There was a record number of acid attacks in London in 2017, police data shows, as perpetrators turn to household cleaning products as weapons.
In response to a freedom of information request by CNN, data from the London Metropolitan Police showed a sharp rise in attacks, with 465 recorded in 2017, up from 395 the previous year and 255 in 2015. The attacks increased six-fold over six years.
London has become the world capital for acid attacks on young men, and street gangs are increasingly using “face melters” against their targets.
Several cases that left victims with life-changing injuries last year prompted debate in the UK Parliament, where MPs are mulling banning the sale of highly corrosive liquids to minors and overhauling laws around possession of acid. Police say easy-to-obtain products such as drain and oven cleaners are often used in attacks.
UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd earlier called for a life sentence for serious acid attacks, arguing that such assaults often ruin victims’ lives.
A male-on-male issue
Additional police data from the first 11 months of 2017 show that the attacks are predominantly a problem among young males.
More than 75% of suspected attackers and around 60% of victims were between the ages of 10 and 29. In terms of gender, 71% of attackers and 72% of victims were also male.
This is where London bucks the global trend. In many other parts of the world with high numbers of acid attacks, such as South Asia, the act is overwhelmingly carried out by men against women they know.
While the new figures show a dramatic rise in London acid attacks in recent years, they also show that previous records had been exaggerated.
Detective Superintendent Mike West, who leads the Met Police on acid attacks, explained that previous police data had included cases where someone possessed acid or threatened to use it as a weapon, but did not actually do so
He said that while acid was being used by street gangs, it was still on a relatively small scale.
“We do see around 25% of offenses in the robbery category, and this tends to be with ammonia-based substances that, whilst (they) cause injury, are less likely to be life changing. Other drivers have been drug disputes and general disputes between parties,” he said.
The Met Police is creating a prevention and awareness campaign to be delivered in schools this year, in partnership with other emergency services, West said.
“We are training all of our officers to deal with first aid of victims and have placed treatment kits in all response cars across London.”
For years, acid attacks have been heavily concentrated in east London, and 2017 showed the same trend.
A CNN report last year cited experts and social workers in that part of the capital as saying the problem was linked to austerity and the lack of opportunity for boys and young men from poorer households.
As it has every year since 2013, the eastern borough of Newham had the the highest number of acid attacks in 2017, with 85, the new data shows. Neighboring Barking and Dagenham has been second every year in that same time period.
Food delivery drivers in east London are regularly targeted for their mopeds.
Earlier this month, a 17-year-old boy admitted in court to carrying out acid attacks against six people in less than 90 minutes, including delivery drivers, as he tried to steal their mopeds.
Prosecutors said the attack, carried out with another person, left one victim with life-changing injuries.
Courts are beginning to hand out lengthy sentences for the attacks. Arthur Collins, 25, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in November last year for spraying acid in a crowded east London nightclub, injuring 22 people.
Graphics by CNN’s Henrik Pettersson.