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World

Acid Attacks At 'Epidemic' Level In U.K.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Britain is seeing a dramatic increase in acid-throwing attacks. Last year, attacks from corrosive fluids almost doubled in London. And police say the number of incidents continues to rise. Emergency services in the capital have been given special kits to help treat suspected acid attacks. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from London.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: I meet 29-year-old Samir Hussain in the seaside town of Brighton outside the mobile phone company where he works. He's tall, handsome, very friendly, but customers always ask him the same question.

SAMIR HUSSAIN: What happened to your face?

KAKISSIS: Hussain tells them that a stranger attacked him outside a movie theater. He held a bottle of what Hussain thought was water until the man splashed it in his face.

HUSSAIN: For literally a split second. I thought to myself, this feels a lot heavier than water.

KAKISSIS: That's because it was sulfuric acid.

HUSSAIN: When it touches your face, your face feels like it's going flat because it's actually sort of disintegrating. And I could just feel my skin just ripping away.

KAKISSIS: Hussain says he does not know why he was targeted. Most acid attack victims in Britain do not know their assailants, says Jaf Shah of the Acid Survivors Trust International.

JAF SHAH: There seem to be a large number of unprovoked attacks. There seem to be hate-crime-related attacks. There seemed to be gender-based attacks. There's also robbery related attacks and quite a few gang-related attacks.

KAKISSIS: Shah says two-thirds of the victims in Britain are men, while globally, most are women. The history of acid attacks in the U.K. goes back to Victorian times for many of the same reasons as today.

SHAH: It's easy to purchase. There's no way of tracing payments if you pay by cash. And they know the likelihood of being charged for carrying acid is very remote.

KAKISSIS: London had more than 450 attacks last year, twice as many as the Metropolitan Police recorded in each of the previous six years. There were a hundred attacks in the first four months of this year. Dr. Martin Niall is a burn surgeon at Mid Essex Hospital, where many acid attack victims in East London are treated.

MARTIN NIALL: We are now at levels that one of my colleagues has described as epidemic.

KAKISSIS: Two young men were burned with sulfuric acid last week just down the street from Abdul Shohid’s hardware store.

NIALL: The one we think a lot of people use must be the very strong drain cleaner.

KAKISSIS: And what does that do?

NIALL: I mean, when you're using the drain, it really melts the fat and the organic matter very quickly. I mean, you can see the heat coming off it as it burns through.

KAKISSIS: British retailers are now talking about licensing the purchase of sulfuric acid, but criminologist Marian Fitzgerald says she doesn't think that will change anything.

MARIAN FITZGERALD: People who are actually using these readily available domestic pieces of equipment in a premeditated way - they are sufficiently canny that if there is pressure on one particular type of weapon, they will use another.

KAKISSIS: Samir Hussain, the acid attack victim in Brighton, says he wants to see stiff sentences for those who use corrosive substances as weapons.

HUSSAIN: The person who attacked me actually got eight years' imprisonment, and...

KAKISSIS: Do you think that's enough?

HUSSAIN: In my opinion, it's not enough.

KAKISSIS: I got a life sentence, Hussain says. So should he. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.