The lethal 'face melter' acid we bought online in two minutes - and with no checks
PUBLISHED: 07:00 31 August 2017 | UPDATED: 11:12 31 August 2017
Reporter Emma Youle
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.
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 Advertiser 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.
Yet if the chemical was ‘weaponised’ by simply putting it into a drinks bottle and throwing it at someone, it would inflict devastating injuries.
Our own test showed the acid badly scorched and burned a t-shirt and left a meat steak charred.
A top police officer has said the ease with which the Advertiser obtained 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.
Currently the sale of acids and bleaches, from everyday household cleaning products to industrial strength drain cleaners, are completely unregulated.
It is perfectly legal for any teenager to walk into a shop or go online and purchase these products, although some councils have issued guidance on responsible sales following spiralling numbers of attacks.
Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, based in Tower Hamlets, said he was “sadly not surprised” the Advertiser was able to buy 96 per cent proof acid online.
“I think online retailers really need to look into their responsibilities as retailers,” 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.”
Criminologist Dr Simon Harding, of Middlesex University, said it was “shocking” and an “absolute scandal” that these products are so widely available.
The cheap and easy supply of corrosive substances has led to demands for the government to act.
One of those supporting new legislation is acid attack victim Resham Khan.
She and a cousin had a noxious substance thrown in their faces in Beckton as they drove to her 21st birthday party in June, and both suffered life-changing injuries.
Resham has backed a petition calling for a ban on buying acid without a licence, which has gathered half a million signatures.
In a letter to MPs on the change.org website, she said: “The person who attacked me didn’t want to just take away my face, he wanted to burn all aspects of my life. For this, I ask that the UK government introduce stricter punishment for those who choose to scorch innocent people.”
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.
This would require a change in the law.
In 2002 Bangladesh banned the open sale of acid and imposed stringent punishment for offenders, which has seen the number of attacks fall by 15 to 20 per cent a year in that country.
Last month MP Stephen Timms told Parliament that retailers themselves support tougher legislation, speaking at an adjournment debate on acid attacks in the Commons.
Offences London-wide almost doubled from 2015 to 2016.
Tower Hamlets had the third highest number of acid attacks in the capital last year at 42 offences.
Det Supt West told the Advertiser 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 senior officers, the Home Office and the British Retail Consortium on a piece of work to try and introduce voluntary agreements on the sale of corrosive substances.
An update on this 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.
Council takes tough stance on acid crime
Tower Hamlets Council is funding new police officers and will use its own CCTV cameras to crack down on acid crime.
John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “The acid attacks that have taken place across the capital, including Tower Hamlets, have understandably shocked and angered our residents.
“I have written to the Home Secretary calling on her to propose legislation so that acid attacks are treated as seriously as knife offences, and urged her to reconsider cuts to policing budgets which has had an impact on the number of police on our streets to tackle this serious issue.
“I am funding 14 new police officers to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour on council estates in Tower Hamlets to reassure our residents. This will add to the six police officers that we currently fund.
“We are also using council CCTV footage to support police investigations and ensure those responsible for this type of terrible offence are caught and face the full force of the law.
“I want to send a clear message that using acid to disfigure people is vicious and inhuman and we will not stand for it.”
Acid attacks in Tower Hamlets
Tower Hamlets had the third highest number of acid attacks in London last year, after Newham and Barking and Dagenham.
From 2010 to March 2017 there were 93 attacks involving corrosive fluids in the borough.
And the number of attacks in the borough almost doubled from 24 in 2015 to 42 in 2016.
London-wide, there were 454 acid attacks last year.
Victims of attacks in Tower Hamlets include a 40-year-old woman and 27-year-old man in Burdett Road, Mile End, in July. Mustafa Ahmed, 19, of Musberry Street, Stepney, was charged in connection with the incident.
A man in his 20s was sprayed in the face with a noxious substance during a carjacking in Whitethorn Street, Bow, on Good Friday. There have been no arrests.
NEXT WEEK: Met chief reveals why acid is now a weapon of choice and how the force is tackling corrosive crime