.
The attacks are mainly carried out by male street gang members who typically attack male victims, and most attacks are occurring in East London. The borough of Newham has had three times more acid attacks than any other London borough, with almost 400 of London’s 1,500 reports over the last five years happening there. But other areas of the UK are also experiencing increased incidence of attacks.
While the attacks are usually against male victims, sadly, internationally the usual victims are women, predominantly in South Asia countries where the acid is used to disfigure a female victim as a form of punishment (or more information on this type of attack, visit www.stopacidattacks.org).
The street acid attacks in London are predominantly an attack on another person, with only some of the attacks being related to a robbery or similar criminal offence. They are often used to ensure a better chance of fleeing the crime.
In July this year, two East London youths were arrested after committing five attacks in one day. In September, six people were injured in a mass acid attack in Stratford, East London. In October, an 18 year-old youth was charged with murder after spraying a 47 year-old nurse in the face with acid near High Wycombe.
In another recent attack a shopkeeper had acid thrown in his face during a robbery of his premises. He was hospitalised after fumes from the acid were inhaled into his lungs, causing incapacitation.
Commuters on London’s underground were recently terrified when youths sprayed lucozade at them in a copycat act after recent acid attacks. Although the liquid was lucozade in this case, earlier attacks using acid had utilised a bottle of similar appearance.
Acid attacks can disfigure their victims, leaving them devastated, physically scarred and psychologically impaired. Injuries can cause long-lasting significant restriction to limb movement if skin and tissues fuse together. Some victims are left with highly visible facial scarring.
While serious youth violence, including knife and gun crimes, are on the rise in London, the dramatic rise in acid attacks is worrying police.
Police response to these attacks includes the carrying of protective gear and five-litre bottles of water in police rapid response vehicles as a first response capability. Preventive measures include providing patrol officers with testing kits to allow them to check the contents of suspicious bottles of liquid found on tube commuters and people entering public events.
When responding to these criminal attacks the fire service also provides the capability to deploy large volumes of water rapidly. Pouring water over a victim can help prevent further damage to skin if carried out quickly.
The attacks also put extra strain on health services. A recent news report stated that the specialist burns service at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, East London, has already treated 150 patients so far this year. Other services also report increased casualty and treatment processes.
Poverty amongst young men has been suggested as an underlying cause for the increase in attacks, as well as the austerity drive initiated in 2010 to reduce the UK government budget deficit, which removed millions of pounds from social welfare and youth programmes.
Some believe that the easy concealment of the acid, such as in drink bottles, simply gives thugs another way of carrying out their street crimes.
Police and government officials in the UK are now working on legislative means to reduce the threat from these items; predominantly by making it illegal for those under a certain age to purchase the substances used. In the UK, as it is in New Zealand, it is an offence to carry acid or a corrosive substance with intent to cause harm.
Prime Minister Theresa May and the Home Office have indicated support for the introduction of new legislation to combat acid attacks after what she described as a “horrific rampage” in which two men on mopeds carried out five acid attacks on one evening during a spree across the capital.
Not just in the UK
Acid attacks are also happening in other parts of the world but, fortunately, in far smaller numbers.
The BBC reported last September that two US tourists had hydrochloric acid thrown in their faces by a mentally ill woman and two others were slightly injured during attacks at train stations in France. Berlin has experienced a series of acid attacks against women, and in Italy, former Miss Italy finalist Gessica Notaro was attacked by her boyfriend, sustaining significant facial injuries.
In the USA, acid attacks have been reported in Washington and Arizona; and of course many reports still emanate from South Asia. One recent case involved two men in India who allegedly gang-raped a woman and then later attacked her with acid.
Chemical Weapon Guidelines For Crowded Places
We are fortunate that in New Zealand we have not experienced many of these sorts of attacks. In 2009, lawyer Judith Ablett-Kerr was targeted in a hate campaign in which her car was attacked with acid and she was besieged with hate mail after defending murderer Clayton Weatherston.
This type of attack fits in the same risk profiles as terrorist attacks, bomb threats and active shooters. The Australia and New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee (ANZCTC) national security strategy guidelines (www.nationalsecurity.gov.au), although possessing a terrorist focus, also provide good information on chemical attacks.
The ANZCTC Chemical Weapon Guidelines for Crowded Places defines chemicals as “a material that may pose a health hazard or physical hazard, and included compounds that are toxic, flammable or corrosive.”
Typical indicators of an acid attack include eye irritation, visual changes, vomiting and diarrhea, coughing, breathing difficulties and respiratory irregularities, muscle weakness, paralysis and seizures, skin redness, irritation and burns; and collapse, loss of consciousness, or death.
Planning and response to this type of attack or threat is consistent with that for white powder incidents. These attacks or hoaxes have occurred in New Zealand over the years, most notably the various 1080 and white powder scares targeting Parliament.
The London Police, as well as burns specialists, provides official advice to the public on how to deliver first aid after an acid attack.
According to the UK National Health Service, the assaults are medical emergencies and people should thus call emergency services immediately. Contaminated clothing should be carefully removed and affected skin rinsed in running water until help arrives. In summary: Report – Remove – Rinse.
NZ St John’s gives the following advice for these types of injuries:
- Make sure that the area around the casualty is safe. Wear gloves to prevent you coming into contact with the chemical. If the chemical is in powder form, it can be brushed off of the skin.
- Flood the burn with water for at least 20 minutes to disperse the chemical and stop the burning. Ensure that the water does not collect underneath the casualty.
- Gently remove any contaminated clothing while flooding the injury.
- Arrange to send the casualty to hospital. Monitor vital signs, such as breathing, pulse and level of response.
- Caution: (i) never attempt to neutralise acid or alkali burns unless you are trained to do so; and (ii) do not delay starting treatment by searching for an antidote
Chemical burn to the eye
Hold the casualty’s affected eye under gently running cold water for at least ten minutes. Irrigate the eyelid thoroughly both inside and out.
- Make sure that contaminated water does not splash the uninjured eye.
- Ask the casualty to hold a clean, non-fluffy pad over the injured eye.
- Arrange to send the casualty to hospital.
Caution: (i) do not allow the casualty to touch the injured eye; (ii) do not forcibly remove a contact lens