Shopkeepers selling acid within a mile of 'horrific' attacks admit: we don't know the rules

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Industrial strength acid is being sold without question barely half a mile from one of the most recent attacks, the Standard’s investigation reveals today.

Litre-size bottles of a drain-cleaning product with a 91 per cent concentration of sulphuric acid was purchased by our reporters in two shops in Mare Street, Hackney.

An even stronger sulphuric acid – at 93 per cent concentration – was purchased in Walthamstow, several miles away.

Police figures reveal that East London is at the centre of the epidemic, with Newham, Barking & Dagenham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney the four boroughs with the highest number of acid attacks in the last three years.

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

The sale of sulphuric acid is not illegal but it is listed in Home Office guidance for businesses on the sale of chemicals that could be used to make explosives and poisons.

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 chemical.reporting@met.police.uk

The rules, which were upgraded in May 2015, require people who want to import or acquire certain “regulated substances” to hold a Home Office licence and associated photographic ID document. Poisons can only be supplied to the public by a pharmacist.

Sulphuric acid is listed as a “reportable substance”, meaning it can be bought without a licence. However, under the guidance, traders must report “any suspicious transactions” of it to a national contact point (0800789321) or email details to chemical.reporting@met.police.uk

Sulphuric acid is particularly harmful at high concentrations because it causes chemical burns as soon as it comes into contact with skin. 

Secondary injuries are then caused when it heats up as it reacts with the water held naturally within human organs, causing them to dehydrate. It can cause permanent blindness if splashed on eyes, and damages internal organs irreversibly if swallowed. It is powerful enough to corrode metal.

All products bought by the Standard carried danger warnings and logos on their packaging. However not all revealed the concentration of sulphuric acid. One was described as being “industrial strength for trade and professional use”.

These are different to conventional household bleaches such as Domestos, Mr Muscle and Duck, which contain low concentrations of sodium hypochlorite, hydrochloric acid or sodium hydroxide (caustic soda).

When questioned following the purchases, most shopkeepers expressed shock at the strength of the chemicals they were selling. 

They said they were unaware of Home Office guidance to report suspicious transactions to the police hotline.

SHOP ONE

The Standard visited a household store in Mare Street and found packaged boxes of a 91 per cent sulphuric acid drain cleaner sitting on a lower shelf towards the rear of the shop.

At the till an elderly cashier joked laughed after initially claiming it cost £10, apparently amused at our reporter’s ignorance about the product’s real cost.

When our reporter returned to the store the 65-year-old shopkeeper, who gave his name as M. Patel, said he was unaware of the Home Office hotline and the advice on suspicious transactions.

He said: “Should I stop selling it now? I didn’t know [about the number] until you told me.

“I know not to sell this one to under 20s, under-25s, bad people. But older people, genuine people like over-30 can buy it.

“Younger people never come here for this, I don’t even give them bleach. If a younger person comes in for it I know it’s not to unblock the sink.”

During the conversation with Mr Patel, a customer in a niqab told our reporter: “You need to spread awareness, because people don’t know, they just sell it.”

SHOP TWO

At another store across the street, a young man behind the till was silent as he placed the same drain cleaner in a blue plastic bag, before simply stating the price of £6.

Malnit Singh, 24, later said he had been given no instructions about the sale of the highly-corrosive acid. 

But he added: “I wouldn’t sell this to teenagers. It’s strong.”

SHOP THREE

At another store in Mare Street, the Standard was sold an “industrial strength” cleaner – which is too powerful to be used on domestic plumbing – without being asked about its intended use.

The product contains an unknown concentration of sulphuric acid and contained the warning: “Misuse can cause severe burns.”

In April, 20 people were injured when a corrosive substance was sprayed at two men at the packed Mangle nightclub in nearby London Fields.

Hasan Cevli, 22, whose uncle owns the shop, said the fact that some traders had limited English made it hard for them to understand the toxic make-up of such substances. 

He said more detailed information should be given to wholesalers, and backed changes to the law that would curb corner shops from selling it.

Mr Cevli said: “We are not informed about these products. When you go to the wholesalers, they do not tell you things about these products and what’s in them. So I think more information needs to be given to sellers.

“Most people don’t get educated about them and if the shop owners are foreigners from another country they definitely don’t know anything about it. I think now they will stop selling it.

“I would certainly support a change in the law because we don’t really know what we’re selling, maybe even cancelling grocers or small shops from selling it and just letting B&Q or Wickes or other retailers like that sell it.”

SHOP FOUR

The Standard was also able to buy the 91 per cent sulphuric acid in Well Street. Again, our reporter was not asked any questions. 

When questioned, shop owner Raj Patel, 52, said he would remove the liquid from his shelves.

He said: “I thought the acid being used was a different type of thing. I will remove it. I was not aware it could be used for this.

“We will store it in the back from now on and then if anyone asks for any specifically we will do it that way.”

SHOP FIVE

Last month aspiring model Resham Khan and her cousin Jameel Muhktar, 37, suffered life-changing burns when someone threw a substance into their car window as the pair celebrated Ms Khan’s 21st birthday in Newham.

At a nearby supermarket in Canning Town, the Standard was again able to purchase the 91 per cent cleaner, this time for £4.99, without challenge. 

Supervisor Kris Menan later said he supported a ban on the product in the wake of the nearby attack on Ms Khan.

He was unaware of the Home Office guidance, but said he would not sell the product to under-18s. 

He said: “I know how strong it is. We know about this one, we use it ourselves as well. My manager said we can’t sell this to kids. But if my dad or your dad comes in, we sell it.

“If you want to ban this product, I agree, why not. It’s easy to buy for the kids. It’s common sense, I don’t want to sell this kind of thing. 

“Especially because this just happened up the road. Do you know how old she was? 21-years-old. If Newham Council said to ban it, we would support that.”

SHOP SIX

In Waltham Forest, we found the most potent cleaner yet – containing 93 per cent sulphuric acid. Manufactured in the US, it cost £5.50 from a store in the Wood Street area of Walthamstow. It is sold in a protective thick plastic bag.

The label warns that the substance can cause fire or explosions, is fatal if inhaled and causes severe skin burns and eye damage.

The worker said: “It is advisable to read the instructions and use a funnel. If it accidentally goes on your hands it will pretty much burn through them. 

“I had to pour some out down the drain just to get rid of it, it went through my gloves and burned my hand. I had to spend 30 minutes running it under the tap.”

When quizzed later by the Standard, the assistant said: “I’ll put it to my boss, it’s his choice to sell it. I’m generally cautious and if I thought you were underage I wouldn’t have sold it to you. I use my common sense.

“It is really scary that this stuff has been weaponised. Some of the attacks have been racially motivated as well and I’m Sikh so it is a worry.

“I would support Government intervention on this but we haven’t heard anything bad about it from the supplier. 

“We sell boilers here too and if they are put together wrong by someone unlicensed they can blow up your whole house, imagine having that on your conscience.

“But at the end of the day we have to make money to pay the bills.”


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