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In March 2008, TV presenter Katie Piper was attacked with sulphuric acid by her ex-boyfriend and an accomplice, causing major damage to her face and blindness in one eye. Katie was rushed to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital for emergency treatment after the attack, as the acid had severely burned her face and blinded her in her left eye.
Following her traumatic experience, she founded the Katie Piper Foundation, the only charity in the UK dedicated to delivering rehabilitation for burns survivors and those living with severe trauma scarring. She was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list in recognition of her services to charity and burns survivors.
Acid attacks across the world disproportionately affect women as figures from the Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) show:
- In Italy, there were 27 registered assaults in 2016, compared with eight in 2013. The majority of victims are women with attacks committed by ex-boyfriends or husbands.
- Colombia has approximately 100 recorded attacks a year and, with a population of around 48 million, this makes attacks in Colombia one of the highest per capita.
- In India there were approx. 300 recorded attacks in 2016. These are recorded attacks. Many attacks go unreported which means that the real number is likely to exceed 1,000.
- Attacks in Bangladesh peaked at around 400 in 2002 but attacks have now declined to under 100 per year.
- Pakistan has seen a dramatic decline since 2014, with 153 reported attacks in that year. But the real number will be higher.
- In Uganda there were 382 victims of acid violence between 1985 and May 2011. Of the 382 cases, the majority (58%) were recorded in the Central region of Uganda.
- In the UK, in 2016, in London alone, corrosive substances were used in 454 crimes. In the UK, unlike in many countries, men make up the majority of victims.
Per capita, the UK has one of the highest rates of recorded acid attacks in the world and anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the attacks are part of gang-related activities and that acid is becoming the weapon of choice.
Attacks involving acid or other corrosive substances have increased by more than two and a half times; from 228 recorded crimes in 2012 to 601 in 2016. After London, Northumbria recorded the second highest number of acid attacks with 109 recorded attacks, Cambridgeshire had 69 attacks, Hertfordshire 67, Greater Manchester 57 and Humberside 52. Of the 2,078 acid attack crimes recorded for the years 2011–2016 in the UK, only 414 of those crimes resulted in charges being brought.
What is an acid attack?
An acid attack is the premeditated act of throwing corrosive acid or any other type of noxious or corrosive fluid onto the face and body, with the intent to disfigure, torture or kill the victim. The acid or corrosive fluid causes lifelong scarring, physical disfigurement and, in some cases, permanent disability including blindness, immobility and even death.
Acid attacks happen across the world; however, it is difficult to gauge the true scale and prevalence of the issue for a number of reasons, including the fact that all too often it’s a crime that goes unreported and unpunished, as survivors of acid attacks live in fear of reprisals for reporting the attack. Many of the countries where acid violence occurs possess high levels of violence against women. Like other forms of violence against women, acid attacks arise due to inequitable gender relations.
What happens to the body in an acid attack?
Acid can have a catastrophic effect on human flesh. It causes the skin tissue to melt, often exposing the bones below the flesh, sometimes even dissolving the bone. In some cases when acid has come into contact with the eyes, they have been known to discolour and even burst. After an acid attack, the skin is at an extremely high risk for infection.
Survivors can face permanent disfigurement and often social isolation, devastating their self-esteem and psychological wellbeing.
Since many victims are left blind or with disfigured hands, it can be difficult to work or do simple daily tasks around the house. The victims are often left dependent on spouses or family members, and many suffer depression, anxiety, panic attacks or other mental health conditions that make it difficult for them to even leave the house out of fear of public reactions to their face and/or body. Some victims may even feel suicidal.
Why do acid attacks happen?
The motivations for the acid attacks are all different, but they include:
In the UK, an acid attack is often used as an enabler for a crime. In 2017 in East London, an Uber Eats delivery driver was on his moped when two men on a moped pulled up to his left and threw corrosive liquid at him to steal his moped. His attack was the first of six robbery attacks that happened on the same night within a three-mile radius.
However, relationships also play a key role in the motivation for acid attacks. A 33-year-old male was attacked in July 2016 by his female partner, who poured sulphuric acid over him as he slept at their home in Leicester in an attempt to kill him.
