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About Defence

Porton Down

Information about the use of volunteers at Porton Down and complaints subsequently made about resulting ill health.

Volunteers (or "observers") participated in trials virtually as soon as Porton Down was established in 1916. Initially these were drawn from Porton Down staff but, after the First World War, formal arrangements were put in place to provide volunteers from the three armed services. This practice continues to the present day.

At least 20,000 servicemen participated as volunteers over this period. Reasonably accurate records of the individuals, and the trials in which they participated, survive from around 1942 onwards. Peak activity in the volunteer programme was during the Second World War. Substantial numbers of volunteers continued to participate in the 1950s and 1960s, but the numbers involved have steadily declined and currently run at around 100 per year.

Much of the early activity in the volunteer programme concerned mustard agent. Between 6-8,000 may have been exposed to mustard. From 1945 onwards the new focus of attention was nerve agents. Between 1945 and 1989 some 3,400 volunteers are believed to have taken part in nerve agent trials, although not all of these may have been actually exposed to nerve agents. More recently still, principally in the 1960s, Porton conducted a series of trials on incapacitants including LSD and glycollates. These trials involved substantially smaller numbers of people. More recent trials work has focused on countermeasures to chemical warfare agents, eg pyridostigmine bromide, the active ingredient of the nerve agent pre-treatment sets (NAPS) tablets.

Volunteer complaints

Some volunteers say that their health has suffered as a result of the trials in which they participated. Until recently there was no discernible pattern to the few such complaints we had received. MOD has no scientific or medical evidence to support claims of unusual or excessive ill health.

The second main complaint of volunteers is that they were duped into attending the trials; particularly prevalent being the story that people responded to a notice requesting volunteers for common cold research. A search of the Porton archive, and of other MOD records, has so far failed to provide any documentary evidence to confirm this suggestion.

A third complaint is that the nature of the trials was not explained to volunteers on arrival, or that the risks involved were substantially misrepresented to them. There are documents in the archive that make it clear that all volunteers should have been fully informed; but there is no written confirmation that it actually happened until the late 1980s when signed consent forms were first introduced. Whilst some volunteers say they were misled, in contrast a number have indicated that they understood exactly what trials they were involved in at the time.