Wednesday 28 March 2018

The secrets of Britain's nerve gas tests

Here are two articles from the Guardian - from a time when they did real investigative journalism.  It delves into the murky  past of the chemical weapons laboratory at Porton Down, down the road where the Skripals were allegedly attacked with the nerve agent "Novichok"

The 2004 article was cited by Maria Zakharova on Russian TV.

The past Porton Down can't hide
As an inquest reopens into the death of a young airman 51 years ago, Rob Evans reveals the secrets of Britain's nerve gas tests

Rob Evans
Image result for Porton down chemical weapons
6 May, 2004

Tucked away in 7,000 acres of beautiful Wiltshire countryside lies one of Britain's most infamous scientific establishments. Porton Down, founded in 1916, is the oldest chemical warfare research installation in the world. The tight secrecy which has surrounded the establishment for decades has fed the growth of all sorts of myths and rumours about its experiments. One Whitehall official once remarked that Porton had an image of "a sinister and nefarious establishment".

The Porton experiments on humans have attracted a good deal of criticism. It is, for example, alleged that the human "guinea pigs' - drawn from the armed forces and supposedly all volunteers - were duped into taking part in the tests. There are still concerns that the tests have damaged the long-term health of the human subjects.

This week, its work has been thrown into the spotlight once again: an inquest was reopened into the death, in May 1953, of a young airman, Ronald Maddison. He died after liquid nerve gas was dripped on to his arm by Porton scientists in an experiment. The original inquest decided that his death was accidental, but this new inquest will examine fresh evidence and decide if the verdict should stand.

But what were the scientists at Porton doing? Years after the experiments ended, did they achieve anything of scientific value? The Guardian has pieced together a comprehensive and surprising picture of the nerve gas experiments, drawn from reports of the tests uncovered at the Public Record Office and new documents obtained under the "open government" code.

From a purely scientific point of view, they produced a huge amount of data about the effects of nerve gas on the human body. This data in turn has enabled Porton to develop some of the most sophisticated defences in the world to protect Britain's armed forces from chemical attack. Porton acknowledges that the human experiments have made a "vital contribution" to this protection. The data also helped Britain to develop its own arsenal of nerve gas before such plans were finally shelved in the late 1960s.

From 1945 to 1989, Porton exposed more than 3,400 human "guinea pigs" to nerve gas. It seems probable that Porton has tested more human subjects with nerve gas, for the longest period of time, than any other scientific establishment in the world. Two other nations have admitted testing nerve gas on humans: the American military exposed about 1,100 soldiers between 1945 and 1975, and Canada tested a small number before 1968. Other countries, including France, the old Soviet Union and Iraq, are also likely to have exposed humans to nerve gas, but very little is known about their tests.

The group of chemicals known as nerve gases were first developed as weapons by the Nazis before and during the second world war. German scientists discovered the potency of these organophosphorous compounds which, in tiny quantities, disrupt a key element of the nervous system.

Human muscles contract when a chemical, acetylcholine, is released from the nerve endings. Muscles do not exist in a permanent form of contraction because acetylecholine is destroyed in a split second by an enzyme (acetylcholinesterase), thus allowing the muscle to relax again. Nerve gases inactivate this important enzyme, and since it is prevented from working, the muscle goes into a state of spasm from which it cannot be relaxed. Victims die because the most important muscles in the body - those of the heart and the rib cage, which control the emptying and filling of the lungs - are paralysed. They suffocate swiftly in a horrifying death.

The nerve gases are more deadly than any other chemical weapon, but during the second world war, only the Germans had spotted their full potential and produced an arsenal of the munitions. As one Porton official has commented, the British and their allies were "caught with our pants down".

As the Third Reich was collapsing in April 1945, the British discovered stocks of the gas in Germany. Within two weeks, Porton had tested the new gas on batches of human subjects, even though they did not know what the unknown compound was or how it harmed the body.

The discovery of the new weapons instantly transformed Porton, as all its previous work on other chemicals, such as mustard gas, was downgraded. Porton scientists quickly had to find out how nerve gases attacked the human body.

