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Acid attacks are on the rise in Britain

LONDON — Twenty people at a packed nightclub here suffered chemical burns from an acid-like substance thrown at them on April 17, an attack that authorities say reflects a frightening trend.

Toxic substances such as drain cleaner are being used as weapons more frequently, apparently as a result of a crackdown on guns and knives in recent years.

Metropolitan Police figures from March show attacks involving corrosive fluids in London jumped 74% from 261 in 2015 to 454 in 2016. Across Britain, such attacks increased 30% between 2012 and 2015, according to the London Times.

The assault at the Mangle nightclub in east London left two people blind in one eye from what police called a "corrosive fluid." The former boyfriend of a British reality TV star has been detained, along with an another man, in connection with the incident. Witnesses said the attack followed a fight in the club.

On April 21, police in Manchester in northern England, said a pregnant woman and a man suffered "severe discomfort" when someone threw bleach in their eyes from a passing car.

"It’s a growing problem, there’s no question," said Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, a London charity that supports victims, predominantly in South Asia, where acid attacks are more common.

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Shah said acid attacks in other countries usually involve men targeting females. The reasons are often over spurned marriage proposals or sexual advances. In Britain, young men are mainly targeting other young men in violence that is often gang-related. British law is not specific about banning acid as a weapon, so gang members may use it to avoid prosecution, he said.

Even so, acid attackers are often convicted of assault or a more serious charge of grievous bodily harm, which carries a maximum life sentence. Since 2015, the government has required vendors to report suspicious transactions involving sulfuric acid to police because it can be used to manufacture explosives.

“(Corrosive substances) are extremely easy to get hold of (in Britain). You can buy them from hardware stores and don't have to register why you're purchasing it or what you want to use it for,” said Simon Harding, a professor of criminology at London's Middlesex University.

“If you throw (acid) in someone’s face it’s going to affect their eyes and eyesight so you have a high chance of getting away with it. It’s a very easy thing to do. You can ride up to someone on a bike and throw it at them."

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By contrast, guns are very hard to get in Britain, unlike in the United States. As a result, their are only 50 to 60 gun homicides in England and Wales each year, a rate of about one for every 1 million people, according to the Geneva Declaration of Armed Violence and Development, a multinational organization. In the U.S., about 30 per 1 million people are killed in gun homicides. The Gun Violence Archive, a database of gun-related violence in the U.S., says 13,286 people were killed and 26,819 injured by firearms in the U.S. in 2015.

Victims of acid attacks say they must deal with life-long repercussions. Australians Prue Fraser, 20, and her sister, Isobella, 22, were among those sprayed at the Mangle club.

“I ended up in the middle of this fight and I was thrown over the barrier near the bar with all my stuff," Prue Fraser told the London Evening Standard.  “Getting up I could feel my arm was burning. It was like boiling water had been poured over me but like I was cut as well. I have never experienced anything like it, it was excruciating. We saw six other girls who had it in their eyes, faces and chest areas they were screaming and crying."

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Isobella Fraser said she sustained third-degree burns on her arms and back.

Daniel Rotariu, 31, of Leicester in central England, was blinded in both eyes and suffered burns to 32% of his body when his lover, Katie Leong, threw sulfuric acid on him as he slept following an argument last July. Leong, 52, was convicted of attempted murder in March and sentenced to life in prison.

"I have nightmares. ... I see it every day, every hour, like it was yesterday," Rotariu said in his victim-impact statement in court. "More than half of my life I’m gonna have to live it like this. ... Sometimes I wish I was dead and I didn’t survive.”

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Acid attacks are on the rise in Britain