When TV presenter and model Katie Piper had industrial-strength acid thrown into her face in 2008, in an attack orchestrated by her abusive boyfriend, it seemed like an horrific aberration. As newspapers and websites covered her ordeal and her brave determination to put her life back together, most readers couldn’t have known that this was just the start of an appalling, unexpected phenomenon in Britain.
Acid attacks have risen and risen since the attack on Katie Piper. The numbers are stark and unsettling. According to statistics from London’s Metropolitan Police, there were 166 attacks in 2014. Just two years later, there were 454. So what’s going on? What twisted motives have compelled people to strike at others in such a way?
The issue is more complex than many might think. The stereotypical assumption about acid attacks is they’re always intensely personal – either motivated by wounded “honour” or simple jealousy. After all, the most well-known acid attack, Katie Piper’s, was the work of a pathologically possessive partner. And there have been other, even more devastating stories since. Mark Van Dongen, a young engineer in Bristol, was left disfigured, paralysed and in such unending pain after being allegedly attacked by his ex-jealous partner in 2015 that he eventually chose to end his own life in a Belgium euthanasia clinic. The details of his case are painful to read – such as the fact he was so badly maimed after the attack that he could only communicate using his tongue. Van Dongen later told police that his ex-partner woke him up in the night and said “If I can’t have you, no one can” before throwing the acid in his face.
acid attacks aren’t just one-off, freakish, fury-fuelled assaults
But acid attacks aren’t just one-off, freakish, fury-fuelled assaults. The rising statistics are because the attacks are being doled out as a matter of course by organized criminals – a worrying development that suggests an evolution in crime in this country.
As a police officer in the London borough of Hackney says, “Acid throwing has been adopted by urban street gangs in a way that perhaps we haven't seen for a very long time. The majority of victims are young males. And the majority of the suspects are males – young men on young men.”
Like jilted and possessive partners, gangsters seem to use acid because it causes damage in such an intimate way, establishing their power and dominance – however fleetingly – over the target. As Jaf Shah of Acid Survivors Trust International said in a recent interview, “The primary motive of an acid attack is not to kill, but to leave its mark on an opponent… that’s why the face is often the target.”
And there’s another, disturbingly practical reason why criminals reach for acid. It’s simply easier to get hold of than a gun, and being caught with acid is far less legally actionable than being nicked with a concealed knife. As a result, thugs have increasingly been wielding acid with casual contempt for anyone who gets in their way.
A typical example would be that of Musa Miah, a Londoner who was attacked after confronting a pair of lads vandalizing a car in 2016. He was set upon with a bottle of acid, causing life-changing injuries. In the same year, Imran Khan was attacked by a group of youths while trying to deliver pizza in Essex, and endured severe burns when acid was flung at him. Food delivery drivers have been specifically targeted by acid attacks, and the company Deliveroo even released a statement in 2017 confirming that many of its couriers had refused to take jobs in London because of concerns over being maimed, or worse, by acid-throwing criminals.
Retailers are now voluntarily stopping the sale of acids to under 18 year olds, with the majority of these acid attack crimes, being committed by minors. Though the issue is not limited to physical stores, it also exists online, which is much harder to police.
What can be done about it? If attacked by acid, the best course of action is to clean the affected area under running water for a long time, and not to apply any creams. Meanwhile, the government is finally making moves to tackle this horrific epidemic of attacks, with home secretary Amber Rudd proposing new measures in October 2017 – including banning the sale of corrosive substances to anyone under 18, and to make it an offence to carry acid in public – just as with knives. Only time will tell if such measures are enough to curb this phenomenon before more lives are destroyed.