I was able to buy sulphuric acid in 40 seconds
Hardware shops just metres away from last week’s acid attacks sold it to me, no questions asked
Four days ago, five people were attacked with acid in East London. One person was left with life-changing injuries after a group of young men attempting to steal mopeds went on a 90-minute spree, throwing acid in the faces of their victims.
Since 2012 acid attacks in the UK have doubled and in the last year alone 397 people were attacked with the corrosive substance.
So just how easy is it for young criminals to get their hands on sulphuric acid? According to our investigation, the answer is very.
Currently, in the UK, there are no regulations on buying sulphuric acid over the counter or online as it is used as a conventional drain cleaner. Unlike the laws on buying knives, customers are not required to prove they are over the age of 18.
We put this to the test and the results were frightening: I was able to walk into five different high street shops and buy the acid that is being used in these attacks as easily as you would buy a pint of milk from a supermarket.
Shop one – (0.3 miles from attack)
Within 40 seconds of entering the first shop, visible from the location of the Shoreditch High Street attack, I had found, queued, and paid £6.49 for a one-litre bottle of 91% pure sulphuric acid.
It’s legal for anyone to buy sulphuric acid over the counter but two shops did ask to see my ID, including this first one who accepted my student card as proof of my age.
Was this a one-off or was it really this easy to get hold of? After a quick Google search, we had located a further four hardware shops, all within a 30 minute round trip and all in the vicinity of the attacks that had happened a few days before. We set off to see if they had these products on their shelves, how much they cost, and how easy it was to buy them.
Marketed as “instant drain cleaner”, it was displayed in stores alongside recognisable household cleaning brands. In each shop we visited this same product was on sale, for an average price of £7.64.
Only two of the shops quizzed me on why I was purchasing it and a couple of others gave advice on how to use it. When asked what my intentions were with a huge bottle of corrosive acid, I just said that it was to unblock a drain and that my boss had asked me to buy it for him. My lie wasn’t particularly good or carried out with confidence, but that didn’t seem to matter too much. Of course, you can’t blame shopkeepers for selling a product that is legal, but it was becoming increasingly alarming as I went from shop to shop to see how someone who wanted to use it as a weapon could easily come up with an unconvincing lie to get their hands on it. Here’s a breakdown of each purchase that I made and of how close each shop was to the location of the attacks.
Shop two (0.4 miles from attack)
In the second shop, the white box the bottle was packaged in was literally the first thing I saw as I entered the shop. I bought the bottle as normally as in the first store, and after completing the transaction explained to the shopkeeper what we were doing. We had a discussion about the attacks that have been taking place and he said that it was awful but that he hadn’t had any young people buying it from him.
Shop three – (1.1 miles from attack)
The same bottle of acid was actually on display in the window of the third shop we visited. Again, I went in and was able to buy it within minutes. This shopkeeper asked me a number of questions about why and how I was intending to use it, giving me extensive advice on which sorts of things not to use it on. He also told me not to use it in sinks with standing water in them as it would simply corrode the basin. It was starting to hit home in just how powerful this stuff was and it was unsettling that I had been able to buy three litres of it for less than £20 from three different shops within half an hour.
Shop four – (1.0 miles from attack)
The fourth shop was the most strict, asking to see my driving licence and why I was buying it (the line about my boss asking me to pick it up for him and me not knowing any further information felt natural now) and explaining they had imposed heightened restrictions on the sale of these sorts of products in light of recent events.
Shop five – (0.6 miles from attack)
I was now well practised in buying litres of sulphuric acid from East London hardware stores. Efficiently finding the white cardboard packaging amongst the shelves, waving away the shopkeeper’s caution that what I was buying was strong stuff, and walking out of the shop with another bottle of acid within a minute. The transaction was now routine and as I exited the store I had now spent £38.18 on five litres of near pure sulphuric acid in just forty-five minutes.
It was so easy that I imagine you could replicate this experiment in many areas across the country. If not, the product is also available for anyone to buy on Amazon for £6.77, oh, and this includes free delivery.
You can’t blame the stores I visited for stocking this product, it’s legal and is used by tradesmen just as much as many other dangerous chemicals and tools that are stocked and purchased for their intended purpose every day. This is why they remain legal and for sale on our high streets. From my experience today though, it’s clear that the UK government need to impose some restrictions on buying it, quickly.