Nowadays, you seem to hear more and more about acid attacks, that vicious crime where acid is thrown in a someone's face as a punishment or retaliation - and often resulting in life-changing injuries. But is the root cause source of this crime and is it actually on the increase.
Philanthropist and presenter Katie Piper waived anonymity to raise awareness of burn victims after she became a victim of acid throwing in 2008. Her ex-boyfriend Danny Lynch arranged the attack, an accomplice threw sulphuric acid in her face. The incident blinded Piper in one eye and surgeons had to remove and rebuild the skin on her face. In 2009, she established the Katie Piper Foundation, to raise awareness of victims of burns and other disfiguring injuries and to campaign for specialist treatment.
Nurse Joanna Rand died in 2017 after sulphuric acid was thrown on her as she sat on a park bench. She suffered 5% burns to her body and died 11 days later from septicaemia—an infection related to the burns. The teenager responsible pled guilty to manslaughter earlier this year.
Most recently, a woman in Birmingham suffered serious chemical burns to her face after someone threw acid on her as she was walking down the street. Hours later, that same day, a man was rushed to hospital after reports of a second attack came out.
There’s no denying that acid attacks are on the rise. And though these crimes are most common in South Asia, it also feels like a peculiarly British problem. The UK has one of the highest recorded rates per capita in the world and the numbers get even higher when you look at the nation’s capital. In 2016, the number of recorded incidents rose by 80% in the UK, whereas 2017 was the worst year on record, with 91 attacks recorded in London in July alone, according to the Metropolitan Police.
But the recent increase in reported cases doesn’t mean that this is a new problem (and it is a very big problem). In fact, it’s a crime that stems back to Victorian Britain. Yet it’s only in recent years that they have been gaining such a high profile and the full extent of their impact is being seen. New research has revealed that acid attacks are likely to cost Britain £500 million by 2020 as spending on medical, police and legal services increases. For the victims, the attacks result in long-term consequences that affect them physically, psychologically and emotionally.
The UK has one of the highest recorded rates per capita in the world and the numbers get even higher when you look at the nation’s capital
Historically, the narrative has centred on female victims; it is a form of violence that affects women and girls far more than men, according to Acid Survivors Trust International (A.S.T.I). But the UK is the exception to the rule. Here, it’s usually men committing these attacks on other men. In fact, in 2016, four out of five victims were male, rather than female.
In 2015, Samir Hussain and a friend got into a fight with two men as they left a cinema. Inside, the men had been throwing sweets at them and the situation had escalated once they left the film. Then, one of the men covered Hussain in liquid: sulphuric acid. The burns have left scars that cover most of Hussain’s face and require him to wear a mask.
Jameel Muhktar was left in a coma for two days in 2017 after a man doused him and his cousin with acid through a car window as they waited at traffic lights.
And most recently, a man walking his dog had bleach sprayed in his face before the perpetrators stole his watch and ran off.
Then there was the case earlier this year of a three-year-old boy who was attacked in a shop as he sat in his pushchair. Six men have been arrested in connection with the attack, including his father. The long-lasting impact has yet to be seen.
Despite the surge in reported cases, it’s thought that we still don’t know the full extent of the violence, as victims can be afraid to come forward. So why is this particular form of violence becoming so common? For starters, experts believe there could be a link between acid throwing and gang violence, the attacks meant to humiliate rather than kill the victims. As one former gang victim described it, it’s “degrading.”
In 2017, Arthur Collins got into a fight with a group of men in a busy nightclub in London. He sprayed acid at them three times, hurting 22 others and causing permanent injuries in the process. In his trial, his motivation was said to be gang-related, with the male victims rival gang members.
There’s also the fact that corrosive substances are simply easy to get hold of. After a crackdown on guns and knives, there are no tight restrictions on the sale of acid: a bottle can be bought for little money with no licence required. What’s more, there’s no legislation specifically around acid throwing, as A.S.T.I have pointed out. They have campaigned for changes to be made in both areas.
Until something does change, whether, through legislation surrounding the crimes or restrictions on the purchase of acid introduced, it looks like this could continue to be a growing problem.