Acid Attacks on the Rise in the U.K.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR, August 6, 2017

Samir Hussain’s life changed in 2015, just after he and a friend left a movie theater in Crawley, a town south of London.

A gang of strangers, all men, had harassed them during the show and tried to start a fight outside Hussain’s car.

He noticed that one of the men held what looked like a bottle of water in his hand, wrapped in a sweater. The man splashed it on Hussain.

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The liquid was drain cleaner containing an extremely high percentage of sulfuric acid.

Corrosive substances are increasingly used as weapons in the U.K., especially in London, which had more than 450 attacks in 2016.

London’s Metropolitan Police have recorded more than 100 attacks in the first four months of this year, many in East London. The most recent attack happened just last week.

“We are now at levels that one of my colleagues described as epidemic,” said Dr. Martin Niall, a burn surgeon at Mid-Essex Hospital, where many acid attack victims in East London are treated. “Everyone, ourselves included, has been shocked by this emerging threat to public health.”

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Jaf Shah, the head of Acid Survivors Trust International, says he read about one early case in 1831 in which a 21-year-old servant poured acid over the face of a fellow servant who was sleeping.

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Shah says two-thirds of the victims in Britain are men while, globally, most are women.

“The global pattern is very much males attacking young women and girls, relating to rejected sexual advances or marriage proposals or dowry-related attacks,” he says.

But most of the attacks in the U.K. are random and are often connected to robberies or gang violence. Many of the perpetrators are in their teens.

The latest attack on Tuesday in London left a 47-year-old man with facial injuries. Two assailants on a moped threw an unknown liquid in his face.

Sometimes the motorbikes, often used in acid attacks, are stolen; delivery drivers have also been targeted and staged a protest outside Parliament last month.

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British retailers are now talking about licensing the purchase of sulfuric acid. But criminologist Marian FitzGerald says criminals will just find another easily accessible weapon.

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London Mayor Sadiq Khan says he is pushing for tougher sentences for assailants using acid and more long-term support for victims.

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