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The lethal ‘face melter’ acid on sale for £4.66 a bottle – with no checks on buyers

PUBLISHED: 09:43 30 August 2017 | UPDATED: 11:20 30 August 2017

Islington Council is trying to control sales of corrosive substances in the borough's shops. Picture: Ramzy Alwakeel

Islington Council is trying to control sales of corrosive substances in the borough's shops. Picture: Ramzy Alwakeel

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It can cook flesh and burn through clothing in moments – yet super-strength acid can still be bought cheaply, quickly and without any age checks. Investigations journalist Emma Youle hears the arguments in favour of stronger regulation.

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 Gazette bought three bottles of the super-strength drain unblocker on Amazon this week for less than £15. Similar products are widely available online.

Placing the order took less than two minutes and we were not subject to any age checks.

This t-shirt began to discolour and turn brown as soon as the strong acid drain unblocker was poured on it. Picture: India Block This t-shirt began to discolour and turn brown as soon as the strong acid drain unblocker was poured on it. Picture: India Block

Yet if the chemical were 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 burned a T-shirt and charred a steak in minutes.

A top police officer has said the ease with which the Gazette bought the product “drives home the absolute need for change” around the sale of strong acids.

This t-shirt was badly scorched and burned and completely dissolved in places when the drain unblocker was poured on it. Picture: India Block This t-shirt was badly scorched and burned and completely dissolved in places when the drain unblocker was poured on it. Picture: India Block

“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 Met’s lead on corrosive based crime.

Hackney had 59 acid attacks from 2010 to 2017 – the seventh highest number in the capital – and east London has been at the epicentre of crimes involving noxious liquids over the last two years.

Currently the sale of acids and bleaches, from everyday household cleaning products to industrial strength drain cleaners, is unregulated.

During a test, drain unblocker containing 96 per cent proof sulphuric is poured onto a lamb steak. Picture: India Block During a test, drain unblocker containing 96 per cent proof sulphuric is poured onto a lamb steak. Picture: India Block

Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, said he was “sadly not surprised” the Gazette was able to buy 96 per cent proof acid online. “I think online retailers really need to look into their responsibilities,” 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” these products are so widely available.

The cheap, easy supply of corrosive substances has led to demands for a change in the law.

The lamb steak was badly scorched and burned after a few minutes. Picture: India Block The lamb steak was badly scorched and burned after a few minutes. Picture: India Block

A petition calling on the government to ban the sale of high strength acids to anyone without a licence has gathered half a million signatures.

Former Dalston gang member Gwenton Sloley, who now works with troubled youngsters, said the results of using acid as a weapon must also be clearly spelled out.

“All shops should not only display the age you have to be to buy acid, but also the consequences and tough sentences if it is used as a weapon,” he said.

Youth outreach worker Gwenton Sloley has spoken out about the need to educate youngsters about the consequences of carrying acid. Picture: Steve Poston Youth outreach worker Gwenton Sloley has spoken out about the need to educate youngsters about the consequences of carrying acid. Picture: Steve Poston

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. 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 the country.

By contrast, the number of acid attacks in London almost doubled from 2015 to 2016.

Det Supt West told the Gazette the Met is treating corrosive based 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 we’re doing.”

"All shops should not only display the age you have to be to buy acid, but also the consequences and tough sentences if it is used as a weapon"

Gwenton Sloley

The Met chief is working with the Home Office and British Retail Consortium to broker voluntary agreements limiting the sale of corrosive substances. An update is due in December and could be a precursor to a change in the law.

As the Gazette revealed earlier this month, Hackney is among the first councils in the country to ask shopkeepers to stop selling them to kids.

Hexeal Chemicals, the company that supplied the drain unblocker, said it would withdraw the product from market once current stocks are sold out – but Amazon declined to comment.

The acid will be withdrawn for sale following the Gazette's questions to its manufacturer - but Amazon declined to comment. Picture: Emma Youle The acid will be withdrawn for sale following the Gazette's questions to its manufacturer - but Amazon declined to comment. Picture: Emma Youle

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Council calls on ministers to act urgently on acid sales

Hackney Council has taking a tough stance on “deplorable” acid attacks and is working with shopkeepers to restrict sales of acid products.

Council clampdown: Cllr Caroline Selman. Picture: Polly Hancock Council clampdown: Cllr Caroline Selman. Picture: Polly Hancock

Since last year the council has encouraged retailers to keep corrosive liquids behind the counter, voluntarily ID customers, and report suspicious sales.

But Cllr Caroline Selman, cabinet member for community safety and enforcement, said the government must now take action to change the law.

“We are very clear that the only way to reduce the accessibility of corrosive substances is a change in legislation that restricts the sale of corrosive substances to underage people, and this is something that we would urge ministers to look at urgently,” she said.

"We are very clear that the only way to reduce the accessibility of corrosive substances is a change in legislation that restricts the sale of corrosive substances to underage people, and this is something that we would urge ministers to look at urgently"

Community safety boss Cllr Caroline Selman

Earlier this month, a Hackney trading standards operation found children as young as 15 were able to buy noxious acid and alkaline products from shops in the borough.

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Acid attacks in Hackney: The figures

- There were 59 attacks involving corrosive liquids in Hackney from 2010 to 2017, the seventh highest number in the capital.

- The east London boroughs of Newham, Barking and Dagenham, and Tower Hamlets have had the highest number of acid attacks since 2010.

- London-wide, the number of attacks has almost doubled in the last two years, from 261 in 2015 to 454 last year.

- Four moped riders in Hackney were attacked with acid overnight on July 13-14, in a 90-minute spree that also included an attack in Islington and another in Stratford. A teenager is currently awaiting trial

- In April, 20 people were hurt – and two left blind in one eye – when partygoers at Mangle E8 were sprayed with a noxious substance during a night out. Arthur Collins, 25, and Andre Phoenix, 21, have been charged over the attack and are expected to face trial in October

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• NEXT WEEK: Met chief reveals why acid is now a weapon of choice and how the force is tackling corrosive crime

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