Colombian doctor Alan Gonzalez operates on 32-year-old acid attack survivor Angeles Borda in Bogota, Colombia
RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
It started at 10:25pm on Thursday night, when a moped carrying two riders pulled up alongside a man riding at a junction in Hackney, east London. Before the other rider could pull away, the pair threw acid in his face and stole his bike. Four other acid attacks followed, with at least one victim left with life-changing injuries, according to the Metropolitan Police. A 16-year-old boy was arrested this morning on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and robbery.
The incident has sparked calls for a ban on easy sales of corrosive materials, with the Home Office considering tougher restrictions.
Acid attacks are on the rise, doubling in London from 216 reported in 2015 to 454 last year, though many still remain unknown due to stigma attached to such attacks or fear of retaliation. That rise is alarming given the severity of the injuries. Acid not only burns away at the skin but alters the proteins in cells, destroying their structure. Reconstruction requires years of treatments as well as surgery for the damaged skin to be cut away and replaced with grafts. Katie Gee was the victim of an acid attack while on a trip to Zanzibar in 2013; her recovery has taken four years and more than 50 surgeries. Mark van Dongen was attacked with acid in Bristol in 2015, suffering paralysis and burns to 80 per cent of his body. He died from his injuries earlier this year.
While they’re on the rise, acid attacks aren’t new. Vitriol attacks date back to Victorian Britain, while more recent acid incidents are often associated with so-called “honour attacks” against women in Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well London. Unlike elsewhere, UK attacks tend to more often target men.
The choice of victim reveals one reason for the recent rise in attacks. First there’s hate crimes. Resham Kahn had acid thrown in her face on her 21st birthday. From her hospital bed, she’s started a campaign calling for restricted sales of such chemicals, with the attack against her labelled a hate crime by police.
The other side to the increase is the use of acid as a weapon in robbery or for gang retaliations. The UK’s strict laws make guns hard to acquire and lead to longer jail sentences for anyone carrying a knife. A bottle of acid looks innocuous — one attacker sprayed a victim from a repurposed Lucozade bottle — an idea that stretches back to 1938, when Graham Greene had a character carry a vial of acid in Brighton Rock.
Dr Simon Harding, senior lecturer in criminology at Middlesex University, told Vice that acid was now a “fashionable weapon of choice for criminals and gang members”.
“Young gang members are always looking for a way of gaining notoriety and ‘street capital’,” he added. “So in the criminal world, to eradicate an enemy’s future by disfiguring them, you are quids in. It’s a horrible development.”
The called-for ban targets neither hate nor fashion as motivation, though it could still limit attacks. “One contributing factor to the rise in attacks is how easy it is to access acid,” Dr Valentina Cartei, research fellow at the University of Sussex, tells WIRED.
But a ban may not be so easy to achieve. “Acid is widely available in household products, products that are in many cases necessary to cleaning,” she adds. “So you can’t simply ban acid.” It may be possible to restrict higher concentrations of corrosive materials, or requiring licensing, she added.
Alongside the ease in purchasing acid, there’s another reason it’s becoming more common, according to Dr Brett Edwards, lecturer in security and public policy at the University of Bath. “The calls to ban acids in tabloid newspapers have really noble motivations, but the problem is those campaigns have been accompanied by what I would call questionable press standards and ethics,” he says.
Pointing to coverage of gun crime in the US, he said media can glorify violence. “That can make copycat attacks more likely. In the UK until a few years ago, acid attacks were a weird thing — they were happening, but it seems to me there’s a risk of making this issue mainstream.”
He argues some coverage of Thursday’s incident has been akin to that around a terror attack. “It’s almost as if some of the coverage is advertising, telling how easy it is to get ahold of these things and showing how scary the effects are. We need to be careful how this is covered. Obviously there’s many ways people hurt each other on a daily basis.”
Dr Cartei suggests another solution: getting tougher on people using corrosive chemicals for violence, regardless of their motivation or the ease they had purchasing it. “If the UK government treated acid attacks as chemical weapons attack, they would give the issue greater weight and have less of a stigmatising effect on victims.”