In a recent study published in the SAGE open access journal Scars, Burns & Healing, in affiliation with The Katie Piper Foundation, leading researchers from the St. Andrews Centre for Plastic Surgery and Burns conducted a 15- year retrospective study of twenty-one victims of assault using corrosive substances in order to better understand this method of violence, support the victims, and review current criminal legislative proceedings and preventative legislations in the UK.
Whilst acid attacks within the UK are gaining increased media attention surrounding a concern about rising incidence, the data is reassuring in one sense suggesting that occurrences are in fact remaining generally constant, with an average of 7 attacks taking place every 4 years within the study. They also found that victims were mostly young men, assaulted by male perpetrators, a very different demographic compared to similar attacks in Low and Middle Income countries including India, Iran, Jamaica, Bangladesh and Uganda and Cambodia.
Of concern, the proportion of victims who fully pursued criminal charges against their attacker was very low and only 9 out of twenty-one cases (43%) were criminally investigated. Although the authors felt that there was "no need for any legislative change in the UK, unlike other countries, as the sentencing powers reflect the severity of the crime", they did mitigate the need to better understand the legal considerations of attacks using corrosive substances in order to better support the victim. The researchers explain:
"As the first point of contact in a protected environment such as in hospital, this may be the only opportunity to provide these patients with a setting in which they may feel 'safe' enough to accept help."
The authors emphasize that "prevention is key", and call for tighter regulations around the purchase of corrosive substances. They note that whilst it is impossible to stop the public from purchasing corrosive agents such as heavy-duty drain cleaners, "a legal requirement for sellers to record details of every purchase should be implemented" and state that these measures are "likely to have a significant impact on reducing future rates of these attacks."
Professor Shokrollahi, Consultant Burns & Plastic Surgeon and Editor-in-Chief of Scars, Burns & Healing further commented:
"This is a very important paper as there has been very little data and information regarding these types of assaults in the United Kingdom. Whilst there is no evidence of an epidemic, and of the 250,000 burns per annum in the UK these injuries account for less than 1 percent, it is still an alarming problem that we need to address - 21 cases in one burns service is 21 too many. There is a clear need to limit access to corrosive substances in a strategic way, but work needs to be done to ensure limiting access to one substance does not simply result in a shift to a different, more accessible substance."
Professor Shokrollahi recently contributed to a BBC interview discussing the problem of acid attacks victims. The interview, along with perspectives from an acid attack survivor, can be heard here.