One of the early tests established just how little one of the nerve gases, sarin, was needed to trigger a reaction in humans. Fifty-six men were sent into gas chambers and exposed to "low concentrations" of gas. The scientists watching recorded that after 20 minutes, the men started to suffer miosis (constriction of the pupil), one of the first symptoms of nerve gas poisoning. Their vision was blurred and darkened, in some cases for up to five days.

Fourteen men were exposed to repeated doses of sarin, some when they were still experiencing the effects of the previous poisoning. Porton scientists observed: "Repeated exposures produced, after the third or fourth occasion, an aggravation of effects ..."

By 1950, Porton had begun to test "considerable higher doses" of sarin on 133 men, and catalogued the severity of symptoms, such as runny noses, headaches, vomiting and eye pain.

Within two years, Porton had moved on to look at other aspects. In one study, in 1952, it wanted to see how sarin would impair the mental performance and intellectual ability of humans.

Twenty airmen were exposed to sarin and then measured to see how they performed in intelligence and aptitude tests. From this experiment, Porton inferred that after exposure, the men's visual co-ordination was worse, but their reasoning and intellectual capability had not deteriorated. Another 12 men were exposed to stronger doses of sarin - Porton found that the men appeared "behaviourally much less disturbed than the increased concentration (of sarin) would lead one to expect".

Maddison died during what is probably Porton's most controversial experiment. It will be at the heart of the inquest over the coming weeks. He was one of 396 men who took part in a large experiment whose aim was to "determine the dosage of [three nerve gases] which when applied to the clothed or bare skin of men would cause incapacitation or death".

The scientists were aiming to expose the men to sub-lethal quantities of the nerve gases and then measure how much each of the quantities was reducing the amount of cholinesterase enzymes in the body. They were trying to establish a ratio between the two figures and then extrapolate them to arrive at the lethal dose for humans. But they discovered that this theory was flawed, as there is no direct correlation.

After Maddison's death, Porton was limited in the amount of nerve gas it could test on humans, but the trials continued.

About 300 soldiers in the mid-1950s were used to see how well they could conduct military operations after they had been attacked with nerve gas. They were gassed with relatively low levels and then sent on a mock exercise. The men performed well in daylight, but less so at night. The biggest hindrance was that they could not see very well, but the scientists believed that a "determined infantryman" could still fight on after being exposed to low amounts of nerve gas.

They speculated that during the day, "a unit of intact morale" could cope, but at night, the men would have been vulnerable because they would have been prone to panic, especially since their sight was being hampered.

The psychological effects of nerve gas were a continuing focus of experiments in the 1950s. In one set of trials, the men underwent a series of intelligence and aptitude tests after being gassed. Porton found that the men were distinctly unhappy and depressed afterwards, emotions that were combined with a "feeling of reduced mental alertness and a tendency to social withdrawal".

In the late 1950s, Porton studied the effect of nerve gas on particular parts of the body. One study concluded that nerve gas did not impair hearing; this might have been a problem if troops could not, for instance, hear instructions or orders in the heat of the battle after a gas attack. Another looked at whether nerve gas hindered the circulation of blood through the veins in the leg; it didn't. Another examined the impact of nerve gas on the heart, as the scientists wanted to see if particular muscles between the ribs were responsible for one of the usual nerve gas symptoms - a "tightness in the chest".

In the later years of the programme, Porton seems to have focused on assessing the effects of nerve gas on the eyes, a crucial question because, for instance, pilots faced with reading complicated rows of instruments could be put out of action with a slightest amount of exposure to the gas.

The nerve gas programme was substantial at Porton because human testing has been an integral part of the establishment since it was founded. During the past 80 years, some 25,000 humans have been subjected to Porton's experiments, many in trials with other chemical weapons such as mustard gas and tear gas. Others were used simply to test defensive equipment without being exposed to chemicals.

Today, Porton is devoted totally to devising defensive measures against gas attacks. But the conduct and ethical standards of tests in the past will be under unprecedented scrutiny in the inquest over the coming weeks.

