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A January 2009 report that burning bitumen and sulphur had been used by the Persian besiegers of the Roman-occupied city Dura-Europos in the year 2561 added to early examples of chemical warfare (CW).2 By the mid-twentieth century several countries were still interested in waging war in this way and for a while such armaments even appeared in the approved arsenal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. In the UK, research on chemical weapons and on defences against them has been based at a government establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire. After many titular and organisational changes, this is currently part of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory but it began life as the War Department Experimental Ground, set up in response to Germany’s use of chlorine gas in 1915.3 During the 1939–45 war a biological arm was added, and that survived until 1979, when the facility passed into civilian control, first under the Public Health Laboratory Service. Today we still need to be on our guard because of the risk of CW agents being used in acts of terrorism, but neither chemical nor biological weapons find any official support in the civilised world. Both are banned under international treaties. This consensus emerged late in the history of human conflict. After 1918 there may have been practical military objections to CW agents but not everyone saw such weapons as morally abhorrent.4 Over the past decade it has been human experimentation with these chemicals rather than CW itself that has take centre stage.
Porton’s human experimental …
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