Should we restrict access to corrosive substances?

London, like Edinburgh, is home to a large number of students coming not just from other parts of the UK but from all over the world. It also serves as a popular destination for tourists. Unlike Edinburgh, however, recent attacks making use of corrosive substances have left people feeling unsafe in English capital.

In the last couple of years sulfuric and hydrochloric acid have increasingly been used as part of robberies and hate crimes, often taking place in busy public spaces. According to The Independent, assaults involving the substances have more than doubled since 2012 and increased by 74 per cent in the past year alone. What could be disheartening is that some of these attacks are carried out by teenagers as young as 15.

The increase in these attacks in recent times can perhaps be attributed to the changes made by the government in 2015 that made it easier to buy dangerous acids. Amendments were made to the Deregulation Act 2015 which scrapped an important obligation on sellers of dangerous substances. As The Independent reports, instead of having to register with their local council, sellers of “reportable substances” are merely required to tell authorities about anyone buying a substance “if the supplier has reasonable grounds for believing the transaction to be suspicious”, such as if there is a suspicion the chemical is “intended for the illicit manufacture of explosives” or “any illicit use”.

Despite how risky these corrosive substances can be, they are easily sourced, in comparison with other weapons such as guns. They can also be bought online and then hidden easily in opaque bottles. The Home Office is currently considering passing stricter regulations to limit their availability in the market, but how they are going to go about it and how effective such regulations would be remains to be seen.

One method could be preventing cash purchases of acids because debit or credit card transactions are easier to trace. Another alternative could be introducing a permit in order to keep a record of whoever is buying such substances. Introducing an age limit could also be helpful in preventing the purchase of these corrosive chemicals by young people.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has said it is virtually impossible to ban the sale of corrosive substances entirely because many are household products. “Most of the products can be bought off the shelf – drain cleaner, oven cleaner – there are different types of sulfuric acid you can buy, and ammonia,” said Chief Superintendent Simon Laurence of Hackney borough in east London.

Besides the difficulty of implementing these strict regulations, numerous alternatives could easily be used in perpetrating similar hate crimes, such as knives and blades. The problem isn’t the weapons that are being used, the problem is whatever is causing perpetrators to resort to these extremes. Is poverty meaning that people do not have enough opportunities to earn a livelihood? Perhaps focus should be shifted towards educating the young criminals rather than restricting the substances.

A victim of any acid attack doesn’t just go through physical pain but also emotional trauma that follows afterwards. Such an experience causes drastic changes and can have effects lasting an entire lifetime. As the popularity of these assaults continues to grow in the UK, (with one student at the University of St Andrews being suspended in the last fortnight for suggesting throwing battery acid in a woman’s face “Indian rejected marriage style”), effective steps will have to be taken to prevent more lives from being wrecked. Whether this will happen by restricting the corrosive substances is questionable and remains to be seen.

Image: John Bell via Flickr

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