Acid attacks were barely heard of in the UK only a few years ago, but at least two are now carried out every day on average in Britain.
Just in the past two weeks, a teenage girl and a woman in her sixties were taken to hospital suffering from facial injuries after a substance was thrown at them in south London; a man was taken to hospital after having a liquid squirted at him on a busy high street in south-west London; two men were jailed for spraying three people at a party in North Lanarkshire over a drugs debt; and police in Somerset continued their investigation into an attack in Yeovil.
It was the ordeal of Katie Piper, the model who survived an attack by her ex-boyfriend in 2008, that first alerted Bradford medic Dr Almas Ahmed to what was going on. “I first heard about acid attacks while at medical school,” says the A&E doctor.
“The very first person I heard about was Katie Piper and I remember being horrified. I discovered it was more of an issue in Pakistan and when I looked into it I found that it was such a big problem and women have been suffering for quite some time. And that’s what made me want to do something about it.”
The medical researcher, who describes herself as an “academic vigilante”, has since developed the world’s first acid-proof make-up, which is expected to launch commercially early next year.
Globally 80 per cent of acid attacks are against women, according to Acid Survivors Trust International (Asti) and the number of acid attacks recorded by UK police increased nearly threefold from 228 in 2012 to 601 in 2016 – and the rise has continued since then with around 70 attacks per month, according to an investigation by the Daily Mirror.
Acarrier, Dr Ahmed’s “super make-up”, acts as an invisible armour and blends into the skin like foundation, making it appealing for women who worry they may be under threat.
It also helps to shield the wearer from the effects of pollution and UV, and has the potential to help protect firefighters from flames.
“People are still trying to destroy women’s lives,” says Dr Ahmed, who will be speaking about the issue at the Leeds International Festival next month. In some countries, for example, Pakistan, Colombia, India and Bangladesh, it’s normally disgruntled men who are rejected or think their partners are cheating on them. Or there’s some issue and they target women because they can’t have them.”
In the UK the story is slightly different. “Perpetrators are normally gang members and youths,” she explains.
In another recent case, a man who cannot be named for legal reasons was jailed for 16 years for plotting a “monstrous” acid attack on his three-year-old son, in an attempt to win custody by manufacturing evidence that his ex-wife had failed to care for their child.
Bangladesh introduced the death penalty in 2002 for throwing acid and in the UK it is now a criminal offence for members of the public to possess sulphuric acid above 15 per cent concentration without a licence, with offenders facing a two-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine.
Although it’s difficult to predict an attack, Dr Ahmed believes that people will feel safer when out and about wearing Acarrier.
She believes in the product so much that she ploughed £60,000 of her own money into the product, which she says has become her “passion”.
“It can just be part of your morning routine but it protects the skin quite dynamically and has lots of advantages,” she says. “And it comes off just like normal make-up and, despite its strength, it’s good for sensitive skin as its completely non-toxic.”
Multi-use protective make-up is already on the rise. At the department store Liberty, for example, online searches for anti-pollution skincare are up 73 per cent since this time last year and foundations now commonly contain sunscreen.
As well as guarding against “accidents and flash injuries”, Dr Ahmed says it is “100 per cent effective” against acid. “If a person is attacked all they need to do is rinse their face and the acid will rinse off with the make-up.”
Acid attacks can have life-changing effects. Piper lost sight in one eye after her attack, and she had to undergo extensive skin surgery.
This month, however, scientists from Newcastle University and the University of Missouri have announced the discovery of a “revolutionary” treatment that could help prevent blindness, offering hope to almost 500,000 people across the world each year who lose their sight due to chemical burns.
Dr Ahmed says the burns victims she works with are “very supportive” of the product. “Even if it’s too late for them, they have sisters and other family members, it’s still an issue and they wanted something where their family members could be protected.”
She says that confidentiality reasons prevent her from revealing Acarrier’s ingredients but says it has been put through its paces in tests.
“Because it’s a make-up, it’s not covered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and only covered by trading standards, so there were no guidelines,” she says.
“I tested it as robustly as you would a new medicine, to ensure that it was ethically sound.”
As it’s the first of its kind, she has had to figure out the testing protocol. But the greatest challenge, she says, was testing the product in simulated conditions in different countries to ensure it “still worked effectively in humidity, rain and heat”.
Acarrier will first be launched online in the UK before being made available in stores with samples so people can test it to find the right shade for them.
Dr Almas Ahmed will appear at Leeds International Festival for the panel discussion ‘Facing Brave’, an event curated by the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, where, on a primary school trip, the young Dr Ahmed was first inspired to become a doctor.
She will be joined by women’s rights expert Danielle Cornish Spencer, who will give a first-hand account of the international fight against violence against women and girls and set out some of the global and political challenges of acid-throwing, and Dr Julie Thornton, a senior lecturer in Biomedical Sciences in the School of Chemistry and Biosciences in Bradford, who will explore the scientific challenge of skin burns.
Dr Thornton will draw on her experience of the Plastic Surgery and Burns Research Unit at the Centre for Skin Sciences, the unit that was established following the 1985 Bradford City football club fire disaster.
Facing Brave will take place at The Village at 8pm on May 7.
To see the full programme line-up and to book tickets, log on to leedsinternationalfestival.com