Katie Piper’s acid attack occurred when a personal relationship turned into a nightmare; her former boyfriend lured her to an internet café where he raped Katie before ordering a friend to carry out a sickening acid attack.
An assault at the Mangle nightclub in East London left two people blind in one eye from what police called a “corrosive fluid” attack. Witnesses said the attack followed a fight in the club.
Other acid attacks appear motiveless; police in Manchester reported that a pregnant woman and a man suffered severe discomfort when someone threw bleach in their eyes from a passing car.
The intention of the acid attacker is often to humiliate or permanently torture rather than to kill the victim.
Criminologist and specialist in gangs at Middlesex University Simon Hardings commenting after the spate of London acid attacks, said: “Acid attacks have been around for 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution. But the casual way that it’s being used by urban street gangs is something new. It gives them power and control over victims, permanent victimhood – it’s instant torture in a bottle”.
Corrosive substances such as sulphuric, nitric, or hydrochloric acid, found in many household products such as drain cleaner or bleach, are being used as weapons more and more frequently, apparently as a result of a crackdown on guns and knives in recent years. In 2021, the Government published research carried out by the University of Leicester into the motivations for carrying and using acid and other corrosives as a weapon.
It found that:
- Offenders carried corrosive substances for different reasons, including to commit criminal acts and as a result of peer pressure.
- Some were regular carriers of corrosives, while others used corrosives in the heat of the moment, such as during confrontations between gangs.
How are acid attacks treated?
NHS England, in partnership with the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS), published advice for anyone falling victim to acid attacks, including online guidance and support to victims as well as friends or family of people affected by burns.
- Report the attack: dial 999.
- Remove contaminated clothing carefully.
- Rinse skin immediately in running water.
- Take off contaminated clothing to remove the chemical and to make it easier to flush affected skin, but take great care not to pull clothing over the head. Instead, consider cutting off clothing to prevent the spread of the contamination of the chemical even further.
- Cool the burn under cold running water for at least 20 minutes. This will help to cool the burn and wash out the chemical. If you don’t have access to water, you can use other harmless liquids; these are ones that you could drink such as milk or cola. All burns, no matter how they are caused, are treated the same with cold, running water or harmless liquid, but when the burn is caused by acid or a chemical, it needs to be flushed with cold running water for much longer. While flushing the skin, care must be taken to prevent the water from flowing over unaffected areas as this will spread the damage. The priority is to remove the acid (not neutralise it) from the casualty as quickly as possible as burning will continue until all of the chemical has gone. If the acid burn is to the eye, hold the casualty’s affected eye under gently running cold water for at least 20 minutes. Irrigate the eyelid thoroughly both inside and out and make sure that contaminated water does not splash the uninjured eye. Do not forcibly remove a contact lens if the person is wearing them.
- Call 999. Anyone with an acid burn should be seen in A&E. This is a serious injury, meaning the person harmed must be seen by medical professionals in A&E.
- Comforting the person is also a really important part of any first aid as it calms the person and decreases stress levels, which have been shown to help with recovery.
Don’t cover acid burns with bandages or burns dressings and do not try to wipe the acid off the skin using a damp cloth as this can cause more harm.
Anyone providing first aid to an acid attack victim should ensure that they do not become another casualty themselves. They should avoid direct contact with the fluid and this includes breathing in any fumes.
One of the most common misconceptions is that an acid burn should be immediately treated with oil or ointment, but this could actually slow the treatment procedure by doctors or worsen the burns.
The police now have decontamination kits to provide an immediate response to acid or corrosive substance attacks. The bespoke kits are carried in a bright red bag and contain bottles of water, a shower head attachment and protective equipment, to help prevent injuries through cross-contamination. They have been designed to provide officers with the essential tools needed when dealing with an attack or accidental exposure.
People assaulted with corrosive substances such as acid are likely to need a range of different care after the emergency response.
This could include:
- Therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is a talking therapy that can help manage issues by changing the way people think and behave.
