- New research suggests Britons were exposed to chemical tests
- Biological warfare tests apparently more widespread than once thought
- Professor Ulf Schmidt said there were secret trials on the Tube in 1964
- ‘Mock’ chemical warfare tests on thousands of Britons from 1953 to 1964
Scientists were apparently trying to discover whether ‘long distance travel of aerosols’ on London’s transport network ‘was due to transportation within trains’ or through the air ventilation systems, according to The Independent.
Bacillus globigii was not considered harmful at the time, but research over the last decade has revealed it is capable of causing food poisoning, fevers and septicemia.
For the first time, researchers have learned that British military aircraft dropped thousands of kilos of the potentially dangerous zinc cadmium sulphide chemical over several towns including Norwich in Norfolk, Salisbury in Wiltshire and Cardington in Bedfordshire, as well as over the English Channel and North Sea.
Historians had previously thought that such chemical tests in the UK were less extensive but new research has revealed how widespread they were, including the discovery of one of the Tube in the 1960s (pictured)
Scientists released large quantities of the bacteria Bacillus globigii – now known to cause food poisoning – on the Underground system in May 1964, in a bid to apparently discover whether ‘long distance travel of aerosols’ on London’s transport network ‘was due to transportation within trains’ or through the air ventilation systems
While very little evidence exists on the dangers and health effects of the chemical, which can be easily detected under UV light, it is believed that its use in the 1960s did not cause immediate health problems.
However, researchers state that the ‘worst case’ exposure levels would have given the same health effects as smoking 100 cigarettes – which may ultimately have led to lung disease at a later stage.
Professor Schmidt has revealed the full extent of the chemical warfare trials in a new book called Secret Science, published today.
He has also uncovered how more than 21,000 soldiers were used as ‘guinea pigs’ between 1939 and 1989 after participating in secret experiments.
The military personnel were apparently offered incentives such as free train passes, a day off, or some extra money for being exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals.
Professor Schmidt believes the men were misinformed about the then-unknown consequences of exposure to the chemical and instead thinks they were under the impression that they were taking part in trials to treat common colds.
The Ministry of Defence’s Porton Down research centre on Salisbury Plain has been the subject of much controversy over the years.
In July 1999, an inquiry was opened into the deaths of servicemen allegedly used as ‘guinea pigs’ in secret military chemical warfare tests at the centre.
The men took part in tests during a 30-year period from the 1950s to the 1980s.
A Wiltshire Police investigation into their deaths revealed there was criminal liability arising out of the conduct of some former scientists but it was confirmed in 2006 that there was insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal prosecution.
Many servicemen and women who took part in the tests at Porton Down said they believed they were taking part in experiments to find a cure for the common cold but claimed they were actually exposed to CS gas, mustard gas and hallucinogens such as LSD.
The latest findings on the extent of chemical warfare tests in Britain come after it emerged last year that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had considered arming Britain with chemical weapons to counter the Soviet threat during the Cold War.
A group of 100 supporters demonstrating against germ warfare at the government’s Porton Down military research facility in Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, which has been at the subject of controversy over the years
Secret documents emerged in December which revealed the then prime minister said it was potentially ‘negligent’ not to have them – as intelligence reports suggested the enemy could use chemicals against the West.
Officials believed the Soviets were storing hundreds of thousands of tons of nerve agents, and estimated an attack on a major British airport would leave thousands dead.
In a 1984 memo, Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles Powell, summarised a meeting in which then defence secretary Michael Heseltine warned the lack of chemical weapons was a ‘major gap’ in Nato’s defences.
‘The defence secretary said that colleagues were aware of the threat posed by the Soviet Union in this file. The absence of an adequate retaliatory capability was a major gap in Nato’s armoury,’ he wrote.
Professor Schmidt’s research has also revealed the vast scale of Cold War chemical warfare tests carried out on ‘volunteer’ British service personnel here in the UK – involving numbers of people much greater than previously thought.
His investigation now suggests that up to 30,000 secret chemical warfare substance experiments were carried out, mainly at Porton Down, on more than 14,000 British soldiers between 1945 and 1989. He believes that, in most cases, the servicemen were not given sufficient information to allow them to give properly informed consent.
Ulf Schmidt’s book, Secret Science, is published today on 9 July, by Oxford University Press.
Spreading diseases: ‘Harmless’ proxies
Aircraft, lorries and ships spread 4,600kg of cadmium sulphide in one decadeZinc Cadmium Sulfide ultra-fine particles. This inorganic compound was used by Cold War scientists in the UK and the US as a supposedly harmless proxy to simulate the behaviour, in the lower atmosphere and on the ground, of biological warfare substances. However it is still not known whether particles of ZCS that may have become embedded in people’s lungs for decades could ultimately cause disease.
Bacillus globigii. This bacterium was used as a supposedly harmless proxy to simulate the behaviour, in terms of dispersal and penetration, of biological warfare aerosols. Although not considered harmful when it was used in Cold War field trials, it is now known to be capable of causing fevers, food poisoning (occasionally resulting in death), peritonitis and septicaemia .
Pasteurella pestis (now known as Yersina pestis). Clouds of this highly infections bacterium were dispersed only over areas of sea – but nevertheless very near to Lewis, a Scottish Island with thousands of inhabitants. In order not to infect the islands, it appears that the scientists relied entirely on the wind not changing direction and speed. This bacterium is the one that has caused plague epidemics worldwide in the past (including those of the medieval world’s Black Death).
Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis. Clouds of this virus were dispersed over an area of sea close to an uninhabited island in the Bahamas. The virus debilitates or kills horses and donkeys and can also cause severe fever and even death in humans. Mosquitos spread the virus further by biting equines.
G-series nerve agents. Clouds of this chemical warfare weapon were dispersed during field trials in a small part of southern Nigeria, some miles north of the town of Warri. G-series nerve agents were first developed by the Nazis before and during World War Two. The group includes substances like sarin and attacks the human nervous system, causing loss of bodily function and normally death. Survivors are likely to suffer long-term neurological damage and psychiatric disorders.