Anecdotally, corrosive substances are being favoured by criminals over knives and other weapons because they are easy to get hold of, easily hidden and don’t immediately attract prosecution if caught carrying.
Chillingly, according to Dr Simon Harding, criminologist and expert on gangs at Middlesex University, among criminal circles it is referred to as the 'face melter'.
While the Government is undertaking a review into some of the issues around the use of corrosive substances as a weapon, it is a growing trend and with pubs at the heart of communities on the high street, they are on the front line.
Former police officer turned environmental health officer for Crawley Borough Council, Philip Harris, has created guidance for pubs and bars on what to do if an acid attack occurs and what substances to look out for.
What to look out for
The term acid attack is a misnomer because strong alkalis are also used to cause injury. A more accurate term is ‘corrosive substance’. The most common chemical used is sulphuric acid but other acids used are hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. An alkali used is sodium hydroxide (Caustic Soda).
Harris warns that these corrosive liquids are mostly colourless and odourless, and can be mixed with other liquids. “They could be brought into a club or bar in a bottle containing aftershave or perfume giving it an innocent smell or mixed in a drink,” he says.
“If brought into premises using a bottle it is a simple matter of getting a wide-mouthed container, a glass and they are ready to go.”
Sulphuric acid can be purchased at 96% concentrate, mixed with a perfume at say 20%, the acid would still be at a concentration of 76%, sufficient to cause serious injuries. Harris adds: “All liquids brought into premises by either sex should now be considered to be a possible corrosive liquid.”
However, not all corrosive substances are liquids. Caustic Soda is often sold in solid form – flakes, powders, blocks and small tablets. “These could be brought in disguised as an innocent article in food such as sweets plus as a tablet in medication. Unfortunately the list of things that can assist a possible assailant in the use of a corrosive liquid are endless,” says Harris.
Act fast. Make sure someone calls the emergency services and tells them how many victims there are. Work out the quickest way to get clean, running water onto the burned area. The area will need to be continually washed for a minimum of 20 minutes. Only use clean water. Do not use milk.
Ensure you and the victim are in a safe area and, while helping the victim, protect yourself from splashes with protective gloves, ideally those that also protect the arms, and safety glasses.
If the substance is a powder you will need to use a cloth or piece of clothing to brush it away, making sure you don’t contaminate yourself. Some powders react when wet so don’t use water in these circumstances.
If acid has been thrown into the eyes, use a sterile water eye-wash if available and direct the water into the eyes. If possible remove contact lenses. If the corrosive liquid has been thrown in one eye, ensure you’re not washing it into the unaffected eye.
When washing the face, wash away from the eyes. Try and wash away from the face and body and avoid liquid pooling under the body.
Carefully remove clothes and jewellery affected, you may need to cut them off to avoid spreading the corrosive substance. These items will be a safety hazard so you’ll need to store them carefully because the hospital may need them or the police, as evidence.
Carry out a health and safety risk assessment and have a plan in place in the event of an attack. Implement staff training so they can respond safely.
Safety gloves must conform to EN 374-3 standard and should protect the wearer from chemicals in the classification JKL. These will protect the wearer coming into contact with 96% strength sulphuric acid and 40% sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) for at least 30 minutes.
Staff assisting a victim will need to know how to safely remove and dispose of the safety gloves and glasses without themselves becoming a victim. The Health and Safety Executive has video guidance on its website.
The British and European standard for safety glasses is EN166 and, within this, a range of models are available. Because there may be multiple victims, a box of six pairs of gloves and two pairs of safety glasses may not be sufficient. Make sure these items are readily available in the event of an attack and not hidden in storage.