How we were able to buy lethal ‘face melter’ acid online in two minutes - with no checks
- Credit: Reporter Emma Youle
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 Recorder bought three bottles of the super-strength drain unblocker via Amazon this week for less than £15 - and was even offered free delivery. Similar products are widely available online.
Placing the order took less than two minutes and we were not subject to any age checks.
Yet if the chemical was ‘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 scorched and burned a t-shirt and left a meat steak charred and blackened.
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A top police officer has said the ease with which the Recorder obtained the product “drives home the absolute need for change” around the sale of strong acids.
“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 Metropolitan Police’s lead on corrosive based crime.
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Currently the sale of acids and bleaches, from everyday household cleaning products to industrial strength drain cleaners, are completely unregulated.
It is perfectly legal for any teenager to walk into a shop or go online and purchase these products, although some councils have issued guidance on responsible sales following a spiralling numbers of attacks.
Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, based in east London, said he was “sadly not surprised” the Recorder was able to buy 96 per cent proof acid online.
“I think online retailers really need to look into their responsibilities as retailers,” 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” that these products are so widely available.
The cheap and easy supply of corrosive substances has led to demands for the government to act.
One of those supporting new legislation is acid attack victim Resham Khan.
She and a cousin had a noxious substance thrown in their faces in Beckton as they drove to her 21st birthday party in June, and both suffered life-changing injuries.
Resham has backed a petition calling for a ban on buying acid without a licence, which has gathered half a million signatures.
In a letter to MPs on the change.org website, she said: “The person who attacked me didn’t want to just take away my face, he wanted to burn all aspects of my life. For this, I ask that the UK government introduce stricter punishment for those who choose to scorch innocent people.”
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.
This would require a change in the law.
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 that country.
Last month East Ham MP Stephen Timms told Parliament that retailers themselves support tougher legislation, speaking at an adjournment debate on acid attacks in the Commons.
Offences London-wide almost doubled from 2015 to 2016, and one in three attacks were in Newham, by far the highest number in the capital.
Det Supt West told the Recorder the Met is treating corrosive 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 that we’re doing.”
The Met chief is involved with senior officers, the Home Office and the British Retail Consortium on a piece of work to try and introduce voluntary agreements on the sale of corrosive substances.
An update on this is due in December and could be a precursor to a change in the law.
Amazon declined to comment.
Council takes tough stance on acid
Newham Council has backed tougher licensing conditions and robust codes of practice on sales of acids.
Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, said: “We need the law around the sale of noxious substances, including acid, to be changed by the government, so that only individuals with a licence can access these potentially life-changing products.”
The council funds 40 extra police officers, known as the Enforcement Partnership Team (EPT), and it will be drafted in to help tackle the issue.
“We will be tasking the EPT to focus its resources on stop and search to help in the discovery of weapons carried by individuals, including noxious substances,” said Sir Robin.
“We hope this approach, together with the tougher sentencing guidelines, will see a reduction of this type of crime on our streets.”
Criminologist Dr Simon Harding said councils should set up a definitive list of all retailers in their boroughs selling acids.
Acid attacks in Newham
-Newham had the highest number of acid attacks in London in 2016 and has continually topped the statistics tables since 2010
-There were 415 attacks involving corrosive fluids in Newham from 2010 to March 2017
-And the number of attacks in the borough doubled from 76 in 2015 to 149 in 2016.
-Attacks in the Newham include cousins Resham Khan and Jameel Mukhtar, who suffered life-changing injuries when acid was thrown into their car in Tollgate Road, Beckton in June. John Tomlin, 25, was arrested on July 9 after handing himself in to police. He faces two charges of causing grievous bodily harm with intent.
NEXT WEEK: Met chief reveals why acid is now a weapon of choice and how the force is tackling corrosive crime