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Why Acid Attacks Have Doubled in the UK

The use of corrosive liquids to disfigure people for life is becoming sickeningly popular.

by Max Daly
Apr 24 2017, 4:30pm

Adele Bellis, 24, who was scarred for life in an acid attack orchestrated by her controlling boyfriend. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images)

In the early hours of Easter Monday at a glitzy club night in an east London bar, 20 people were sprayed with acid. The attack—which took place during a fight, allegedly over drugs, between two groups of men at Mangle, a bar in Dalston—prompted the evacuation of 600 guests. It left two people blind in one eye, two men with severe facial injuries, and a host of clubgoers needing treatment for scarring.

This weekend police arrested 24-year-old scaffolder Arthur Collins—boyfriend of TOWIE's British reality TV star Ferne McCann—in connection with the incident. He has since been charged with 14 counts of wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm and one count of throwing corrosive fluid on a person with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

An acid attack affecting such a large group of people is rare, but the use of noxious chemicals—or "face melters"—as a weapon of choice is now horrifyingly frequent in the UK. Figures released by the Metropolitan Police found there has been a steep rise in the number of reported attacks in London to more than one incident a day, from 261 in 2015 to 454 in 2016. The rise in the capital is mirrored nationally, with growing numbers of people being treated for acid attacks in the hospital and in incidents reported to police across the UK.

The Mangle attack was one of four such attacks in the space of just 11 days in London over the Easter holidays. On April 8, a local Chinese family out for a walk with their two-year-old son in had acid thrown at them. Screaming in pain, they were doused in water by passersby. The 40-year-old father suffered "life-changing" injuries.

Less than a week later, on Good Friday afternoon, a man in his 20s was driving his Audi S3 in north London. A white SUV rear-ended him. When he got out to inspect the damage, he was sprayed in the face with ammonia and pushed to the ground before the carjackers sped off in his car. Last Wednesday, two days after the Mangle incident, a teenager suffered "life-changing" burns on his face and neck after he and a female friend were pelted with acid in west London.


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It's a pretty shocking sequence, but then you look at February: five acid attacks, all within a small radius around east London and Essex—a zone which appears to be the epicenter of acid attacks in Britain. There was the attack on a Tube train in Barking, at an amateur football game, and then a secondary school in Dagenham, in east London. Plus, there were two carjackings in Essex, including that of former boxer Michael Watson in east London's Chingford. In November 2016, a British Pakistani businessmen had acid squirted in his face from an energy sports drink bottle in a racist attack by a gang of 14 teenagers in Dagenham.

In its 2017 Threat Assessment, Thurrock Council in Essex declared acid attacks "a new and rising concern in gang related violence." In February, there were seven acid attacks in the borough of Havering in just three weeks. Last May, 17-year-old Alexander Bassey was sentenced to eight years in jail for grievous bodily harm after spraying five teenage boys with acid from a bottle at Ockendon train station. The list goes on.

Acid attacks are not new. The substance was a popular weapon in Victorian Britain, mainly because sulphuric acid was produced on an industrial scale then. It was also used as a tool of fear in gangland Britain, appearing in Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock, in the form of a small bottle carried by the book's antihero gangster, Pinkie Brown. In southeast Asia, where acid attacks are sickeningly commonplace, they are primarily a weapon of domestic violence or "honor" violence, by men against women. It's harder to think of a more malicious way of ruining someone's life.

In recent years, there have been appalling incidents recorded around Britain: the man disfigured in a case of mistaken identity in Cornwall; TV host Katie Piper, who had acid thrown at her on the orders of a man who had raped her; the man left with terrible scars after bleach was tossed in his face outside a cinema in Sussex; and the Sun's gangland investigator, attacked with acid at his home in Glasgow. But now a trickle of attacks have turned into a flood.

A screenshot from security footage of 17-year-old Alexander Bassey spraying five teenage boys with acid at Ockendon train station

There is a reason why acid is increasingly becoming a weapon of choice in 2017. Unlike high-profile UK victims such as Piper and Naomi Oni, who was attacked by her jealous friend disguised in a veil, the new wave of noxious chemical assaults in Britain are now chiefly carried out by young men on other young men—mainly low-level criminals using acid as a tool of revenge and for settling petty disputes.

For young armed offenders operating under increased crackdowns on knives and guns, a chemical weapon has an advantage: It can be carried incognito in a soft-drink bottle and is legal, cheap, and easy to get. Sulphuric acid, for example, in the form of drain cleaner, can be bought for just a few dollars in any DIY store. But crucially, acid is a weapon with a uniquely grotesque impact.

"The primary motive of an acid attack is not to kill, but to leave its mark on an opponent—to disfigure someone for everyone to see. That's why the face is often the target," Jaf Shah of the London-based charity Acid Survivors Trust International said. "The shocking thing about acid attacks is that they are so premeditated: The perpetrator is aware of the serious physical and psychological impact these chemicals will have on the victim when they are buying it. That's what makes this weapon so chilling."

Acid attacks have close links to Britain's drug world. Last June, two brothers were jailed after throwing a bottle of One Shot drain cleaner over a homeless mother of six, Carla Whitlock, in England's port city Southampton, in revenge for a drug deal gone wrong. The judge described their actions as "medieval barbarism" and acid as a "pernicious and evil" weapon. In 2009, a key witness in a murder trial involving rival teenage drug-dealing gangs from south London was attacked with acid after giving evidence.

It's a weapon used by gangs "going country" to sell drugs in towns outside London. In June, a drug dealer who sold crack in Essex threw acid in the face of a gang rival in a seaside town. In 2015, London gang members who were selling drugs in Boscombe, a beach in southern England, sprayed ammonia in the faces of two men in what police described as a "drug-related crime."

"In the criminal world, to eradicate an enemy's future by disfiguring them, you are the winner. It's a horrible development."

Acid's ability to breed fear is potent. Despite suffering such terrible injuries, most victims of acid attacks do not seek justice for fear of retribution. A study carried out at a regional burns unit in Essex found only nine out of 21 victims pursued criminal charges against their attackers. According to figures released by the Met Police, three-quarters of police investigations into acid attacks are mothballed due to victims being unwilling to name the perpetrators or press charges.

Campaigners such as Shah say much stricter controls should be put in place to control the sale of strong acids and other noxious chemicals. He wants a licensing system ensuring that the details of people buying these products are recorded. There is also the option of introducing a ban on sales of acids to people under 18, using a similar law to the Intoxicating Substances Supply Act 1985, which was brought in to tackle rising glue and gas sniffing in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Acid is now a fashionable weapon of choice for criminals and gang members to exert control, to keep people in line, and for revenge attacks," said Dr. Simon Harding, a gang expert at Middlesex University. "Young gang members are always looking for a way of gaining notoriety and 'street capital.' So in the criminal world, to eradicate an enemy's future by disfiguring them, you are the winner. It's a horrible development."

Like glue and gas, if people want to get hold of acid, they will. Unfortunately, the more police clamp down on knives and guns, the more highly corrosive chemicals will be used as a method of settling disputes, spreading fear, and, in the most cowardly way possible, making a mark.

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