Exposed: how easily acid can be bought in London's shops with no questions asked

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Home Secretary Amber Rudd today urged business owners to help tackle the ‘scourge’ of acid attacks after an Evening Standard investigation revealed how industrial-strength chemicals used to maim victims can be easily obtained with no questions asked.

Despite the horrific spate of attacks across London a probe by this newspaper found that acid potent enough to cause terrible injuries can be bought from high street shops for cash without checks.

Our reporters were able to obtain powerful acid for as little as £5 a litre in areas blighted by recent attakcs with traders unaware of the toxic contents or Government advice to question suspicious customers.

In response to our findings, Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the Standard: “Acid attacks are truly horrendous and vicious crimes which can devastate victims both physically and psychologically.

East London has been rocked by a series of horrific acid attacks in recent weeks (Twitter/@sarah_cobbold)

“It is hard to understate how vital retailers will be in the fight against this scourge crime. The availability of these products – many of them everyday household items – means that it will be tremendously difficult to ensure these harmful substances never get into the wrong hands.

“That is why I urge store owners and sales assistants, those working on the front line of this particular battle, to be vigilant and to report any concerns to the police. Only by working together – Government, law enforcement, retailers and private citizens – can we win the fight against this menace crime.”

It came as:

  • In the latest attack, a man was sprayed in the face with ‘acid’ in his own home by an attacker after advertising an iPhone for sale online.

  • Police expressed concern that acid was becoming a “preferred weapon” of robbery gangs.

  • Newham was named as the worst borough for acid attacks, with almost a third of the 454 incidents recorded by the Met police last year.

  • A City Hall inquiry was told of a 74 per cent year-on-year increase in acid attacks across London but less than one in five cases making it to court.

  • MPs called for people caught carrying acid to be punished in the same way as those caught with knives, with repeat offenders facing at least six months’ jail.

  • It emerged major hardware stores such as Homebase and B&Q have voluntarily stopped selling products containing sulphuric acid.

The Standard visited more than 30 hardware shops and mini-marts in Hackney, Waltham Forest and Newham, areas where acid attacks have peaked.

We found that a fifth of hardware shops sold products containing powerful sulphuric acid to the public. One shopkeeper told our reporters: “We don’t really know what we’re selling.”

A week ago, five moped drivers were targeted in a 90-minute rampage across Hackney and Islington that left one man blinded in an eye.

Traders told to report suspicious sales

Traders who sell toxic chemicals including sulphuric acid are asked by the Home Office to look out for anybody appearing to buy them for “criminal purposes”.

The advice was introduced in 2014, primarily to deal with people seeking to make home-made explosives, and makes no mention of acid attacks.

It requires suspicious transactions and “significant disappearances” or thefts of products containing chemicals such as sulphuric acid, hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid — all of which are in legal products — to be reported to police. A leaflet advises that a customer may be making a suspicious transaction when they:

Appear nervous, avoid communication, or are not a regular type of customer.

Attempt to purchase an unusual amount of a product or unusual combinations.

Are not familiar with the regular use of the product, nor with handling instructions.

Are not willing to share what he/she plans to use the product(s) for.

Refuse an alternative product with a lower but sufficient concentration.

Insist on paying cash and in large amounts.

Are unwilling to provide identity or home address details if requested.

Request packaging or delivery methods that deviate from what would be expected.

Contact can be made by calling 0800 789321 or by emailing

Our reporters were able to buy some of the most potent acid from several Hackney retailers half a mile away.

Most shopkeepers expressed shock at the strength of the chemicals they were selling and said they were unaware of Home Office advice to report suspicious transactions to a police hotline.

The Home Office has begun a review “with great urgency” of the law on acids and corrosive substances, vowing that it would not just be the victims who faced life sentences. 

Ministers are considering whether to reclassify acids as “dangerous weapons” but admit that courts already have the powers to impose life sentences in certain cases.

Today, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said: “While these abhorrent acts of violence remain relatively rare, we have seen a worrying and totally unacceptable increase in reports of people using corrosive substances as weapons.

“That is why earlier this week I announced an action plan to tackle this horrendous crime. It includes a wide-ranging review of the law enforcement and criminal justice response, as well as the support offered to victims. 

“Another key part of the review is around keeping these substances out of the hands of criminals. We will review the Poisons Act to assess whether it should cover more materials and work with retailers to agree a package of measures to restrict sales of acid and other substances.”

The City Hall inquiry yesterday [thurs] heard concerns that acid attacks could become “fashionable” in the same way as drive-by snatches on mopeds. 

Deputy commissioner Craig Mackey said criminals had not moved “lock, stock and barrel” to acid attacks, but revealed that the majority of victims in London were between 15 and 29 and a third were Asian.

The British Retail Consortium backs calls for the most toxic products to be only available to people holding a licence. 

It said: “BRC members have already stopped selling concentrated sulphuric acid-based substances altogether, but we believe the most effective way to tackle this is to ensure a consistent approach across the industry by introducing restrictions on the sale of highly corrosive substances.”

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