Skin removed from patients during breast and stomach operations was sold for chemical weapons research without their knowledge, a health trust admitted yesterday.

Skin removed from patients during breast and stomach operations was sold for chemical weapons research without their knowledge, a health trust admitted yesterday.

Salisbury Health Care Trust sold the surplus skin to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency at Porton Down for an annual fee of £17,000 a year.

The skin, taken from plastic surgery patients at Salisbury District Hospital, was used in "chemical absorption studies" as well as investigations of drug delivery and barrier cream formulation.

The trust said it stopped the sale of surplus skin two weeks ago after the damning report into the mass removal of organs from dead children without their parents' consent at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool.

Patients at Salisbury were required to sign a consent form agreeing to tissue being used for "medical research," but the form did not explain it would be sold to Porton Down

"The Trust now recognises that this did not inform patients of the specific use of the skin and that some individuals may not have wished for the skin to be used by the [agency] and offers its sincere apologies for this," it said.

"The Trust made a decision to stop providing skin to the [agency] two weeks ago in the light of issues raised in the Alder Hey report."

The consent form patients were required to sign, which was updated in 1996, read: "I agree/disagree to any tissue that is removed in the normal course of the operation being used for medical research."

The trust said the money it received from the agency went back into patient care. As well being sold to the agency, skin was used within the Trust to investigate wound healing and the preparation of artificial skin, as well as the treatment of burn wounds.

The chemical and biological warfare research centre on Salisbury Plain carried out the world's longest programme of chemical warfare experiments on humans between 1940 and 1989.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of the agency, confirmed the skin was used in chemical warfare tests. "Some of the tests were to find out how the skin absorbs chemicals that might be used to attack our armed forces.

"But they were solely for defence purposes - we stopped developing chemicals for attack at Porton Down in the 1950s.

"Most of the chemical tests done were for the benefit of civilians," she said. "They were with corrosive chemicals that are used in the home and work place, to see how the skin would be affected by a spillage."

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