Poisons in the News: Ricin

By Wafa Unus

Two envelopes recently sent to federal elected officials, including the President, have tested positive for the deadly poison ricin.

According to news reports, preliminary tests have determined the identity of the poison but a full analysis takes between 24 to 48 hours.

This is not the first ricin poison attempt made on the Capitol. In 2004, a letter sent to then-Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office was found to be laced with the poison. As a result 16 employees were required to be decontaminated. Thankfully, no one became ill.

Ricin is a particularly concerning poison because of the ease by which it can be made and the potency of the toxin. An amount the size of a grain of salt can kill an adult.

Derived through the production of oil from castor beans, ricin is a waste product that, when purified, can be deadly.

Pure ricin, its most toxic form, is harder to produce. However, impure versions of the poison can easily be made. And, with more than 1 million tons of castor beans being processed per year, producing 5 to 10 percent ricin, the poison isn’t hard to come by.

How it Works

Ricin poisoning affects the body much like other poisons. When it enters the cells of the body by being inhaled, eaten or through skin and eye exposure, it blocks the body from making necessary proteins that the body needs to survive. As a result, the cells die, eventually causing the entire body to shut down.

It can take as little as four hours for symptoms to appear and 36 hours for fatality if the exposure is high enough.

Because there is no antidote for ricin poisoning, prevention is essential.

How Great is the Danger?

The toxin is most deadly if injected in its purified form. That’s what authorities say happened to Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov in London in 1978. He died after being poked by a modified umbrella that housed an injector in its tip that contained ricin.

In the 1940s, the United States even considered using ricin as a biowarfare agent.

However, “home-brewed” ricin, the most commonly found version used in pervious poison attempts, is not particularly potent and has little potential to become a major threat, according Dr. Eric Toner of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in an interview with NBC news.

Still, the United States government and many prominent entities have adopted strict screening procedures to prevent the delivery of toxic mail, following the 2001 anthrax attacks when anthrax-laced envelopes containing highly purified spores killed five and sickened 13 others.

For more information about ricin and its affects, watch this short video featuring Kansas University Hospital Poison Control Center Medical Director Dr. Stephen Thornton.
If you have questions about ricin, or any other toxic substance, contact your local poison center for free, expert information. 1-800-222-1222.

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