Acid Attack

REPORT, REMOVE, RINSE: the three actions that will help

I never expected to write about acid attacks – attacks on one or two individuals in the street by one or more criminals. Then the NHS issued guidance on first aid after such attacks, and on the treatment they can subsequently offer. The numbers are tiny – even last year, 2016, there were less than 500 attacks in the UK, demographic unknown, but many of them would have been, in the phrase which has now sadly become useful, life changing.

And then, on the August Bank Holiday Sunday, a chemical mist drifted onto a Sussex beach from the Channel, which left 150 people affected. A few miles further to the west, the mist would have drifted onto Brighton beach, where thousands would have been affected, including many small children and babies.

Unbelievably, it’s still not definitively known what caused this mist: such dense pollution from France seems unlikely, toxic algal blooms would be clearly visible after analysis. Chlorine gas has been discounted, though as a lay person I don’t know why, as the symptoms sound similar, and “conspiracies” have been discounted too: I don’t know what conspiracy theories there were, but yes, it’s obvious by now that there was no concerted attack. However, if it’s not known what caused it, who’s to say that it wasn’t an experiment to learn about the possibilities for attack in the future? I don’t think that’s true, but I’m wary of dismissing anything when the cause is unknown.

There are satellite photos showing a plume coming from a ship in roughly the right place, and this Daily Mail article is actually pretty well-researched and sourced about the possible causes. And it sounds like they’re saying it came from a shipwreck already on the seabed, that collapsed and let off this chemical.

The link between these two types of incident is the treatment: water, and plenty of it, it’s as simple as that.

So, what’s to be done? The NHS have issued specific guidelines, and The Crime Prevention Website has even more detail, via St John’s Ambulance.

Amalgamating the two, my list is at the bottom of this post, after the list of preps.

List of preps

This is still an incredibly unlikely thing to deal with, in today’s society, but it’s useful to know, because first aid for any type of incident is with items that are very accessible, and very cheap:

  • water to sluice the chemicals away.
  • medical gloves for protection.
  • scissors to cut away clothes
  • “non fluffy” pads (muslin? cotton?) possibly, to protect an uninjured eye.
  • plastic bags to contain contaminated items.
A drinking fountain, like this one at Chelsea Embankment in London, could help you save someone’s sight.

If there was a large event, remember that there are multiple sources of water. Don’t imagine that you can carry enough to deal with an event of any size. It’s recommended that the affected area be doused with water for 20 minutes, and no one will be carrying enough water to help with one person, let alone multiple casualties.

So, have a think what you might do, and these are my ideas:

  • people living locally, and local businesses too, will be eager to help.
  • a garden centre or a garden open to tourists will often have taps in the grounds to aid with watering.
  • there are still drinking fountains around that will have a plentiful supply of clean water. Again, locals will know where the drinking fountains are.
  • Sea water seems to helpful too (unless it’s been contaminated by the chemical agent, as may have happened in Sussex over Bank Holiday weekend). Two young British women were attacked with car battery acid in Zanzibar in 2013, and one of them was dunked in the sea by locals, which seems to have been of great help. It’s also clear from these attacks that dirty water makes the original injuries worse.


Actions to deal with acid attacks


Act as quickly as possible to minimise damage to the eyes, skin and surrounding tissues. Burns caused by acid, alkaline or caustic chemicals can be very damaging.

Call 999 to summon urgent professional medical assistance

Make sure the area around the person is safe (e.g. from puddles of acid) and take measures, such as wearing gloves, so you don’t come into contact with the chemical

If the burns are particularly bad continue to check that the victim is breathing and is responsive throughout the first aid procedure

The main way to combat the effects of acid is to dose the victim with water as soon as possible for up to 20 minutes. Continuous rinsing is the best thing you can do. Don’t use a wet cloth, that won’t drain the acid away well enough.

Try to make sure the water can run off from the affected area without pooling on the skin and potentially spreading the chemical to a wider area.

If not already removed you should remove contaminated clothing and jewellery whilst dousing the injury with water. Be careful removing it: don’t pull it off so that the most badly-contaminated side is next to the person’s skin (the ordinary over-the-head action). Cut it off if at all possible. Don’t touch or spread the chemical, which could cause further injuries to the victim, or to yourself.

Don’t try to remove anything that’s stuck to the burnt skin as this could cause more damage.

Do not rub or wipe the skin as this may spread contamination. And only use water.

There is no point searching for an antidote. Trying to neutralise burns with alkalis should not be attempted unless properly trained. Focus on flooding the injury with water

If the acid is in the person’s eyes hold them under gently running water for at least 10 minutes irrigating the inside and outside of the eyelids. Don’t let the person touch their eyes as they may have acid on their hands and don’t try to remove contact lenses. Make sure the now contaminated flushing water does not splash an uninjured eye. Clean, non-fluffy gauze pads over injured eyes after thorough cleaning is also advised. Do not forcibly remove contact lenses.

Health advice sites warn against using a hard spray of water on affected areas as this could lead to more damage and so ensure that the flood of water is gentle and is continued up to the times advised above

If the chemical is in powder form, or dry, it can be brushed off the skin, using clothing or something disposable. Don’t use your bare hands. Be careful not to breathe in the powder.

Later On

Stay on the phone until the ambulance arrives and follow any other advice given by the 999 call handler to avoid further injury.

If possible, find out what chemical caused the burn and tell the healthcare professionals, this information could help them.

Treatment in hospital will also be based on using water to wash off whatever the substance is. The burn will be cleaned and appropriately covered, and the victim will be given pain relief and possibly a tetanus jab – obviously, the people on the Sussex coast weren’t given tetanus jabs, but everything else applied.


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