Porton Down links

· Porton Down veterans support group


·Chemical and Biological Defence at Porton Down 1916-2000, G B Carter, Stationery Office, £16.99

·Rob Evans is the author of Gassed: British chemical warfare experiments on humans at Porton Down (House of Stratus, 2000, £20)

Attack on London
In the 50s and 60s, British government scientists carried out secret trials to find out the likely effects of a biological attack. The results, some never published before, reveal how shockingly vulnerable the capital is to an anthrax attack. Rob Evans investigates

Rob Evans

Image result for Porton down chemical weapons
12 October, 2001

It was lunchtime on London's Northern line. Deep underground, passengers were getting on and off the tube trains as normal. Two men boarded a train at Colliers Wood in south London. As the train gathered speed towards its next stop, Tooting Broadway, one of them got up from his seat and dropped a small carton of face powder out of the window. He could have been idly throwing away litter.
As the train sped on, the carton hit the tracks and burst. Out spewed millions of tiny spores, which began to spread throughout the dark tunnels. Dust swabs taken after three days and two weeks showed that the spores had spread as far up the line as Camden Town station in north London, 10 miles away.

This really happened. But the two men weren't terrorists but government scientists. And the spores weren't anthrax spores, but a harmless micro-organism designed to mimic clandestine sabotage with anthrax. This was an official experiment in 1963, and it showed how easily saboteurs could inflict a potentially devastating attack on Britain's capital.

If there had been real anthrax in the carton, many thousands of passengers would have started to inhale the spores, which would have lain undiscovered for some time. The hardy spores can survive for months. Once inhaled, the spores germinate, producing living anthrax bacteria that multiply rapidly. But it can take up to two months for symptoms to appear.

They would then have suffered fever, headaches, chills, chest pains and other symptoms. Some would have appeared to recover, but then almost all would have died abruptly, after quickly developing lung and brain damage and internal bleeding. London would have been gripped by chaos and panic as ministers tried to find out what had happened.

Documents obtained by the Guardian show how scientists secretly conducted a series of trials in the 1950s and 1960s to assess how easily saboteurs could spread deadly germs - and terror - among Britons. Their conclusions make disturbing reading. The trials clearly demonstrated that Britain was highly vulnerable to such a covert strike. "The potential for clandestine biological warfare attack is considerable," the scientists wrote. For many people, that warning now carries more weight than ever; fears of bio-terrorism have grown markedly since September 11, with Americans especially jittery.

Yesterday, the US government launched a criminal investigation into the outbreak of anthrax in a newspaper office in Florida after it was detected in a third person. The bacteria was found in the nose of an unnamed 35-year-old woman. The US attorney general, John Ashcroft, cautioned that there was still no evidence that the cases were caused by terrorists.

Britain has secret contingency plans to cope with a deliberate release of chemical or biological weapons in populated areas. But whatever the preparations, it appears that there is little that the government could do to prevent citizens being infected, or dying, if terrorists do manage to strike with deadly germs.

A document leaked this week to Channel 4 News spelt out that "although the threat of such action is low, the consequences are potentially enormous. It is likely that the number of casualties would far exceed that resulting from any previous major incident in this country."

One of the trials showed how anthrax could be used to rip the heart out of the British government. Around 100ft underneath central London is a huge network of tunnels. They are connected to war rooms and "citadels" to where, in a crisis, ministers and mandarins can retreat and continue running the country.

In mock attacks on these tunnels in 1955, the scientists released non-lethal organisms that simulated the behaviour of anthrax. The first trial showed that the spores "readily penetrated" huge doors leading up to the surface. The second resulted in "heavy contamination" of three government departments, including the building that is now the Treasury.

In the next trial, the fake anthrax was sprayed along the section of tunnels known as "Q Whitehall", which runs below major government buildings from Parliament to Trafalgar Square. The experiment revealed "extensive contamination of many Whitehall buildings". Although the account of the trial is coy, it is probable that the spores would have infiltrated the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street.

Clearly, such a strike could disrupt the upper echelons of the government, wreaking havoc and triggering widespread confusion. Some of the tunnels can be entered easily, but a saboteur would probably need the help of a civil servant or government contractor to get into the ones under Whitehall.

