Over the last 18 months, the National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC) has received an increased number of calls from the UK’s emergency services relating to assaults involving corrosive substances. These terrible and disfiguring attacks present risks not only to the victim but also to the emergency services attending the incident. This article will help you and your teams understand what risks may be present in this sort of chemical incident, and how best to protect yourselves and the victim(s).
Corrosive chemical assaults (often incorrectly called acid attacks, as not all involve acids) usually involve the chemical being thrown or sprayed into the victim’s face. Typically, the corrosive is highly concentrated causing immediate effects. Exposure can lead to chemical burns, scabs, ulcers, blanching, alopecia and scarring. Corrosive substances can cause severe and long-lasting effects when they come into contact with eyes and may lead to sight loss.
While all corrosives have the same hazard classification, treatment should be determined by the nature of the corrosive. Alkali caustic agents may cause deep tissue damage, which continues even after pain has stopped as they can quickly destroy nerves and continue to react for longer on the skin. Acids are usually self-limiting as they form a coagulum, which limits the depth of injury. Some acids have additional hazards associated with them. For example, strong mineral acids, such as nitric acid and chloric acid, are oxidising agents. These can increase the risk of fire and cause combustible materials to smoulder and burn. Highly concentrated sulfuric acid is viscous and will not run off the skin quickly. It is also dehydrating, so it will dry out the skin as well as causing burns.
In one horrific incident, nitric acid was poured onto the victim as they slept on a sofa. Fumes and heat were produced leading to concerns from on-scene responders regarding the respirable atmosphere and whether there was a fire risk from the contaminated sofa. Responders were right to be cautious as nitric acid can decompose and produce fumes that are a mixture of hazardous nitrogen oxides. Fire and rescue service (FRS) teams made the area safe and the victim was evacuated to hospital for treatment.
Actions to consider when attending a corrosive chemical assault
- Evacuate any casualties and perform initial decontamination
Speed is essential in corrosive chemical attacks as it may only take a few minutes for serious damage to occur. Wounds should be irrigated with copious amounts of water to dilute the material as much as possible and eventually remove it from the skin. Try to ensure any run-off does not come into contact with other uncontaminated parts of the body. Keeping people away from the agent is also essential as it will still be hazardous following the initial attack.
- Hand over casualties to the ambulance service as quickly as possible
Once again, due to the speed with which corrosives act, it is likely that victims of corrosive chemical attacks will require medical attention or, at the very least, monitoring. Handing over casualties to the ambulance service should be a priority for FRS crew members so they can then focus on dealing with other aspects of the situation.
- Make the scene safe – reduce the risk of fire and structural damage
Risks presented by some corrosive materials may not be immediately apparent. For example, soft furnishings soaked in nitric acid may not appear hazardous at the time of the incident but, as the nitric acid dries and becomes more concentrated, the soft furnishings could begin to smoulder and eventually burst into flames hours after contamination due to the oxidising properties of nitric acid.
- Preserve the scene as far as is reasonably practicable
While safety is the top priority, reasonable steps should be taken to ensure that evidence is not disrupted or removed. In this way, evidence is preserved, which can be used to bring offenders to justice and this may act as a deterrent to others.
- Sample the scene
This will almost certainly be carried out by forensic teams, but simple field tests may help others in performing their job. Knowing if the liquid used in the attack was an acid or an alkali will help inform medical personnel decide on a course of treatment. Likewise, knowing if the substance is oxidising will help FRS teams decide what they should remove and what can remain undisturbed.
- ALWAYS follow your operational guidance and training
This list in no way overrides any previous training or operational guidance you may have received. Your response to an incident should be based on a dynamic risk assessment and best practice.
Disfiguring assaults have been commonplace in South Asia and the Indian subcontinent for a long time. In the West, the number of assaults involving corrosive materials has steadily increased over the last six years. Between 2011 and 2016, there were 1,500 attacks involving a corrosive substance reported in London and, allegedly, many go unreported due to gang violence. Typically, this type of crime is associated with female victims – women are often attacked by jealous former partners, love rivals, rejected suitors or even angry family members. Globally, women make up 80% of corrosive-substance attack victims. However, in the UK, 71% of victims are male. This is likely to be due to the increased prevalence of the use of corrosive materials within gang violence.
It is thought that these assaults are largely premeditated as it takes time to source a corrosive material. However, with gang violence, this is not always the case as gang members may carry corrosive materials in drinks bottles for ‘self-defence’ in preference to knives or guns. This is because it will not be apparent to observers that a person is carrying a dangerous substance, and it can be easily concealed and go undetected by law enforcement personnel. One particularly alarming trend is schoolchildren taking corrosive agents into school as an alternative weapon to knives.
A major risk with assaults involving corrosive materials is the potential for others to be affected. A recent, high-profile case in London left 20 people injured when an argument broke out and ended in acid being thrown in a busy nightclub.
Often, attackers do not consider, or even care about, the risk of other people being affected. An assault can easily turn into a mass-casualty situation, which puts an increased strain on responders. As previously mentioned, essential rapid decontamination is already a challenge due to the fast-acting nature of corrosives, this will be even harder with numerous casualties and limited resources.
Many household items can be used in these assaults making it difficult to tell if something is innocuous or is intended to be used as a weapon. As with most clandestine chemistry incidents, it is worth noting if a normal household substance is present in large quantities or is in a strange place. For example, a bottle of bleach under the sink is fairly common. However, while ten bottles in someone’s vehicle, bedroom or lounge is not a sign of wrongdoing, it may need further investigation.
The NCEC is experienced in providing advice following assaults involving corrosive materials. One call we received related to a case of mistaken identity. A man answered his door and had sulfuric acid thrown in his face. The effects were quickly noticeable – vision impairment and extreme pain – and the person was taken to hospital. The emergency services thought the substance was sulfuric acid but were unsure because of its colour. We provided advice on protecting the crew about to enter the property, how to sample the substance and how to identify the substance. We later advised the scenes of crime officer that forensic sampling should be carried out immediately to avoid loss of evidence. The investigation led to criminal proceedings and a guilty verdict, but unfortunately the victim suffered life-altering injuries.
As corrosive attacks are becoming more commonplace, emergency services need to understand what they are dealing with and how they can respond rapidly to minimise the damaging effects of these attacks on themselves and the public.
As always, the Chemsafe emergency phone line (operated by NCEC) and Chemdata (NCEC’s interactive chemical hazard database) are available 24/7 to assist UK emergency services during incidents involving hazardous materials. NCEC is also pleased to offer Hazmat training courses, in person or through e-learning.
Join NCEC for a free webinar to learn more about our newly introduced hazmat e-training courses – register at www.the-ncec.com/hazmat-e-trainingwebinar
For more information, go to www.the-ncec.com