Five people were injured in a string of acid attacks in London last week, the latest in an alarming trend described by Metropolitan Police as “horrendous” and baffling.
According to Acid Survivors Trust International, the UK has one of the highest recorded acid attack rates in the world. There were 144 cases across the capital in the first four months of 2017, many in east London, reports Metro newspaper. Attacks involving corrosive substances nearly doubled from 261 in 2015 to 458 in 2016.
Despite the rise, there’s no concrete police intelligence as to why the numbers are climbing so dramatically, leading to worry and speculation about a violent trend that has left some victims scarred for life.
In the case of last week’s attack on five UberEats and Deliveroo drivers in north-east London, the victims were targeted for their mopeds in a “terrifying 72 minute rampage”, the Daily Mail reports. Police arrested two people aged 15 and 16 on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and robbery.
“The new wave of noxious chemical assaults in Britain are now chiefly carried out by young men on other young men – mainly low level criminals using acid as a tool of revenge and for settling petty disputes,” reports Vice.
One advantage for young offenders is that chemical weapons can be carried incognito in a water bottle. “It is legal, cheap and easy to get hold of. Sulphuric acid, for example, in the form of drain cleaner, can be bought for £1 in any DIY store,” adds Vice.
The Guardian reports that “experts have linked the rise to a crackdown on the use of knives and guns”, with “street gangs increasingly [using] corrosive substances, which are more readily available, instead”.
However, the theories fall short of explaining why there has been such a dramatic rise in incidents since 2015. Police won’t speculate, although they are considering whether there may be instances of peer pressure and copycats, Metro says.
“Our message is that we need members of the public and the community to help us. We need to know who is carrying it and who is using it so we can step in and intervene at the earliest possible moment,” a police spokesperson told the paper.
Acid attacks date back to Victorian Britain, writes The Guardian, when they became “a stain on the national character”.
They were used by both men and women, with “jealousy and rejection” often the motive.
In Pakistan, Bangladesh and other parts of Asia, attacks against women have become common as men take action against women who have “dishonoured” them, says Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
Yet in London, it is more often than not men who are on the receiving end of acid attacks, with two-thirds of the victims of recent attacks being male. Data suggests the majority of both attackers and victims are white British men, reports Time magazine.
Children as young as 12 are carrying corrosive liquids to school as a form of self-defence and acid has become the “weapon of choice” for many young people, reports The Times. The plastic bottles do not set off the metal detectors used to stop knives being taken into schools.
However, Rachel Kearton, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for corrosive attacks, said that compared to knife attacks in the UK, the numbers were still “tiny”. In 2016, 32,448 knife crimes were recorded, a number 70 times higher than recorded acid attacks.
Labour MP Stephen Timms is among those calling for sentences for acid attacks to be reviewed. “I think we should have tougher and also more consistent sentences for those who are found guilty of carrying out these attacks,” he said.