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11 May 2023

Veterans of Porton Down face 6% higher mortality rate

New research from the King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) at King’s College London, in partnership with Lancaster University, has found that military veterans who took part in the Porton Down ‘Service Volunteer Program’ of chemical weapons research are not at greater risk of developing cancer compared to other UK military veterans.

Cancer care

The research, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, did, however, find that veterans of the Volunteer Program faced a 6% higher mortality rate than similar veterans who were not involved. Investigators are encouraging healthcare providers to pay particular attention to the specific health issues and concerns among military personnel who may have experienced exposure to chemical weapons.

Porton Down first opened during World War I in response to the use of chemical weapons. Since 1916, over 20,000 service personnel have exposed to low doses of chemical warfare agents and their antidotes, some of which are known to be carcinogenic. This has raised questions over the long-term impacts on the health of veterans attached to the Program.

Researchers compared the medical records of 16,721 Porton Down veterans to 16,228 non-Porton Down veterans, placing a particular focus on the most common causes of death and types of cancer.

The data showed that Porton Down veterans had higher rates of mortality from diseases of the genitourinary systems (for example, kidney disease), as well as deaths attributable to alcohol, but found little evidence of an association between attendance at Porton Down and higher rates of overall cancer incidence.

“Veterans of the Porton Down Service Volunteer Program were often exposed to small doses of chemical agents designed to be used in war. Our study followed the health of veterans for over fifty years, and we are thankful that it indicates that the large majority of veterans were unlikely to have come to harm. A small number of veterans did appear to have higher rates of death and a variety of other illnesses, and it is something that healthcare professionals need to be mindful of when treating victims of chemical exposure.”

Dr Gemma Archer, KCMHR and the study's first author

Professor Nicola Fear, co-director of KCMHR and the study’s senior author said, “There has, for some time, been a question mark hanging over the volunteers who contributed to the research of Porton Down. While it is reassuring that our study found no evidence of increased risk of cancer in veterans who attended Porton Down, the 6% higher rate of all-cause mortality compared to veterans who didn’t attend Porton Down is not something that should be overlooked”.

While there was only a small increased risk overall, the researchers did find that veterans who took part in the Porton Down Volunteer Program between 1960-64 were at significantly greater risk of dying from a range of causes including cancerous tumours, diseases within the circulatory system, and smoking related deaths.

The researchers suggest that health providers need to be aware of the specific health issues connected to military veterans, and the wider population, who may have been exposed to chemical warfare agents.

Dr Tom Keegan, one of the study’s authors and a Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology from Lancaster University said, “Military personnel were exposed to over four-hundred different types of chemicals over the course of the programme, so we now want to investigate whether particular chemicals are associated with increased risk of poorer health”.


For more information, please contact Patrick O'Brien (Senior Media Officer)

In this story

Gemma Archer

Visiting Research Associate

Nicola Fear

Professor of Epidemiology