Law: Poisoned by Their Own People ; Hundreds of `Volunteers' Were Injured or Even Killed in Nerve Gas Experiments at the Porton Down Chemical Warfare Unit. Now at Last They May Receive Justice

By Care, Alan | The Independent (London, England), October 3, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Law: Poisoned by Their Own People ; Hundreds of `Volunteers' Were Injured or Even Killed in Nerve Gas Experiments at the Porton Down Chemical Warfare Unit. Now at Last They May Receive Justice


Care, Alan, The Independent (London, England)


Wiltshire Police have disclosed that their investigation into the use of thousands of human "guinea pigs" at the Porton Down chemical warfare establishment is the largest investigation it has ever conducted.

"Operation Antler" now involves a full-time team of 20 detectives and staff. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, last month granted their request for up to pounds 800,000 in special assistance to complete their investigation. At long last, those unwitting victims who attended Porton Down may be seeing the glimmer of justice.

The roots of this inquiry can be traced to 6 May 1953, when Leading Airman Ronald Maddison reported to officials at Porton Down, then known as the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment, for what he believed to be non-military duties. Twenty drops (200mgs) of sarin GB nerve gas were dripped onto his uniformed arms as part of an experiment to see how much protection fatigues gave against chemicals. The twenty-year-old died as a direct result.

Sarin's history as one of the deadliest poisons on earth, even then, was well recorded. But after his death the shutters were slammed down. The Official Secrets Act was invoked and his next-of- kin were sworn to secrecy.

Maddison's father told the family that if he told them what he knew they would "put him in the Tower". The Ministry of Defence paid Maddison's father pounds 16 for the undertaker; pounds 4 for catering and pounds 20 for black clothes. The value put on his life was seemingly very cheap.

Roughly 5,400 servicemen have taken part in human volunteer experiments at Porton Down from 1916 until today. The chemicals and substances tested on them included nerve agents and gases (including sarin, used in recent years to devastating effect by a cult in the Tokyo Underground), mustard gas, Lewisite (a toxic chemical warfare gas), "London smog" air pollution, rubber mixes (used as part of chemical protection equipment) and LSD (the hallucinogenic drug).

The term "volunteer" was a misnomer. The servicemen were not given any adequate information as to the nature of the experiments. In some cases it is alleged there was deception. It appears that many of the young servicemen involved were hoodwinked into volunteering - being told that they were to take part in "common cold" research, before being gassed with nerve agents and mustard gas.

There have been other near and sudden deaths caused by nerve gas experiments prior to Maddison's death, including one serviceman given 300mgs of liquid who nearly died. The internal report into that experiment refers to how within three seconds the nerve agent took action. The volunteer's accounts include: nerve agents placed into eyes causing Chronic Bilateral Conjunctivitis and Blepharitis; nerve gas chamber tests and "dry eye syndrome"; gas chamber experiments causing chronic respiratory illness; neurological illnesses following nerve gas experimentation; skin problems following mustard gas drops onto the arm; psychological problems following experiments including LSD experiments.

One volunteer, Gerald Beech, was put in a gas chamber which was then dosed with gas. "I really began to get scared when the rabbits started dying. When we came out they were all dead. We couldn't see in the daylight for a good 48 hours. Virtually blinded we were. And that was just the beginning of my troubles," he said.

In the years to 1970, scientists at Porton Down appear to have woefully failed to observe the Nuremberg code for human experimentation or to ensure that Prior Informed Consent (PIC) was obtained from the volunteers.

But Operation Antler could go further. After another volunteer, Gordon Bell, contacted the force about his treatment, Wiltshire police are now investigating alleged criminal activities at Porton Down which include murder, manslaughter and "administering noxious substances". And the buck may not stop with the scientists involved, but go all the way to the top, to a succession of defence ministers who may themselves face criminal charges.

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Law: Poisoned by Their Own People ; Hundreds of `Volunteers' Were Injured or Even Killed in Nerve Gas Experiments at the Porton Down Chemical Warfare Unit. Now at Last They May Receive Justice
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