Nearly all of the arrested attackers have been Muslims.
A significant rise in acid attacks has prompted calls to restrict the sale of corrosive substances which can be bought easily over the counter.
The number of crimes using acid or other “noxious substances” has more than doubled in London over the last three years, according to official data seen by the Guardian. There have also been notable increases in other parts of England. In the capital, the number of incidents rose from 186 between April 2014 and March 2015 to 397 in the same period in 2016-2017.
Experts have linked the rise to a crackdown on the use of knives and guns, saying street gangs increasingly use corrosive substances, which are more readily available, instead.
The Metropolitan police said that the term noxious substances in their recording system mainly refers to corrosive substances and acids. The figures also include April 2017, when there were 45 crimes, up from 31 in April 2016.
The data confirms the impression given by a spate of reports of acid attacks in London. Earlier this week a 27-year-old man suffered severe burns after being squirted with acid as he walked with a woman in Mile End, east London.
Last month two Muslim cousins in east London were victims of an acid attack, which police are now treating as a hate crime. Jameel Mukhtar and Resham Khan were attacked while sitting in a car at traffic lights and both suffered severe burns. It follows an incident earlier this year when a noxious substance was launched across the Mangle club in east London, injuring 16 people.
On Wednesday 5 July a woman from Leicester who had poured sulphuric acid on her partner as he slept was ordered to pay him £19,300 in compensation.
Dr Simon Harding, a senior lecturer in criminology at Middlesex University, described the police figures as “genuinely scary” and said it was hard to know how extreme these hundreds of attacks were. “We have had high-profile acid attacks recently … and they tend to be fairly serious in general. There have been almost 2,000 acid attacks in London since 2010 – that’s huge.”
Harding said: “The rise [in the number of attacks] is partly due to the fact some young people are switching to acid as there is a clampdown on knives and guns. It’s permitted to carry bleach, for example.”
He said that in the UK the majority of attacks were men against men, although there were also some instances of substances being used as part of domestic violence. He said many cases went unreported through fear.
Jaf Shah, executive director of the Acid Survivors Trust, said the rise in attacks was “shocking”, but the number might be even higher as many survivors did not report attacks for fear of reprisals.
He said it was too easy to buy such substances. “In the short term, the government has to introduce a licence system to purchase concentrated acid and credit card payments for purchases to track and aid police investigations,” he said. “Beyond the short term, critically the government has to conduct detailed research to better understand the problem. This will enable a targeted response. A key factor is to tackle root causes of acid violence such as ideas around masculinity.”
Shah’s comments echo a report sent to the Home Office last year by the former MP for Kingston and Surbiton James Berry calling for some potentially lethal substances to be reclassified so that a licence would be needed to buy them. The report also calls for industry to be “encouraged and if necessary required” to reformulate common cleaners to reduce their corrosive content or make them more viscous.
The Met’s Supt Sean Wilson, of the east area basic command unit, agreed that noxious substances were easy to buy over the counter and said that police wanted to work with commercial traders to raise awareness that people buying these substances from shops might intend to use them as weapons. The Met and the Home Office are working with retailers and manufacturers to examine possible restrictions on sales.
DCI Mike West, the Met lead for corrosive-based crime, agreed that the use of corrosive substances was an emerging trend among gangs. “It may be responsible for some of the higher numbers we are seeing in east London … lots of the incidents there involve possible gang membership and also street robberies.”
West said that from 1 January to 31 December 2016 there were 455 crimes in London where a corrosive substance was used or threatened to be used. He said that the majority – 60% of cases – were assaults, and a quarter involved acid or another chemical being used in street robbery. “[In a robbery] a lower-level concentration of substance has been used on occasion to temporarily incapacitate someone, so the robbery can take place,” he said.
A rise in incidents has also been reported in the West Midlands, according to figures published by the Birmingham Mail earlier this year, which showed that violent crimes involving acid and other corrosive substances nearly doubled from 2012 to 2015.
Dorset police figures for acid attacks were much lower, but also increased – from one in 2012 to six in 2016. Some involved threats that were not followed through. In Bedfordshire the number of assaults recorded that involved acid or a corrosive substance rose from one in 2012-13 to 11 between 2016 and 2017.
West Yorkshire police recorded seven crimes involving acid, corrosive or noxious substances in 2016 – up from two in 2014. The number of cases there where people were threatened with corrosive substances rose from 19 in 2014 to 40 in 2016.
Harding said these attacks could send victims into “deep trauma” and they often experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. “They need multiple operations and it can go on for years,” he said. “It’s the worst possible thing you can do to anyone.”