The menace of biological weapons was first taken seriously by the British government in the 1930s. For many years, military planners saw germ weapons as part of conventional warfare: "bugs" to be loaded into bombs and fired off at the enemy in another country.

In the second world war, Britain produced 5m cattle cakes filled with anthrax, to be dropped over Germany in retaliation if the Nazis resorted to germ warfare. The idea was that cattle would eat the cakes and be killed, weakening German agriculture. There were also plans to drop anthrax on six German cities.

The prototype weapons had been tested on the now infamous "death island" of Gruinard off the north-west coast of Scotland in 1942 and 1943. On this isolated, uninhabited island, scientists exploded bombs containing anthrax and then studied how many sheep became infected.

A declassified account of these trials recorded that these experiments "demonstrated to the UK and its allies that biological warfare was not only feasible, but practicable and potent". So powerful was the contamination of Gruinard that no humans or animals were allowed to set foot on the island for more than 40 years.

Although germ warfare was not used in the second world war, its threat was present throughout the cold war. In the early 1950s, British officials began to worry that the Soviet Union might instigate biological sabotage attacks as part of an overall assault on the country. Because of these fears, scientists from the chemical and biological warfare establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire, began the trials, using the simulant organisms to make the experiments as realistic as possible.

Over 18 months, the scientists regularly sprayed organisms around the British Museum's vast underground warehouse at Westwood Quarry, near Trowbridge, Wiltshire. They were trying to discover how a bacterial cloud would circulate inside buildings if a saboteur attacked key government departments in this way. They found that "it is not difficult to predict the course of events should a bacterial spray be released by a saboteur inside a large building... diffusion would be rapid and complete throughout the building".

The scientists also turned their attention to trains, since "all types of transport are now generally recognised as being likely to be one of the most important targets for special operations in a war of the future. It would be particularly important in the early stages to hamper the deployment of troops; at later stages, subversive attacks on trains crowded with both military and civilian personnel might well cause considerable dislocation." Although their report envisages a type of conventional war between recognisable states, it underlines the danger that we may now face from a terrorist attack.

In 1953 and 1954, trials were carried out on a rail line between Exeter and Salisbury. In one set of experiments, clouds of organisms were sprayed within a tunnel, enveloping the train as it rushed through. On other occasions, the organisms were released within trains. Like the London underground experiments in 1963 and 1964, these trials revealed that there would have been many victims if real biological weapons, and not simulants, had been dispersed. Furthermore, the scientists were stumped about how to counteract a sabotage attack.

More experiments were planned, but none was actually done. From these trials alone, it was clear enough that biological sabotage would be highly effective if properly executed. But there was also another reason for the ending of the trials - the government was acutely aware that there would be an uproar if the public found out about covert military tests in which micro-organisms were sprayed around populated areas.

During the cold war, Porton Down scientists conducted more than 200 trials over vast swaths of Britain, disseminating organisms, and later a chemical, from planes and ships. In most of these experiments, the intention was to find out how a biological attack by the Russians would ravage Britain.

But all these trials were wrapped in great secrecy, and the government has started to reveal details only in the past five years. The experiments in the London underground system were deliberately hidden under the innocent title of "ventilation trials". Of these, one senior official wrote: "I am convinced of the vital need for these trials, which impose no hazard to the public, although clearly knowledge of them by unauthorised persons could be politically embarrassing."

Mike Hood, a former Porton Down scientist, says: "If the Ministry of Defence had informed the public, all the trials would not have been worth doing. The public is so ill-informed, and, of course, you would let a potential enemy know what you were doing."

The possibility of biological warfare trials in public places has been off the agenda since the 1970s, as governments have been aware that a sceptical public would not accept such experiments. Curiously, this opposition may fade away as worries about biological attacks intensify.

Porton Down's experiments showed that biological attacks are feasible, but experts continually stress that it would be much more difficult to mount a real attack. There are many obstacles to overcome, such as producing the germs in sufficient quantities, storing them safely, and delivering them efficiently. In the long run, these difficulties may turn out to be the main reason why we don't suffer a biological assault on Britain.

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