News story

The Truth About Porton Down

Answering the myths and misconceptions.

Porton Down carries out research to ensure that the UK’s military and wider public benefit from the latest technical and scientific developments. In the interests of national security much of this work is secret. Inevitably this has led to many myths and misconceptions springing up about Porton Down and the wider work carried out by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

The Truth

Chemical and Biological Weapons

The UK’s chemical and biological weapons programme was closed down in the 1950s. Since then Porton Down has been active in developing effective countermeasures to the constantly evolving threat posed by chemical and biological weapons. To help develop effective medical countermeasures and to test systems, we produce very small quantities of chemical and biological agents. They are stored securely and disposed of safely when they are no longer required.

Animal Testing

Safe and effective protective measures for the UK and its Armed Forces could not, currently, be achieved without the use of animals. Examples include:

  • Nerve Agent Pretreatment Set (NAPS) Tablets. These provide protection against exposure to nerve agents such as Sarin and VX.
  • ComboPen containing atropine, P2S and avizafone. This is used when individuals are showing signs of exposure to nerve agent poisoning.
  • Doxycycline and Ciprofloxacin are antibiotics that are given as both a pretreatment and a treatment in the event of exposure to high threat biological agents such as plague and anthrax.

All of these countermeasures are available for use by both the UK’s military and wider civilian population.

It is also notable that several products and procedures developed by Dstl are now used in the NHS. Dstl research, for example, provided the first evidence that giving specific blood products before casualties reach hospital could help save lives as it improves the ability to form blood-clots.

Dstl is committed to reducing the number of animal experiments. The “three Rs” of ‘reduce’ (the number of animals used), ‘refine’ (animal procedures) and ‘replace’ (animal tests with non-animal tests) are integral to our testing programme. We only apply for licenses if the research cannot be obtained without the use of animals. Dstl Porton Down currently uses less than half of one per cent of the total number of animals used in experimentation in the UK. All research involving animals is licensed by the Home Office, in accordance with relevant legislation, who carry out both announced and unannounced visits several times a year and can access the laboratories at any time.

Human Volunteers

Since 1916 over 20,000 volunteers have taken part in studies at Porton Down. Without their involvement we could not have developed the highly effective protective clothing and medical countermeasures that our armed forces rely on.

The Volunteer Programme has always been operated to the highest ethical standards of the day.

We still carry out trials with human volunteers to make the protective equipment easier to wear and to develop better training procedures. These trials comply with all nationally and internationally accepted ethical standards. All of the trials are approved by the Ministry of Defence Research Ethics Committees (MODREC) process.

If any ex Porton Down Volunteer has any concerns about the trials in which they participated or any subsequent effects on their health they should contact the Porton Down Volunteers Helpline on 0800 7832521.

The Death of Leading Aircraftsman Maddison

The death of Aircraftsman Ronald Maddison in 1953 was a tragic and regrettable incident. He died following participation in a trial in which a number of small drops of the nerve agent sarin were applied to the forearm through two layers of cloth. An inquest returned a verdict of unlawful killing in 2004. He is the only member of the UK Armed Forces to have died as the direct result of participation in experimental tests carried out at Porton Down on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.

Porton Down has always been open about the fact that Aircraftsman Maddison died at the site. The Wiltshire coroner held the original inquest in secret, on the grounds of national security, recording a verdict of misadventure. The pathologist’s report stated that he had died from asphyxia. The subsequent inquest into his death overturned the coroner’s original findings, recording a verdict of unlawful killing.

Aerial Release Trials

During the cold war period between 1953 and 1976, a number of aerial release trials were carried out to help the government understand how a biological attack might spread across the UK. Given the international situation at the time these trials were conducted in secret. The information obtained from these trials has been and still is vital to the defence of the UK from this type of attack. Two separate and independent reviews of the trials have both concluded that the trials did not have any adverse health effects on the UK population.


Dstl has an active research programme on Ebola and played an important role in the UK’s support to Sierra Leone during the recent outbreak. Dstl’s scientists provided advice on the biological and physical aspects of the virus, as well as deploying highly skilled research scientists to the diagnostic laboratory at the Kerry Town Ebola Treatment Unit.

Gruinard Island

During the Second World War, Porton Down scientists developed a biological weapon using anthrax spores. Trials were held on Gruinard Island off the coast of Scotland. Anthrax spores can remain active for decades and Gruinard was finally decontaminated in 1986.

Destruction of Chemical Weapons

Each year small quantities of old chemical weapons are found in the UK. Dstl possesses the only licensed UK facility for the receipt, storage, breakdown and safe disposal of old chemical weapons. We currently have around 1,000 munitions that are in the process of being safely disposed of.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) makes annual inspections at Dstl to assess compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) by confirming it is making accurate returns on munition types and numbers and is undertaking control and disposal of the UK’s old chemical weapons. We share our world leading expertise on the disposal of legacy weapons with other nations. As part of this we host an annual conference in support of the OPCW.

Alien Bodies

No aliens, either alive or dead have ever been taken to Porton Down or any other Dstl site.

Cannabis Cultivation

Dstl and its predecessors do not and have never grown cannabis at Porton Down.