- Specialist burns treatment.
- Eye or plastic and reconstructive surgery – skin grafts are sometimes needed to cover the open wounds.
Is an acid attack a crime?
In UK law, there are classifications of assault relevant to acid attacks under the Offences against the Person Act 1861:
- Section 18 – Wounding / causing grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent (maximum sentence: life imprisonment).
- Section 20 – Unlawful wounding / inflicting grievous bodily harm (GBH) (maximum sentence: five years).
- Section 29 – Sending, throwing or using an explosive or corrosive substance or noxious thing with intent to do grievous bodily harm (GBH) (maximum sentence: life imprisonment).
For a Section 18 GBH charge to be proven, it must be shown that the offender physically caused the serious injuries and, at the same time as the assault took place, that this is what they intended to cause. It is the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime.
Those carrying out acid attacks can be charged with a Section 18, Section 20 and/or Section 29 offence(s) of causing GBH under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. GBH is a more serious crime than actual bodily harm (ABH), as committing GBH means causing really serious injuries which severely affect the health of the victim, such as serious cuts, broken bones and disfigurement.
Anyone caught carrying acid can also be charged with possession of acid in a public place with intent to use it to cause harm, and could also be prosecuted for possession of an offensive weapon under Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, which carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison. Adults convicted of carrying a corrosive substance in public for a second time will be given a minimum six-month jail term, and under-18s handed a four-month detention and training order.
In the UK, the Government has banned people from possessing strong sulphuric acid without a valid reason as part of its drive to tackle acid attacks and violent crime. Since 1 July 2018, under changes to the Poisons Act, members of the public wishing to import, acquire or use sulphuric acid above 15% have required a Home Office licence.
Anyone without a licence can face a 24-month jail sentence and an unlimited fine. Professional acid users such as cleaning companies will not need a licence, but employees will have to show ID. Businesses also have an obligation to report suspicious transactions, significant losses or thefts of corrosive liquids. The Offensive Weapons Act 2019 also bans the possession of dangerous and offensive weapons in private, including corrosive substances.
How to stop acid attacks
Minimising access to corrosive substances appears to be the main focus of those attempting to prevent acid attacks. Currently, there are no age restrictions on buying household bleach or drain cleaning products which contain acid. This means anyone can purchase these products. Campaigners such as Katie Piper have called for tougher restrictions on buying such items.
She wrote in the Metro: “At present, it is all too easy for someone to buy a corrosive substance and throw it, sometimes from a distance, at another person. It is vital that we do everything we can to halt these types of attack. The current legislation does not always recognise the severity of the offence and, therefore, the sentencing does not reflect the severity of the crime in some cases.”
Some of Britain’s biggest retailers pledge to stop selling corrosive liquids to teenagers following a sharp rise in acid attacks. Sales of products containing dangerous levels of acids and corrosive substances have been banned by them (although the ban is not legally binding) for under 18-year-olds under a new voluntary Government plan aimed at stopping acid attacks.
Some of the country’s largest retailers including Wickes, B&Q, Screwfix and Tesco have signed the list of commitments, which include checking the age of buyers both in-store and online. Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability Victoria Atkins, said: “Acid attacks have a devastating impact on their victims, leaving both emotional and physical scars. I’m pleased that so many of the UK’s major retailers are joining our fight to combat this scourge and signalling they are committed to selling acids responsibly.”
In 2019 the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, provided the police with further stop and search powers to help them target those using corrosive materials illegally.
The Government have also committed to increasing police numbers, which proponents claim will help counter violent crime and remove dangerous substances from UK streets. He committed £176.5 million to the Serious Violence Fund over two years to bolster the police response in 18 areas most affected by violence in England and Wales.
The charity Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) advocates changing attitudes. They say that: “The best way to end acid violence is to prevent it from happening in the first place by addressing its root causes. Education is critical in prevention of acid attacks and other forms of violence against women and girls. Prevention should start early in life, by educating and working with young boys and girls promoting respectful relationships and gender equality.”
Anyone who has experienced an acid attack or who knows someone who has, can get advice and support from the following: