NCEC (National Chemical Emergency Centre)

Acid tagging can be deadly for both graffiti artists and emergency workers


Chemists at the National Chemical Emergency Centre, the UK’s national response unit for chemical emergencies, have carried out further investigations into the side effects of compounds, such as Hydrofluoric Acid (HF) commonly used in acid tagging – the latest trend in graffiti – with some extremely concerning conclusions. Not only can the lethal chemical cause serious harm, amputation and ultimately death to the ‘artists’ themselves, but also to key professional workers including paramedic and law enforcement staff. Indeed, anyone coming into contact with an individual who is using HF can also be exposed to the deadly chemical and require immediate treatment.

While HF is essentially a weak acid, it poses a huge health risk and is highly poisonous. When absorbed through the skin, HF causes extreme calcium deficiency or hypocalcification, which, if untreated, can lead to an intensely painful and slow death. The only treatment for affected bones is amputation.

Perhaps most dangerously, the acid can cauterise the body’s nerve endings on contact with the skin, rendering it numb. But this does not mean that HF burns without pain. Instead, the sensation is merely delayed, after which it is severe. Furthermore, this postponed effect can lead to delayed treatment, ultimately until it is too late. A HF burn covering as little as 0.5% of the body can be fatal so early treatment is always vital.

Inhalation of HF fumes is equally deadly, causing irritation of the throat and lungs and leading to pulmonary oedemas, the symptoms of which can again be delayed for up to 48 hours. Fluid builds up in the lungs resulting in, at best, breathing difficulties and, at worst, death.

Caroline Raine, a leading specialist from the National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC) explained, “Hydrofluoric acid should always be handled with extreme care and caution due to the extreme health hazards it poses. The recommended treatment for exposure to Hydrofluoric Acid is to rinse the area thoroughly with plenty of water for a minimum of ten minutes, then rub a calcium gluconate gel onto the site of the burn. The principle behind this is to cause the acid to react with the calcium in the gel, rather than calcium in the body. Most critically, any person exposed to HF should be taken to hospital immediately.”

Although having been practiced since the late 1990s, recently, acid tagging has dramatically grown in popularity, especially among youths. Etched tags are increasingly appearing in glass shop fronts, bus stops and train windows all over the world. This type of graffiti capitalises on HF’s reactivity with the silicon containing molecules in glass to form silicone fluorides which score the surface of the pane. The graffiti is usually applied using sponge tipped pens filled with the lethal chemical to create the tag. The danger occurs when these HF charged pens are kept in coat or trouser pockets, as they so often are, putting them in dangerously close contact with the skin.

Emergency Services in the UK can contact NCEC directly for incident and immediate first aid advice 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For additional information on the product or service, please contact Laura Maloney, NCEC Marketing Consultant, on +44 (0)870 190 8204.

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