Limitations have been imposed on corrosive substances. Their concealment remains easy because common household products can be used as weapons.
In light of the recent Clapham chemical attack, it is important to note that laws cannot completely stop these product purchases. In 2022, amendments tightened regulations in the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. They prevent people under 18 from buying corrosive substances. Additionally, the possession of corrosive substances in public areas became a punishable offence.
Previously, in 2018, the government implemented a ban on the possession of highly concentrated sulfuric acid (above 15 per cent) without valid justification, as part of its efforts to combat acid attacks and violent offences. Nevertheless, despite the imposed restrictions, incidents involving corrosive liquids persist as a major concern.
In 2022, there were 710 acid attacks, as reported by data obtained from police forces across England and Wales by Acid Survivors Trust International (Asti), marking a significant increase from 421 incidents recorded in 2021. The charity emphasized that the actual figure is likely much higher, considering several police forces did not furnish statistics in response to its Freedom of Information request. Asti reported a 45 per cent increase in acid attacks within a year in London. The Metropolitan Police registered 107 such assaults in 2022, up from 74 in 2021.
Nevertheless, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley emphasized that incidents involving acid and chemicals are still considered "exceedingly rare".
What constitutes corrosive substances?
According to Section 6 of the Offensive Weapons Act, corrosives are substances capable of causing corrosion and burning of human skin. This definition implies that typical household cleaning items like domestic bleach generally do not meet the criteria for the possession offence.
However, it does encompass potent drain cleaners, brick and patio cleaners, paint strippers, and industrial cleaning agents, which are available for legitimate use. Chemical attacks may involve acids like sulphuric acid or alkalis such as sodium hydroxide, commonly referred to as caustic soda, both capable of inflicting life-altering injuries.
What factors contribute to the difficulty in prohibiting acid and other corrosive liquids?
Measures have been implemented to restrict the availability of harmful corrosive substances, aiming to deter their misuse as weapons. However, due to the legitimate purposes served by many of these products, exemptions have been established to ensure professionals can still obtain them for activities related to their profession or business. At the same time, everyday household items can also be repurposed as weapons to inflict harm, complicating the enforcement of effective bans.
The criminal barrister Simon Spence KC informed the publication i: “I think that the particular problem with corrosive substances is that all of us use them in our everyday lives. Everybody has a bottle of bleach in their kitchen, everybody can get hold of drain unblocker. And so they’re in a very different category from, say, knives, which although we all have knives in our kitchens as well, they’re not the sort of knives that the government is looking to ban.”Gareth Martin, a partner at Olliers Solicitors, also expressed that it's challenging to envision how a complete ban could be enforced. He stated for i, an online publication: “Regulations could be extended to include substances not currently included i.e. those that may ordinarily be thought of as household cleaning products, but which still could be potentially harmful if used as a weapon. However, it is difficult to see how this could be implemented and monitored without putting an arguably unfair burden on retailers. An outright ban is never going to be possible or practical.”
What factors contribute to the challenge of preventing chemical attacks?
Corrosive substances frequently lack colour and may, in some instances, be odourless, rendering them challenging to identify beforehand. They are frequently transferred into different containers or bottles to enhance concealment and facilitate their use as weapons. Regarding this issue, Mr Martin stated for i: “Much like knife and gun crime, attacks with corrosive substances are not a new thing. But unlike knives and guns, which may be obviously and visibly dangerous even from a distance, and potentially difficult – albeit far from impossible – for someone to conceal, it is often the case that a victim will not even see an acid attack coming.”
What can we do in case of a chemical attack?
West Midlands police website offers advice regarding the steps that we have to take in case we are the victim or witness of a chemical attack. The initial action to take is to promptly contact emergency services. Anyone subjected to an acid or corrosive substance attack requires immediate medical attention, necessitating the immediate dialling of 999 to summon ambulance services.
In the event of any incident involving acid or corrosive substances, three simple steps can help minimize the effects on the casualty. The first step is to "Remove" yourself and those contaminated from the immediate area.
Attempt to relocate casualties away from the contaminated area, preferably uphill and upwind, and if feasible, outside. Eliminate any contaminated clothing to rid the chemical and facilitate better access for flushing the affected skin. If the skin experiences itching or burning, employ a continuous flow of water, such as showers, hoses, or taps. This process aims to flush away the chemical and cool the affected area. Avoid covering any itchy skin, burns, or blisters with bandages or dressings, as this may exacerbate the situation and lead to further harm.
Please be aware that officers are now equipped with decontamination kits to swiftly address acid or corrosive substance attacks. These specialized kits are housed in vivid red bags and include bottles of water, a showerhead attachment, and protective gear. Their purpose is to mitigate injuries and minimize the risk of cross-contamination.
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